Review: Mandalay - 1934

A Tale of Getting Sold Down the River

Manderlay is a pre-code tale of love, untrue love, alcoholism, prostitution, being brave & decent, and "making the best of things."

The "things" in question is the dark underbelly of human trafficking, with Kay Francis playing a Russian refugee named Tanya who lives aboard the seagoing yacht of her paramour Tony (Ricardo Cortez) anchored at Rangoon. We see the couple pledge their love one for another, with an early scene in the film aboard the yacht emphasizing Tanya's youthful affection, but when push comes to shove and his money is running out, Tony has to regain the favor of nightclub owner and illegal weapons supplier Nick (Warner Oland). Nick is interested in Tanya, and Tony  is willing to trade Tanya to Nick in order to put together a new, lucrative gun-running deal. Nick soothes Tony's anemic conscious by saying "In a couple of weeks, she'll forget all about you," a prediction that turns out to be lethally wrong: she'll remember Tony quite clearly right through to the end of the film.

With negotiations over, Tony is eager to leave town as fast as possible and to absolutely avoid Tanya, but Nick insists Tony leave Tanya a handwritten note so Tanya won't think Nick has done harm to Tony which might drive her to go to the power of the colonial British police. Soon, Tanya realizes Tony has vanished, leaving her behind at Nick's unsavory nightclub (she innocently thought they were there together on a date), and then Nick gives her the note:

"Forgive me if you can. There was nothing else I could do without losing everything. Goodbye – good luck and chin up. Tony."

She reads the note and is clearly dumbfounded. Nick intones "You thought he loved you. Forget him. He's no good." When Tanya demands to be let free from the place, Nick tells her "you could shriek here for three weeks and no one would hear you."

Director Michael Curtiz makes sure we understand what's going on visually, with a group of wealthy, older men at the nightclub eyeing the unnerved Tanya like a tenderloin on a plate, but the dialogue steers clear of stating the obvious and instead translates everything into Nick the nightclub owner pressuring Tanya into being his most important "hostess" at his club.  Shortly afterward, an older woman at the club called "The Countess" (Rafaela Ottiano) summarizes the situation to a tussled looking Tanya laying on a large bed:

"Well, I suppose it's no use telling you, you'll have to find out for yourself. But if you've got any sense, you'll make the best of things. You'll go on living. And before you get through, you'll find out it's easier to make men do what you want them to do than it is to fall in love, and make a fool of you..."

"The Countess" is providing instruction in more ways than just words. We know that she is rapidly outliving her ability to ply her trade with her fading looks, and Nick has already said Tanya is her replacement. This being a film with only 105 minutes of runtime, Tanya has to move quickly, and she does, becoming a whole new person called "Spot White." The name change might be a reference to her identity as a "White Russian," that group of Russians who lost to the "reds" in the 1917 Russia revolution and had to flee to save their lives, but it is more likely the name has a biblical meaning, a reference to when the Levitical priests would examine a leprosy victim for a "bright spot of white in the flesh" to determine if the ailment is only skin deep and requiring only a limited period of quarantine before going free, instead of a permanent, terminal condition.

In the 1933 film Baby Face with Barbara Stanwyck, a similar situation (though far more awful in a number of ways that Tanya's) occurs to the lead character. In both Baby Face and in Mandalay the women are instructed by a mentor on the logic of using men versus being used; the power of a woman who makes the most profitable use of whatever talent and beauty she has; and in each film the women construct an effective alter ego to act out their mission "to feather their nest" as Kay sings in one of Mandalay's musical interludes.

Spot White begins to rack up expensive gifts from the male clientele at Nick's club, and a feverish montage of images from cinematographer Tony Gaudio show Tanya's world spinning like a roulette wheel and then an electric fan (an important instrument in the hot humidity of Rangoon, but also a visual allusion to Kay's job), with snippets of Kay being draped with jewelry by male hands, but by the end of the series of montage images she reacts to a string of pearls being put around her neck as if it were a noose.

