Proof That It’s Pre-Code
- The first thing we’re introduced to is Ricardo Cortez playing a gun smuggler, on the run from the law and living on a beautiful yacht.
- The second thing we’re introduced to is Kay Francis, and one of her first scenes is Cortez spying on her changing her clothes. Before her towel falls to the ground, we get this bit of dialogue:
“Get away from there! I’ll never get dressed, never!”
“I can think of worse things than that…”
- Francis snaps at one point, “I’ll show you, you lying coolie!”. ‘Coolie’ is considered not a nice thing to say nowadays.
- The old Pre-Code plot of a woman using her charms to seduce and take men for all they’re worth, though this round has her being forced into it. Her career is even more blatant than usual, as we see a montage as Francis descends into her life as a club hostess. The transition is subtly book ended by a shot of a ceiling fan, a not-so-subtle hint of what Francis is seeing as she acquires her money and infamy. Very nasty.
- Someone gets away with murder again, though the murderess’ future isn’t exactly going to be rosy.
- Our main character hides out under a pseudonym, which leads to this telling and sad exchange:
“Why go by Ms. Lang?”
“Under that name, I have no market value.”
- Rejected for release in 1936 (yes, two years later) because of all of the Code violations, with the Breen Office noting that Mandalay was an especially egregious case since it’s “presenting the heroine as an immoral woman.”
“I don’t care what you were.”
“We’re two wrecked people. We need each other.”
Mandalay has a very romantic idea of redemption, since it believes there’s a point where people become so broken that they need to redeem themselves to be worthy of love once more. It’s a grand, tragic notion, played up to its melodramatic excess here. If you like steamy, lurid little plays, you can’t get much better.
Kay Francis plays Tanya (who I think is supposed to be Russian), a darling fresh faced girl who is head over heals for Tony (Ricardo Cortez). Unfortunately Tony’s big yacht does not give away the truth, that’s a cowardly gun smuggler who’s run into a batch of problems. He’s recently been negotiating with Nick (Warner Oland), a brothel– er, “club” owner in Rangoon.
When his debts come to call, Tony quickly trades Tanya for his freedom. She’s now in the possession of Nick, expected to be the club hostess and give the male guests whatever she can provide. That stings, but not nearly as much as the note Tony leaves her in the process of his departure:
So Tanya becomes the bordello’s main mistress and adopts the moniker of Spot White. Introduced to a horde of leering men, we get this reaction:
“So they call her Spot White…”
“Should have called her Spot Cash!”
Tanya’s notoriety eventually gets her brought in front of the Superintendent of Police (“I’ve had more complaints about you than any other woman in town!”), and in one virtuoso scene, what starts out with her being deported ends with the Superintendent giving her 10,000 francs and a ticket for the next riverboat out of there.
The way in which Francis switches from cheery innocence to seductress to ripping off both masks and being the woman well scorned is scary, and the emasculation of Superintendent– who realizes that she was the one with whom he’d pinned his police medals on her garter a few months back– is amazing in how quickly he becomes a pathetic wretch.
“You have no idea what I’ve gone through.”
So Tanya escapes her sordid squalor, and ends up on a boat headed up the river towards the Burmese city of Mandalay. She takes a fake name and finds herself still dealing with the memory of Tony. But, hey, the guy is so toxic that she drops a picture frame with his picture in it and the glass cuts her hand. A doctor– Dr. Burton (Lyle Talbot)– comes by to take a look at the wound, and he instantly takes a liking in the reserved but sweet Tanya.
Both are fairly reserved with each other. Tanya because her experiences with men have made her cynical and distrustful, and Burton because he’s an alcoholic, and as a surgeon has lost a couple of patients that way. Tanya’s redemption, however, isn’t needed because she was a prostitute, but because her love for Tony blinded her so much and led her into such a terrible life.
Tony hangs heavily on her conscious, and it gets even worse when he shows up on board the ship. He even gets the room next door to hers, as he’s decided to rekindle the romance he dropped before. He’s lost his boat, and is hiding from every authority in sight, but, man, Tanya sure still looks good.
