Part of a cycle of Orientalist films in which white people undergo exotic adventures in the Far East, with the female stars (Dietrich, Harlow, Stanwyck) playing characters with names like Shanghai Lily, China Doll, Megan, and Poppy Smith, women forced to live by their wits and their bodies; the film dramatising their progressive decline into sexual degradation as a forbidden frisson of delight for the evil men in the narrative and for the audiences in the cinema: Shanghai Express (Josef Von Sternberg, 1932), The Bitter Tea of General Yen (Frank Capra, 1932), China Seas (Tay Garnett, 1935), Shanghai Gesture (Josef Von Sternberg, 1941).
Mandalay (Michael Curtiz, 1934) falls in the middle of this cycle. It’s a Kay Francis vehicle in which she starts off as Tanya Bodoroff, a woman stuck in Rangoon who finds love with gunrunner Tony Evans (Ricardo Cortez). He’s going through financial difficulties and thinks nothing of selling her off to Nick (Warner Oland) where as the ‘hostess’ of his nightclub she becomes the notorious Spot White, who sells her favours for profit and who’s main mission is to make men pay with much more than their wallet. She finally escapes this life and becomes Marjorie Lang, a woman intent on redeeming herself and the alcoholic Dr. Gregory Burton (Lyle Talbot) by bringing medical relief into the fever country where only one in a hundred returns alive. Tony returns to claim her just as she’s getting close to the Doctor, but he only wants her as the ‘Spot White’ who will make him money. He’s s quickly disposed of, in the exact fashion he’d tried to trick the authorities with earlier, falling overboard after poisoning, and thus freeing her to properly redeem herself. It’s a camp classic.
The movie has a nonsense of a plot, all packed into 65 minutes and worth watching today mainly because of Michael Curtiz’ direction and Kay Francis’ star presence. The film has all the things I like about early Warners films: those lovely title sequences where stars are introduced as the characters they play (see above),, that quick pace of the narrative where worlds can be turned upside down in under 70 minutes, the wipes galloping through the action, here both vertical and horizontal, and the hardboiled dialogue.
In Kay Francis: A Passionate Life and Career (London: McFarland and Co., 2006), Lynn Kear and John Rossman write, ‘Just in time before the Production Code took effect, Warner Brothers released Mandalay. Yes, it’s another melodrama, but it gloried in its sordidness and is still great campy fun. Kay played a woman sold into white slavery by her bad-boy boyfriend, and virtually spat her lines – finally given the chance to play Poppy in Shangai Gesture, she unleashed an unforgettable performance as Spot White. It will always remain a popular Kay Francis film. One reviewer realized its appeal when it was released. ‘Make no mistake, you’ll like Kay Francis in her clothes, her rich, exotic lure, her drama, no matter how you quarrel with the over-wrought story. The camera presents some lovely pictures of Miss Francis’.
It certainly does. Some of the credit for that is, as I’ve previously demonstrated, due to Orry-Kelly. But much of the credit must go to Michael Curtiz. As you can see below, he affords her a great star entrance, with the camera clearly on a boat, dizzyingly dollying onto Kay wearing a louche wrap-around dress and framed by a parasol. It’s a visually exciting presentation of the star (see below).
The film also has a superb montage of Tanya’s transformation into Spot White, interestingly introduced by a few notes from a xylophone striking a generic oriental tune, with Kay encircled in the centre, wearing a different outfit each time, and shown in a different place with a different man, so we can chart how each step in her moral downfall is also a measure of her worldly success –an opportunity to delight the audience with her wickedness and her outfits (see below).
The influence of Shanghai Express, such a big hit for Dietrich and Von Sternberg just a few years earlier, is everywhere evident, particularly in the scene below: ‘So you’re Spot White’? ‘Yes, is it overwhelming you’?…
Mandalay also has one great song (see below), which in typical cheap Warners fashion, the film uses over and over again, but here intelligently, underlining character, situation and aspirations, and used first in relation to Tanya, then Spot White, and then Marjorie to mean slightly different things in each instance and for each character. It’s a lovely song, very well used, and affording Kay many opportunities to wear dazzling gowns:
‘I’ve so many dreams to be mended
When Tomorrow comes
So many cares to be ended
When tomorrow comes
I took the worst and made the best of it
Because I always hoped a new day would dawn
I struggled on.’
In Michael Curtiz: A Life, Alex K. Rode writes that, ‘after watching the pre-release cut in December, Jack Warner raved to Hal Wallis, ‘it’s a hell of a good women’s picture, in fact, it’s great!’
According to Rode, the film was considered so racy that, ‘Warners would be denied a reissue certificate for Mandalay in 1936, as Breen wrote to Jack Warner,’This picture also has the basic Code violation of presenting the heroine as an immoral woman’.
The film raises once again the perennial question regarding Curtiz´s films: Everything looks and moves great. But to what end? Yet the film is 85 years old and we´re still watching. It´s still offering us pleasures that we think of as cheap because they´re ‘merely´visual, decorative. It´s a film of pure form, including its characterisations: that´s partly why it works as camp, these places and people are ironised exaggerations of fantasy ideals. They´re ideologically loaded and make one ideologically aware. I wish I´d seen a transvestite ´do´Spot White in a nightclub in 1935, the jailhouse of fantasies, social and personal that would have been exposed!
Kennington Talkies presents at the Cinema Museum is currently screening a cycle of her fims.