Saturday, March 8, 2014

Mandalay (1934)

Director: Michael Curtiz                                  Writers: Austin Parker & Charles Kenyon
Film Score: Heinz Roemheld                           Cinematography: Tony Gaudio
Starring: Kay Francis, Ricardo Cortez, Lyle Talbot and Warner Oland

One of the great things that movies of the golden age did for viewers was transport them to exotic locals, to places so far away that only the place name was needed as a title, from films like Algiers and Casablanca, to Macao and Istanbul. This early Warner Brothers feature is set in the Southeast Asian country of Burma, long before that country became associated with the travails of British troops during the Second World War. In Mandalay the story is about illegal gun running. Ricardo Cortez has been having troubles working on his own. His former boss, Warner Oland, would like to have him come back and work for him, which apparently Cortez would like to do, but there is something about Oland’s proposition that is making Cortez very nervous. The problem becomes apparent when Cortez meets with Oland in his Rangoon café: Cortez doesn’t have the money to buy the guns in the first place and needs Oland to advance him credit to make the run, but Oland is worried he’ll cheat him so the only way he’ll hire Cortez is if he makes the initial investment himself.

Another thing the two haggle over is the luminous Kay Francis. Cortez has been taking her with him on his boat and she has fallen madly in love with him. Whether the feeling is completely reciprocated is unclear until Oland offers Cortez a deal: he’ll front Cortez half the money if he gives up Francis. Of course Cortez takes the deal, knowing that he’ll have to sell his boat if he doesn’t, and leaves her in the hands of Oland who makes her his hostess at the café. Eventually Francis makes enough money from prostitution and blackmail to get out of Rangoon and sets off on a boat for Mandalay. Onboard she meets a doctor, Lyle Talbot, who is running away from alcohol addiction and attempting to do something noble to atone for his sins, and when she helps him stop drinking he confesses his love for her. Halfway through the trip, however, who should come onboard but Cortez who professes his continuing love for Francis, but who also has the authorities after him. The conflict for Francis becomes how to get rid of Cortez, whom she hates, without revealing her sordid past to Talbot.

This is not one of Kay Francis’s better performances as an actress, and I’m not sure why. The opening scenes are fairly banal, where she’s attempting to play the naive young girl, doe-eyed with love, but she’s much better onboard the steam ship, now a woman of worldly wisdom. Ricardo Cortez, however, does a credible job throughout. He was one of those great silent screen actors who was never able to break into stardom in the sound era. He was fantastic in the original version of The Maltese Falcon, but spent the rest of his career in low-budget programmers and second-billed feature films. The other star, Lyle Talbot, does a decent job but the role is such that it could have been played by anyone. There are also some delightful character actors, however. Ruth Donnelly plays a new money Midwest housewife but has very little screen time except for a small bit with Francis on the ship. Reginald Owen plays a British officer who is blackmailed by Francis in Rangoon, and the great Halliwell Hobbes plays another British officer traveling to Mandalay. Shirley Temple was given a small, walk-on role as Donnelly’s daughter, but the scene was eventually cut.

There’s a real nineteen twenties sensibility to the film, the lavish lifestyles of the overseas visitors, the clothing and hairstyles especially that of Kay Francis when she becomes Oland’s hostess, and particularly the singing that was clearly dubbed. The chord progression and medium tempo of the song is far removed from the silky ballads that would become the standard for female film singers just a few years later. This was also one of the last films to be made prior to the enforcement of the production code, it’s pre-code status being identified in a number of ways, one where Kay Francis steps out of a bath into a towel and, when kissing Cortez, the towel slips off, and the second when she becomes a prostitute for Oland, and finally that Francis, literally, gets away with murder. Michael Curtiz does a tremendous job, as always, with the direction, giving a real sense of motion to the camera and using some great optical effects during transitions. Mandalay may be a bit melodramatic, and brief at just seventy minutes, but with the tremendous talent involved it’s still a very satisfying pre-code film.

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