TCM Pick for August: Pre-Code
On Tuesday, August 21st, Turner Classic Movies will air 24 hours of films featuring one of my favorite pre-Code actresses – Kay Francis. And surprisingly, despite the surfeit of excellent features from which to choose, it didn’t take me long to decide on my pick of the month: Mandalay (1934). Released near the end of the pre-Code era, Mandalay grabs your attention from the opening reel and, like a dog with a meaty bone, simply won’t let go.
Incidentally, Mandalay not only stars Kay Francis, but also features two of my most-loved pre-Code actors as well – Ricardo Cortez and Lyle Talbot. If you like pre-Code, and I know you do, you’re going to like this one. Yes, you will.
A (relatively innocent) young Russian refugee, Tanya Borisoff (Francis), is abandoned by her lover (Ricardo Cortez) in a depraved nightclub in Rangoon, Burma. Compelled by her circumstances to work at the club, Tanya transforms herself into “Spot White,” the most popular, desired, and infamous hostess on the island. She finally gets the opportunity to put her past behind her by escaping to the “cool, green hills” of Mandalay. But she finds that it’s not easy being green . . .
This is not just my favorite scene in this film, it’s one of my favorites in all of pre-Code. It goes a little something like this . . .
Tanya – or, rather, Spot White – is summoned to the office of the Superintendent of Police (Reginald Owen). She enters wearing a magnificent, form-fitting, floor-length white frock, with an off-the-shoulder neckline and feather accents. On her head is a wide-brimmed hat, cocked to the side in an ever-so-cool slant, and she’s carrying what has to be the most gorgeous fan ever invented . . .
Whoo! Sorry. Back to the scene. When she enters (or shall I say, slinks into) the office, Spot White and the Superintendent have this exchange:
Supt.: So you’re Spot White.
Spot White: Haven’t we met before, Colonel?
Supt.: No. This is my first look at you.
Spot White: Is it overwhelming you?
Spot White: You seem to have forgotten your manners.
The Superintendent harrumphs and asks Spot White to be seated, then informs her that he’s had more complaints about her than any other woman in town – and that two officers were court-martialed because of her. And Spot White explains: “One boy spent the company’s funds – he hired a yacht and we cruised down to Singapore. The other boy was, well, stupid, but –” and she glances at a bracelet on her wrist – “Generous.” The Superintendent tells her that she’s being deported, cautioning her that this is a “bad time” for humor. And Spot White agrees. “Let’s be serious,” she says, reminding him of a young lady that he met the previous winter at the Governor’s Masquerade Ball. “Was she charming, in spite of her mask? Colonel, where are your medals? Would it flatter you to know that she still wears them? In honor of that beautiful evening?” Spot White reaches under her dress and produces her garter – with six medals swinging from it. “Just where you pinned them, darling. Out in the garden.”
But that’s not all!
Spot White tells the Superintendent that, so far, only he has seen the garter and medals, adding that she came to his office just to return them to him. “That is why I came here, isn’t it?” she asks. In frustration, the Superintendent orders her out. “I’m not being deported, you know,” she tells him. “Oh I may leave Rangoon, but I’m leaving with 10,000 rupees of your money. Cigarette?” Spot White holds out a gold case to the Superintendent, who is shocked to recognize it as his own. “With your private telephone number in the corner,” Spot White adds. “You called me your ‘itty, bitty baby.’ Well, Colonel?”
The Superintendent writes her a check.
“You’re making such a fool of yourself. If I had your beauty and my experience, what I could do. I don’t suppose it’s any use in my telling you – you’ll have to find out for yourself – but if you’ve got any sense, you’ll make the best of it. You go on living. And before you get through, you’ll find out that it’s easier to make men do what you want them to, than it is to fall in love and have them make a fool of you. Anyway – you’re pretty enough to go a long way. If you use your head. You’d like to get away from here, wouldn’t you? Well, make these thick-headed goats do it for you. Use them for everything they’re worth. And then you can laugh at them – just like one of them is laughing at you now.” – Madame Lacalles (Rafaela Ottiano)
Mandalay was directed by Michael Curtiz, who also helmed a number of other excellent pre-Codes, including The Strange Love of Molly Louvain (1932), with Ann Dvorak in the title role; 20,000 Years in Sing Sing (1932) with Spencer Tracy and Bette Davis; The Cabin in the Cotton (1932), the one where Bette Davis would love to kiss ya but she just washed her hayah; and Female (1933), starring Ruth Chatterton. (Curtiz also directed one of my favorite films noirs, Mildred Pierce!)
The screenplay was written by Austin Parker, who also penned the screenplay for another first-rate pre-Code film with Kay Francis and Ricardo Cortez, The House on 56th Street (1933). Parker was the second husband of actress Miriam Hopkins – who was good friends with Kay Francis. He also flew with the Lafayette Escadrille during World War I and in Italy as a member of the American Naval Aviation Corps. He died at the age of 45 in 1938, following a brain hemorrhage.
Born Katherine Edwina Gibbs, Kay Francis had a minor, but distinct, speech impediment that caused her to pronounce the letter “r” as “w.” During World War II, Francis, Carole Landis, Martha Raye, and Mitzi Mayfair participated in extensive volunteer work and entertained the troops in Europe and North Africa. Their adventures were later made into the 1944 movie Four Jills in a Jeep, in which the four actresses played themselves. Francis died of cancer in 1968 at the age of 63. She left much of her $1 million estate to train dogs at Seeing Eye, Inc. She once said, “A dog has kindliness in his heart and dignity in his demeanor. The finest qualities anyone can have.”
Ricardo Cortez’s real name was Jacob Krantz. His parents emigrated from Austria just before he was born. He was the only Hollywood actor to get credit above Greta Garbo, in the 1926 feature, The Torrent. Cortez’s second wife was silent screen actress Alma Rubens, who he married in January 1926. Alma gained popularity after her 1924 appearance in The Price She Paid, but she became addicted to heroin; weakened by her habit, she died of pneumonia in 1931 at the age of 33. Cortez was the brother of cinematographer Stanley Cortez, whose credits include The Magnificent Ambersons (1942), Flesh and Fantasy (1943), The Night of the Hunter (1955), and The Three Faces of Eve (1957).
Lyle Talbot, who died in 1996 at the age of 94, was the last of the surviving original members of the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) and was the first Warner Bros. contract player to join SAG. He was born Lysle Henderson in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; after the death of his mother, he was raised in a small town in Nebraska by his grandmother, Mary Hollywood Talbot, and took her last name when he went into acting. Between 1932 and 1934, he appeared in a whopping 28 films. He enjoyed a long and prolific career in feature films as well as television; during his heyday, he appeared with such stars as James Cagney, Bette Davis, Loretta Young, and Barbara Stanwyck – he was also seen in two of Ed Wood, Jr.’s films, Glen or Glenda? (1953) and Plan 9 From Outer Space (1959), often cited as the worst movie ever made!
Shirley Temple (yes, the Shirley Temple) landed a small part in the film as the daughter of a couple on the ship headed for Mandalay, played by Ruth Donnelly and Lucien Littlefield. Her scenes, however, wound up on the proverbial cutting room floor.
Mark your calendar for August 21st and pwease don’t miss Mandalay – you’ll be glad you did (or didn’t, as the case may be).
You only owe it to yourself.