Tony tries his best to seduce her, but has to hurriedly fake his own death by poison when he gets a telegram warning him that he’ll be arrested at the next port. The complication there is that he leaves just enough evidence behind to make it look like Tanya may have been involved. Burton luckily talks the captain out of pressing any charges, and while Tanya is devastated, she’s not as nearly as devastated as when Tony pops back in the window with a big fat smile on his face.
Now we reach the pop quiz portion of our plot summary: you’ve successfully faked your own death and the world thinks you’re a goner. Do you immediately start bragging to the only woman who knows you’re still alive about how you’re going to open a new brothel where she can be the headliner once more?
No, my dear friends, no, that is not a good idea.
Francis is chilling here, as the look of horror turns to determination and regret as Cortez flops on the ground, choking. With as little emotion as she can manage, she says:
“I loved you, Tony. I loved you more than life. And what’d you make of me? Spot White. I couldn’t go back to that, Tony.”
And that’s her redemption. After he falls out the window, returning him to the fate he’d already pretended to play out once, we see Tanya depart with Burton, making their way north to the deadly Black Fever country. There they hope to help others and survive, to see if they really are worthy of each other and perhaps the world.
Are they? Romantic hogwash is what it is, but it’s fun to watch. Francis chews the scenes, and Cortez, who I’ve never paid much attention to (even when he starred with Kay back in The House on 56th Street) manages to play ‘suave asshole’ with a great deal of gusto.
The direction from Michael Curtiz is extremely fluid and fun, and he dotes upon Francis with gentle concern. The opening introduction to her, by the way, from the point of view of a boat coming towards the yacht she’s on, is excellent, and a great introduction to a character who is completely carefree.
There’s also a comic relief subplot built in with Ruth Donnelly as the vacationing Mrs. Peters. She and her husband are from Topeka, and spend most of their screen time commenting on the dissimilarities between their normal lives and their fun jaunt to Mandalay.
A lot of early 30’s melodramas like to sneak in ‘unawares’ as comic relief, to serve as a counterpoint to the proceedings. “Look,” the movie is saying to the audience, “You’re better than these idiots. You can see the real tragedy happening here, and appreciate it more because those dopes don’t get it at all!” Good point, movie, good point.
“You certainly can wear clothes!”
The main attraction for Mandalay, besides how they so expertly turned California into looking like the Far East, is the decoration of Kay Francis. In all of her previous roles, from Trouble in Paradise to The House on 56th Street, Kay is decked out in some of the most beautiful gowns the Pre-Code era had to offer– she was chic in the way few others could manage at the time.
Trivia & Links
- Karen over at the always excellent Shadows and Satin goes into depth about that scene between the superintendent and Spot White, going so far as to call it one of her favorite scenes in all of Pre-Code. It’s hard to argue with that!
- A big thanks to Goatdog for pointing out the ceiling fan transition that I mentioned above. It didn’t really click until I read his review, and it’s a really incredibly brazen thing to do.
- I do really love the movie poster for this one. Probably near the top of my list of ones to pick up:
- The Self Styled Siren also goes into Kay’s look, and how she believes that Francis could pull off practically any gown. (Yeah, I bet she could 😉 )
- Shirley Temple originally had a small role in this film, but it got cut out. This was not the kind of movie she’d later be associated with, obviously.
- The brothel in this movie is named after its owner, so it’s Nick’s Place. Since Michael Curtiz later directed Casablanca, which would feature a cafe called Rick’s Place, I chuckled just a bit. I may be easily amused, though.
- Speaking of Nick, Warner Oland, who plays him, I don’t think is supposed to Asian this go around. Since he’s famous for his parts as Dr. Fu Manchu and Charlie Chan, you can imagine my delight to see him out of yellow face for once.
- In relation to nothing, Ruth Donnelly is departing from the riverboat at the end of the picture, and the Pomeranian she has in her hands is unbelievably adorable:
- The TCMDB has a really good article about this and all of the Production trouble it went through. Apparently the scene I mentioned above with Kay barely covering up in a towel while Ricardo looked on was much longer at first, with Kay in the bathtub and getting up!