Saturday, September 27, 2008

The Rough Road to Mandalay (1934)

Mandalay (1934), which came at the very end of the pre-code era, managed to incorporate as many scandalous elements into one movie as possible, (though there may be others, I'm sure!). Kay Francis, especially in her "Spot White" mode, was so much fun, it hurt to watch her in this last night of the Star of the Month treatment from TCM.

Never having seen the entire movie before, but only bits and pieces, I was delighted to find that it was a very fast meditation on:
a.) The imperfections of the world, and, in particular, of the male of the species, at least in this steamy movie.

Sorry, boys, but with exemplars such as the following, the male sex is not looking too appealing in this flick:
  • Ricardo Cortez the ultimate ignoble crumb bum and worst boyfriend of the century
  • Warner Oland as an ersatz Asian, a white slaver and "nightclub" impresario/pimp who cuffs around poor Kay
  • Lyle Talbot as a soused doctor who at least is kind to Kay, even if hooking up with her probably leads her to her doom with him in the black fever country. There was always something fatally weak about Talbot's characters, (even the supposedly sympathetic ones)
  • Reginald Owen as a British officer who revealed his internal rot to Kay one New Year's Eve. Of course, if Kay hadn't met him when he momentarily "forgot himself", she'd never have gotten out of Rangoon. And probably wouldn't have had such an extensive crisp white wardrobe to don in every other scene.

b.) The only sympathetic people in the world, according to this picture, may be highly experienced women who see the world as divided between men, (all of whom are crummy, drunk or useless to some degree), and women who have figured things out and are out to get a "little fun" or a "little of their own back". These babes are played by Ruth Donnelly as a fairly perceptive midwestern hausfrau who somehow wound up on a riverboat scow plying up a stagnant river in Burma with her dullard hubby. Boy, that was some vacation. I think I would've asked the ball and chain to take me to the Howe Caverns instead. The other "helpful" female is Rafaela Ottiano as a well-used, slightly desiccated hostess at Oland's nightspot who gives Kay lots of sage, if unsolicited cynical advice and accepts Kay's replacing her with remarkable equanimity, (then again she probably needs the rest).

c.) Kay Francis is probably one of the few actresses who make murder seem like the best and most admirable choice for her character. Love the expression on her face as she left the boat, head held high, Lyle at her elbow, and nothing on her conscience. This ending was almost as good as that wink and shhh she gave the camera at the end of Jewel Robbery. Btw, if you have Time Warner digital cable you may have access to Jewel Robbery on the TCM On Demand channel for free this month. It's worth going out of your way to see.

d.) Nothing brought out the mischief in Robert Osborne this month like the fun that he seemed to be having when introducing and ending these delightful Kay Francis movies. It was also great that he mentioned our friend of the SSO, Scott O'Brien's book twice this month. RO really seemed to be having much more fun than usual, didn't he?


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