Dorothy Kingship (Joanne Woodward) is a woman in love… but she’s also a woman struck with worry. She’s just discovered that she’s pregnant, and while she’s happy to start a family with the man she loves, there’s one huge problem: they aren’t married. (Gasp!)
There’s also a major problem Dorothy doesn’t know about: Bud (Robert Wagner), the baby-daddy in question, doesn’t actually love her. He’s after the fortunes of her father, the wealthy owner of a mining company.
The best things in life are free, but you can give them to the birds and bees. Bud wants MONEY. And knowing that Dorothy’s father will probably disinherit her when he finds out about the pregnancy, Bud decides to take matters into his own hands.
Gerd Oswald directs 1956’s A Kiss Before Dying. The film’s screenplay was written by Lawrence Roman from a novel by Ira Levin. Starring alongside Woodward and Wagner are Virginia Leith (as Dorothy’s sister, Ellen), Jeffrey Hunter (as an investigative mind named Gordon Grant), Mary Astor (as Bud’s mother) and George Macready (as Dorothy and Ellen’s father).
A Kiss Before Dying opens up with some deceptively fluffy, rom-commy opening credits. Upbeat, jazzy music plays over a cutesy ’50s font accented with little illustrations of lip prints.
The film’s action itself also starts out pretty soapy, faking the audience into believing that this may be a cautionary unwed pregnancy tale rather than a thriller.
Things eventually take a more sinister turn, when the male half of the impregnated young duo decides he doesn’t want Dorothy or the baby in his life. Pretty early on, Bud beings to look like a fishy character. What starts as a simple negative attitude toward he and Dorothy’s situation becomes a criminal plan. Dramatic music accompanies Bud as he watches Dorie fall down a set of bleachers, reads a book about poisons and lurks the halls of the pharmaceutical college. It becomes very clear very quickly that this father-to-be is up to no good.
Things never get too serious when they get sinister, though. Robert Wagner’s delivery of his dialogue is probably the largest reason for this. “Haven’t you heard? LOVE CONQUERS ALL!,” he proclaims early on in the film, in a radio announcer-esque voice and without an ounce of sincerity. Though his delivery is a bit wooden, his mannerisms are often hilariously exaggerated, giving good insight into just how crazy his character can be and bringing a pretty hefty dose of cheese to the film.
[SPOILER ALERT – THE NEXT FEW PARAGRAPHS DESCRIBE A FEW OF MY FAVORITE SCENES FROM THE FILM. DO NOT READ UNLESS YOU ARE FAMILIAR WITH THE FILM/DON’T CARE ABOUT BEING SPOILED.] There are three scenes in particular that almost made me declare this film a Classic of the Corn.
The first takes place after Bud is sure that Dorothy (who he calls “Dorie”) has taken a lethal dose of pills that he gave her, so he could stage her suicide. Sitting in class the next day, Bud is shocked to find that Dorie is, in fact, alive when she arrives for the course they’re taking together. Dramatic music, a horrified stare and a lightning-bolt run out of the room from Bud are a combination that adds up to pure, golden corn.
The other two scenes are of Dorothy and Bud’s respective deaths. Bud pushes Dorothy off of a roof, sending her plummeting toward the street below. This should be a sad and horrifying scene for the viewer, but Wagner squashes that, standing in the wind with his arms outstretched for an awkwardly long amount of time after pushing her. He then jerks his arms to his sides in a quite robotic motion. It was incredibly difficult to stifle my laughter at this scene while watching the film on my laptop in a public place. Bud’s death scene, which has him tumbling off of a cliff after an altercation with Ellen, brings just as much cheese.
Death is not a subject I often take lightly, but sometimes in films like this one, scenes that could have been serious, shocking or heartbreaking are instead incredibly comical. While that more serious type of death scene is gripping and often provides an emotional experience for the viewer, injecting a little humor (intentionally or not) into the end of a character’s life definitely makes for a more fun watch. [SPOILERS END HERE – READ ALONG HAPPILY!]
To Joanne Woodward’s credit, her performance is convincing despite the corn brought on by her leading man. She isn’t given much to do, but what she is given she does pretty well with, clearly portraying Dorothy as a clingy and somewhat sappy but altogether harmless and innocent young girl.
Virginia Leith also gives a very good performance as Ellen, the sleuthing sister of Dorothy. I love Ellen’s determination to find the truth, and the performance is quite a turn from Leith’s Classics of the Corn Hall of Fame role of “Jan in the Pan.” Had I gone into the film with no knowledge of who was in it, I probably wouldn’t have even recognized Leith as the same actress!
A Kiss Before Dying is sometimes corny, sometimes melodramatic… but also thoroughly entertaining. After a somewhat slow and soapy start, the film quickly finds itself and becomes a gripping-but-cheesy murderous thriller.
The score: 4/5