Having become infamous in Rangoon, the British Superintendent of Police decides to deport her back to Russia, which means certain death. But Spot White has prepared for every eventuality and is in a position to blackmail the man who holds the power of life and death in her world of sex and power. Shortly, instead of deportation, she exits Rangoon with 10,000 rupees of the man's money on a trip upriver to Manderlay where she plans to stay among the "cool, green hills" and to rest, using the name "Miss Marjorie Lang" as she travels, because as she explains "under that name I have no market value."

Aboard the riverboat taking her upstream she meets a fellow traveller, the frequently drunk Dr. Burton (Lyle Talbot) who surprises Tanya because when she has a minor injury to her hand, he not only doesn't know who she is, but treats her as a person in need of help and barely even looks at her except for her wound, a new phenomenon because Spot White is used to being ogled by every man she comes into contact. As the pair travel the nearly four hundred miles upriver to Mandalay, they become friendly and Tanya learns the doctor is a tormented alcoholic determined to go into "black fever country" outside of Mandalay to help the natives. Tanya tells him that this plan is nothing but suicide, but he replies he craves a chance "to do something decent" after a botched medical career due to his drinking.

And then the riverboat takes on a new passenger: Tony. Tanya ignores him aboard ship, but Tony inveigles his way to obtain the cabin directly next to hers, then implores through the adjoining door for a meeting. Tanya coldly confronts him as the man who sold her into slavery, he tries to embrace her and she refuses.  He then begins issuing a contorted apology for what he has done to her, trying to get her to share a drink with him "for old times." As they talk Tony confesses that "since that night at Nick's, everything has gone wrong for me, everything." We learn that he has lost his yacht, and he begins telling Tanya that now he has found her again he'll "never let you go, never!" then forces a kiss upon her. She replies "Tony stop! You must believe me. I've earned my freedom, I'm a human being again. You've got to understand and let me go!" Tanya breaks away and flees the cabin, and because there is another person in the hall, Tony breaks off his pursuit.

We know of course that Tony is a rat, and his happiness at finding Tanya again is presumably because he could sell her off a second time. When a strangely worded message comes aboard for Tony, he sits down and decodes it by eliminating superfluous words, and we see what he sees, a warning from a friend (Nick?) that the authorities are going to be waiting at the next stop on the boat's route to take him into custody. Fearful of arrest, Tony concocts a suicide scene with poison in one of the glasses he had been drinking with Tanya, removes the screen from his cabin window to make it look like he had leaped overboard to drown himself, and then sneaks at night into the bottom of the ship to hide among the machinery in the hull.

When the ship's captain goes to Tony's cabin with his first officer to arrest Tony to hold him for the authorities, they find the false scene of suicide and come to a conclusion that perhaps he was poisoned by the other person who had been in the cabin drinking with him, this is then traced to Miss Lang/Tanya.  Her explanation of being assaulted and escaping doesn't carry much weight with the Captain, and she is placed under arrest.

Doctor Burton, the ship's captain and others perform a simple inquest on Tony's death and the Captain seems determined to turn Tanya over to the courts in Manderlay, but Burton cautions him that it would mean certain doom for Tanya. In the course of their debating what to do, the doctor provides a rationale for letting Miss Lang go: if she did actually poison him, he was a wanted criminal and would have faced a similar fate anyway.  Two officers then come aboard to take Tony into custody only to learn of his demise, and in that moment the captain decides to end the matter there without implicating Miss Lang/Tanya.

When Doctor Burton goes to Tanya's cabin to tell her she is cleared of the charge of murder, she barely shows any relief because she now has to explain her association with the (presumably) dead Tony, which leads to her explaining her true identity back in Rangoon as the infamous Spot White. Tanya is certain that her confession will be enough to drive off Burton, but he is unfazed by her story and instead tells her "I don't care what you were" and pledges his continued affection.

Taken aback by this, Tanya instantly changes her plans for going to Manderlay's hill country for cool temperatures and rest and instead wants to accompany Burton into the fever area "where there's only one chance in a hundred of coming out alive." Tanya explains to him "we're two wrecked people. We need one another" and she and Burton agree that if they somehow survive what's ahead they can then make something of their lives, together.

