Cast & Crew
At the start of World War I, pretty Carla is befriended by German officer Rudolph Ritter while trying to buy a ticket to Vienna in a hectic Luxembourg train station. After the train dumps them at the Austrian border, Carla suddenly deserts her benefactor without explanation. In Vienna, Rudolph leads an effort to break a Russian spy ring, unaware that Carla, who is actually Russian, is passing and receiving messages under the code name K-14 while posing as a cabaret singer. After Carla is searched and almost caught with a message during a performance, she is reassigned to a seamstress' shop. When that cover is exposed, she flees Vienna one step ahead of Rudolph and becomes a nurse at a German military hospital. Later, one of Carla's messages, which she has written in invisible ink in a book, is intercepted by Rudolph as it is being passed from agent to agent along a convoluted route. After tracing the message's place of origin, Rudolph stations himself at the German post and vows that he will catch the spy. Soon after his arrival, Rudolph and Carla meet, and their romantic desires are rekindled. Against her better judgment, Carla falls in love with her enemy, and although he eventually uncovers evidence implicating her as the spy, Rudolph is reluctant to admit that she is K-14. Forced by his sense of duty, however, Rudolph traps Carla by passing her a phony order to meet a contact in a deserted cottage. Finally caught by Rudolph, Carla prepares to be arrested but is rescued by another spy, who wounds Rudolph during the escape. After the armistice, Rudolph and Carla meet again at a Swiss train station and, free at last from the obligations of war, fall into each other's arms.
Ben Hendricks Jr.
Evelyn Carter Carrington
John L. Cass
Merian C. Cooper
Albert Shelby Levino
Van Nest Polglase
H. N. Swanson
It's a spy romance, called into being by RKO because Marlene Dietrich and Greta Garbo had just enjoyed success playing spies, Dietrich in Dishonored (1931), Garbo in Mata Hari (1931). With her round, pert, large-eyed face, Bennett immediately disabuses us of any suspicion that she's Betty Boop in a polo coat and dark velvet mushroom-cap hat in a Luxembourg train station desperately trying to get a ticket to Vienna. Her character goes by several names, most notably K-14, a Russian spy hijacking and transmitting Austrian military secrets during World War I. In these days of satellite surveillance and cyber-transmissions, it's almost endearing to see her furtively fold bits of paper into tiny squares to be hidden in hollowed-out coins, or between pages of books. Still, we easily believe in her cleverness and resourcefulness. Taking a first-things-first view, she soon ditches Gilbert Roland's Austrian counter-espionage agent after some romantic byplay after they meet in a Luxembourg train station.
A few cloaks and daggers later, they meet again. She's posing as a Red Cross nurse, the better to extract front-line info and pass it along. He's been sent to the front specifically to find and eliminate the info leaks. Bennett spends most of the film in a long, dark cape that enhances the elegance with which she moves and poses. Earlier, we had seen her as a nightclub singer in Vienna, gowned in black, doing her own singing while working a black ostrich-feather fan, and soon afterward surviving a body search with a cool, self-possessed parting glance that tells the Austrians, and especially us, that she's a tough cookie who knows the score. Bennett's training imparted vocal and movement mastery, although she made light of her acting. We soon forget "Buy a Kiss," the song she sings (and reprises) -- but not the husky voice in which she sings it. She and Gloria Swanson were the great fashion queens of the era. "I'm a lot more sartorial than thespian," she once said. "They come to see me and go out humming the costumes." (A good real-life businesswoman, Bennett prospered with her own clothing and cosmetic lines.)
But while Bennett maintains an onscreen detachment that makes her performance seem a matter of good-naturedly going along with material she's too intelligent to ask us to take too seriously, she does lean meltingly into a kiss with Gilbert on a grassy riverbank, as if she's cynical, voice conveying a rueful world of experience, but wishes nevertheless that love could be possible, despite the heavy odds. This is probably the place to say that RKO wasn't Paramount or MGM, and the world of the film, except for a montage of World War I newsreel combat footage, is strictly a backlot, and at times backlit, Europe, with matte backgrounds and back projections, where the ravages of war never mess up anyone's makeup.
