The last week of the month spells the Mad Movie Challenge when Kristina of Speakeasy joins me for a new discovery from years past. It’s when she assigns me a title I haven’t seen and vice versa. For this month’s assignments, our choices have one thing in common, Warner Oland.
Mandalay is a pre-code effort from First National Pictures and their house director, Michael Curtiz. It stars Kay Francis decked out in various gowns by Orry-Kelly as a woman romantically entangled with gun runner Ricardo Cortez.
“You’re sweet.” Cortez points out while Kay comes back with, “I wanna be, for you.” I guess you had to be here in ’34 to fully appreciate love lyrics like that. Kay’s life is going to come to a crashing halt when she realizes that Cortez is willing to leave her to the thuggish Oland in a shady business deal. Oland of course covets the fair lady and isn’t above slapping her to keep her in line. He intends to force her to work in his swank nightclub that the script, in pre-code fashion points out has a bevy of prostitutes working within.
Kay quickly realizes her way out of this existence is to play the game. She smoothly makes the transition to a Marlene Dietrich styled character who has men at her beck and call covering her in jewels. She’s taken on the name Spot White. There isn’t a man in the club who doesn’t have desire in his eyes. No one more so than Oland.
An opportunity presents itself to escape her nightclub existence through blackmail giving her a bankroll to catch a steamer headed to Mandalay from her current location in Rangoon. It’s on board the ship that she’ll meet an alcoholic doctor in search of redemption played by Lyle Talbot and run into her first love once again, Cortez. His sudden appearance is going to complicate matters for Kay as she tries to restore her self respect.
Now that Kay is a much wiser woman, she sees through the promises made by Cortez and won’t be led back into the lifestyle she has fled. The last half hour of the script will see a possible suicide by Cortez though the ships authorities suspect Kay of foul play. She is ultimately cleared of any wrong doing and is taken by surprise when her former lover reappears a second time.
I’ll have to stop here as I hate to spoil a surprising ending that would never have passed through the drafting stages post 1934. I’m quite confident a rewrite would have occurred and our famed director would have had to reshoot some scenes including one where an obviously naked Kay allows her towel to fall to the floor while Cortez at first ogles her before embracing her leading to the implied love making session.
This really was a role that seemed tailor made for Marlene. When Kay walks into the nightclub after surrendering her morals, decked out in gorgeous gowns, there’s no way one cannot think of Miss Dietrich. Marlene at this time was the actress who one associated with this type of character in a steady stream of steamy von Sternberg releases. Time and years have only solidified that opinion for this viewer.
Director Curtiz remains a well known name to film buffs with countless classics to his name. Casablanca anyone? Still he is lesser known to the masses. No matter, should his name appear on the final “directed by” credit, it can only add to a film’s prestige. While Mandalay may be far from his best film, it is a decent effort in the early days of talkies before the “code” put a halt to all that hell and sin the movies presented to the population of 1930’s America.
There’s just no getting that Charlie Chan look away from Warner Oland and Mandalay does nothing to dissuade that thought. So why not head over to Speakeasy next to see just what Oland film Kristina watched. I will point out it’s a film that only increased my respect for one of silent film’s greatest stars. It proves he didn’t need make up or deformities to display true star quality. So just click here to be transported to Kristina’s Speakeasy circa 1926.