Typically, that would be where the screen fades to black and the end credits start to roll, but Tony is quite alive, hiding below decks. He finally finds a way back to Tanya's cabin in the middle of the night and then immediately commences where he left off the last time he was in her presence, that is, he's got a great new idea if he can only get together a couple thousand rupees (we know he had already ransacked Tanya's cabin for her money, but didn't find it) and it involves setting up a club like Nick's, but in the city of Manderlay, where he and Tanya can run the place and "in a couple of months we'll be cleaning up!"

"You... Want to put me back into.... That?" Tanya asks.

"Why not?" Says Tony. "I stole, I lied and cheated to get to you. We belong together. Together we'll get someplace."

In Manderlay, romantic choices are also moral choices, and risky. Though Tanya is Spot White, she's also Marjorie Lang, and in the end, none of them want Tony.

The Look of Mandalay

The film is shot with some terrific photography, with the river and riverboat scenes shot on the San Joaquin River, standing in for the Irrawadi River in Burma. Most of the tale is aboard a riverboat which operates much like a cruise ship in other 1930s movies, throwing together an omnibus of characters who interact and share small side-stories, but the limited runtime of Mandalay, and some rather abrupt editing keeps most of our screen occupied with the boat's passengers or with Kay Francis as either Tanya, Spot White or Marjorie Lang. Each one of these personas has a splendid but very different wardrobe and hair style, with Spot White wearing the most elaborate clothing with the most severe of hair styles.

When we are visually introduced to Spot White she is at the top of a staircase dressed in a glimmering, silvery dress that looks like it was welded around her body, and this draws the eyes of the men in Nick's club, the camera shifting from one set of staring faces to another, reminiscent of a similar scene in the 1927 Metropolis when the "false" Maria (Brigitte Helm) is worshipped by the eyes of the wealthy men of the city. Kay Francis, who is often dismissed as being without actual acting talent, gives Spot White a nice moment at the bottom of the staircase when she slightly winces with a flash of uncertainty, telling us that underneath all that flashy armor is the less confident Tanya, but then she snaps back into her role and proceeds to conquer the room.

Warner Oland is given near top billing but actually doesn't have that much screen time. Perhaps his extended scenes were excised, but his brief participation in the film establishes that as the owner of the club where the girls work to please the monied and politically powerful people of Rangoon, he's basically a pimp with a ready hand to slap the girls around while also managing a side-business in gun-running.

Ricardo Cortez as Tanya's lover and the man who treats her as a commodity and tool for his own plans does an effective job: he's hateable, and interesting, right from the start. Cortez gives Tony an unawareness of his own loathsome character such that he walks about in a perky, jaunty way, puffing on cigarettes, wrapped up in his entrepreneurial dreams that barely includes any cognizant gesture that he knows Tanya is a person. When he turns up from out of the past and she tries to plead with him that she's "a human being again," she may as well be talking to him in a foreign language.

Lyle Talbot as the heavy-drinking Doctor Burton is either a circumspect, thoughtful and patient friend and zealous doctor, or he's drunk and not much good for anything except slurred speech and singing. His background story includes the "murder" of a patient because he was too drunk to be doing surgery, and in a way, the doctor and Tanya share a common background, Mandalay implying the doctor's enslavement to drink is like the enslavement at Nick's, the victim doesn't have control over what's happening to them.

As much as the pre-code era is praised for its unvarnished stories of human greed, sex, violence and a sheer frankness that mostly vanished once the Hayes Code took effect, it was also a period where all of that frankness was applied to moral character without explaining actions to diminish culpability, which is a feature of later films that dove into psychological motivations and the impact of society in conditioning people.

Mandalay tries to tell us at the end that our two main characters, Miss Lang and Dr. Burton, are probably doomed. We'd rather they survive their coming ordeal and never have to go back to Rangoon, which in this film is a sort of hell, and instead they travel on to Mandalay, which is a sort of heaven. But the film also tells us that in another way it doesn't even matter, because they have each other.

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Original Page August 10, 2023