Welcome to a new Film Friday and the continuation of our spotlight series on the Pre-Code work of the unjustly under-praised Kay Francis (1905-1968), one of the most popular Warner Brothers stars of the 1930s. Known today as “Kay Fwancis” for her distinguished speech impediment, I am of the opinion that Kay Francis is nevertheless one of the decade’s most natural and captivating leading ladies. We covered one of her little known Post-Code films, The Goose And The Gander (1935), in our series on 1935, but the only Pre-Code picture of hers that we’ve featured is the divine Trouble In Paradise (1932), which is among my favorite films. There are 11 more Pre-Code Francis pictures that I want to cover here. So far we’ve covered Guilty Hands (1931), 24 Hours (1931), Girls About Town (1931), Man Wanted (1932), Jewel Robbery (1932), One Way Passage (1932), The Keyhole (1933), and Mary Stevens, M.D. (1933).
A woman with a past tries to get rid of a former lover. Starring Kay Francis, Ricardo Cortez, Warner Oland, and Lyle Talbot. Written by Austin Parker and Charles Kenyon. Story by Paul Hervy Fox. Directed by Michael Curtiz.
“Tanya, a Russian refugee, is hiding in Rangoon, Burma under the protection of her lover, Tony Evans, a gunrunner working for a weathly underworld leader named Nick. Nick wants to add Tanya to his stable of women in a decadent Rangoon club and intimidates Tony into turning her over to settle a debt. At first the abandoned Tanya refuses to cooperate with Nick, but eventually decides to beat him at his own game and uses sex to gain power. She becomes notorious for her affairs, is re-named “Spot White,” and by blackmailing a British officer, gets passage money out of Rangoon. On the boat to Mandalay, she meets formerly prestigious surgeon Gergory Burton who is now exiled in Burma because of his alcoholism, and they fall in love. Unfortunately, Tony has followed her, and in an attempt to escape the authorities, he frames her for what appears to be his murder. She is arrested, but before the boat docks, Tony comes to Tanya’s cabin and proposes that they open a club like Nick’s, with Tanya as “hostess.” Tanya, desperate to sever her past, poisons Tony, who falls overboard to his death. When they dock in Mandalay, the captain reports that stowaways saw Tony in the hold and it is presumed he escaped in a small boat. Tanya is freed, she confesses her crime to Gregory, and they pledge to start a new life together.” (This summary is brought to you courtesy of TCM.)
Given Kay Francis’ gracious and warm presence, it is always a shock to see her cast in films that wallow in smoke, sex, and sin. It is even more of a shock to note that she always manages to pull it off, giving performances that both fit the pictures and her characters. Mandalay is no exception; in fact, it’s about as dark and Pre-Code as they come. Francis plays a nightclub singer whose boyfriend trades her into prostitution. She manages to escape and falls in love with another alcoholic doctor (as they often are in Pre-Codes), before her jealous beau returns and frames Francis for his murder. She ends up actually killing him — don’t we love those female murderesses? — and rides (or floats) off into the sunset with the doc. Like several of the other films we’ve covered in this particular blog series, the script throws in a lot of elements which we’ve since come to recognize and have been used to typify the Pre-Code genre. And, even though the film clocks in at a brisk 64-minutes (a perfect length for this type of picture), it never feels like too much has been crammed into the story.
This could be attributed to the way the film is structured around Francis’ character, and her natural ability to captivate with the sheer force of her humanity. Now on our ninth film in this 11-picture series, your blogger is running out of adjectives to describe this leading lady. She’s smart, she’s likable, she’s relatable. Everything she says, we believe (save the singing, which someone clearly dubbed for her). Everything she does, we understand. And everything she wants, we want for her. Thus, any picture that jams her into the spotlight has a good chance of keeping its audience intrigued and invested. Mandalay knows this and gives it to us in spades. Once again, her love interest is Lyle Talbot. Their chemistry, although not hot or sexy, is as truthful as it was before. More interesting however, are her interactions with the villain of the piece: the infamous Ricardo Cortez — the sleazy charmer who excels in roles like these.
But Francis is the real draw here, and with a Pre-Code story as hot as Mandalay‘s, this picture is a winner. Recommended. (Oh, and if you do watch, see if you can find Shirley Temple.)
Come back next Friday for another Francis Pre-Code! And tune in on Monday for the start of a whole new week of fun on That’s Entertainment!