And yet the patent artificiality of what mostly meets our eyes doesn't work against the film. In an odd way, it bolsters the make believe we never doubt is as its heart. This film's Austria isn't that far from W. C. Fields's Klopstockia or Groucho Marx's Fredonia. Roland's woodenness would have cost a film that was trying for realism. But his stiffness here needs only stay out of the way of a good-humored acceptance of all that's exploding around him, including the romance with K-14, and it does, just enough to keep this film on track. (There must have been something in the kisses Bennett and Roland shared - they married several years later, and had two daughters.) The direction of George Archainbaud, a journeyman mostly known for low-budget Westerns on film and TV, keeps things moving efficiently, too. There even are a few - very few - bonuses, such as seeing Mischa Auer show up in a serious role as a counterspy before his career veered into a string of comic Russian stereotypes.
What enables Bennett and the film to slide out from under a heavy-handedly imposed happy ending (Garbo's Mata Hari died; Dietrich's ultimate love in her spy outing seemed to be her black leather costumes) is Bennett's practicality, which comes across as something even more important to a movie than unpretentiousness (not that After Tonight doesn't have a lot to be unpretentious about!). Bennett may not project unattainability to the degree Garbo did. But she does project an independence that includes independence from the silly plot and its trappings. It isn't instinct alone, nor a tension between intimacy and psychological distance. Rather, it's rooted in a reserve that conveys the feeling that's she's saving part of her performance, part of herself, for the audience. Ally this imperative to the discipline she acquired as a trained performer and you can understand the source of Bennett's considerable appeal, whether in close-ups dominated by her luminous eyes, or full-figure frames that show off her graceful movements. It was based on more than just an ability to stand up to the world, and wear clothes well. It's surprising she isn't better remembered.
Director: George Archainbaud
Screenplay: Albert Shelby LeVino, Worthington Miner (adaptation); Jane Murfin (story and adaptation); Robert Benchley (uncredited)
Cinematography: Charles Rosher
Art Direction: Al Herman, Van Nest Polglase
Film Editing: William Hamilton
Cast: Constance Bennett (Carla Vanirska, aka K-14 and Karen Schöntag), Gilbert Roland (Capt. Rudolph 'Rudy' Ritter), Edward Ellis (Maj. Lieber), Sam Godfrey (Franz), Lucien Prival (Lt. Erlich), Mischa Auer (Agent Lehan), Ben Hendricks Jr. (Sgt. Probert), Leonid Snegoff (Pvt. Muller), Evelyn Carter Carrington (Frau Stengel)
by Jay Carr
The working titles of this film were The Woman Spy, Free Lady and Without Glory. Daily Variety reviewed it as The Woman Spy and gave the preview running time as 85 minutes, suggesting that the film May have been cut before general distribution. Hollywood Reporter and Film Daily news items give the following information about the production: Cecil Strange was assigned as the picture's story writer in early June 1933. By the end of the month, however, RKO announced that the project was being shelved because the story was not suitable for Constance Bennett. In July 1933, RKO assigned writer Worthington Miner, a former stage director, to "assist" in the dialogue direction. Vera Lewis, Frank Reicher and Dr. Karl Lohausen were cast in August 1933, but their participation in the final film has not been confirmed. In the Daily Variety preview review, Robert Benchley is listed as a screenwriter with Murfin and LeVino. A March 1934 Daily Variety news item states that Baroness Carla Jenssen filed a plagiarism suit against RKO, charging that After Tonight was an unauthorized version of her own story, "She Spys." Jenssen asked for $750,000 in damages, but it is not known if the case ever went to trial. According to modern sources, RKO lost $100,000 on the film. Modern sources give the following additional cast members: William Wagner (Overcoat spy), Edward Keane (Intelligence officer), William von Brincken (Captain-Officer of the day), Herman Bing (Railroad ticket clerk), George Davis (Frenchman), Frank O'Connor (Officer on train), Selmer Jackson (Spy), Julie Haydon (Hysterical nurse), Hooper Atchley (Contact who is captured), Landers Stevens (Major), Major Sam Harris (German officer), Virginia Weidler (Olga, Carla's niece), Hans Furberg and Adrienne d'Ambricourt. In addition, Vera Lewis' character is listed as "Anna Huber, a cleaner" and Frank Reicher's as "Major-Medical officer" in modern sources.