Mandalay (1934)

Kay Francis … Tanya “Spot White” Borisoff
Ricardo Cortez … Tony Evans
Warner Oland … Nick
Lyle Talbot … Dr. Gregory Burton
Ruth Donnelly … Mrs. George Peters
Lucien Littlefield … Mr. George Peters
Reginald Owen … Colonel Thomas Dawson, Police Commissioner
Etienne Girardot … Mr. Abernathie
David Torrence … Captain McAndrews of the Sirohi
Rafaela Ottiano … Madame Lacalles
Halliwell Hobbes … Col. Dawson Ames
Bodil Rosing … Mrs. Kleinschmidt
Herman Bing … Prof. Kleinschmidt

Directed by Michael Curtiz.
Produced by Robert Presnell & Hal B. Wallis.

Based on the story by Paul Hervy Fox.
Screenplay by Austin Parker & Charles Kenyon.
Cinematography by Tony Gaudio.
Film Editing by Thomas Pratt.
Art Direction by Anton Grot.
Costume Design by Orry-Kelly.
Music Direction by Leo F. Forbstein.
Music Composition by Sammy Fain, Irving Kahal, & Heinz Roemheld.

A First National Picture.
Released February 15, 1934.

Box Office Information:
Cost of Production: $294,000
Domestic Gross: $346,000
Forgein Gross: $273,000
Total Gross: $619,000
Profit: $83,462

See the Box Office Page for more info.


Mandalay was based on a story by Paul Hervy Fox, and involved a young woman who faces the ultimate betrayal from the one man she truly loves. To pay off his debts, Tony Evans sells his fiancé, Tanya Borisoff, into the sex trade by conducting a corrupt deal with the owner of Nick’s Place, one of the most notorious brothels in Rangoon. At the notorious brothel, Tanya is taken advantage of, smacked around, and becomes notorious herself as “Spot-White,” singing the tediously titled “When Tomorrow Comes…” as part of her act.

But Tanya perseveres, freeing herself of her conscious and getting revenge on the only person she assumed she could trust.

Ruth Chatterton was the first choice for the lead in this film, made at the First National studios where Ruth had once reigned supreme. As she turned down stellar film offers such as Mandalay and The House on 56th Street (1933), they subsequently went to Kay, who transformed herself into the biggest star at the Warner Bros.-First National studios with Chatterton’s leftovers. Within a few months of completion on Mandalay, Chatterton was finished with the studio, and returned to New York with the hopes of reviving her stage career.

Interestingly though, Mandalay was not only conceived as a vehicle for Ruth, but also her soon to be ex-husband George Brent. Both walked off the film for different reasons, Brent was in the middle of a contract dispute with the company which caused them to replace him with Ricardo Cortez. No choice could have been better.

Ricardo Cortez and Kay Francis appeared together for the third time together in Mandalay. Previously, they had worked together in Transgression (1931) and The House on 56th Street. After Mandalay finished shooting, the two were paired in Wonder Bar for the fourth in final time. It would be wise to note that the irresistibly sleazy “Latin Lover” (in reality he was Austrian) was murdered in all four of their films together, but his death wasn’t limited to his work with Kay alone, either. He was murdered in quite a good percentage of his films. Figure that one out.

Production began October 17, 1933 and concluded a month later. Of course the censors had a fit with Michael Curtiz’s finished film. But it was condemned before the cameras even finished rolling, appearing on a list of films complied by the Catholic Legion of Decency, which forbid the Catholics to spend their spare dimes on watching Kay parade a revealing collection of gowns in a notorious bordello in Rangoon, murdering her former lover and getting away with it in the end.

Luckily, all the Catholic fuss didn’t hurt Mandalay’s financial earnings, or Kay’s career. In fact, she benefited greatly off of the production, earning rave reviews and a salary increase the following year and proving that there’s nothing wrong with a little bit of sin once in a while.

Webmaster’s Review:

Mandalay opens and takes place not in Mandalay, but mostly in Rangoon and on a steamship to Mandalay. In the opening scene, establishing location in Rangoon, we see Tony Evans discussing a financial deal with Nick, the owner of the most notorious and popular brothel in Rangoon. Tony agrees to stop by Nick’s place that night, and returns to his yacht where his beautiful girlfriend Tanya Borisoff has been relaxing in the sun all day.

Tony tells her to get ready, put on her white dress with the most “lovely” flowers wrapped around her shoulders. As she gets undressed and approaches the tub, she catches Tony playfully watching and runs over to him where the two embrace and kiss.

As Tanya and Tony enter Nick’s place, Tanya is in awe of the openness of the atmosphere, asking Tony “all these girls, Tony, what are they?”

“Just like café girls anywhere.”

“You mean?”

“Yes, my dear. That’s exactly what I mean.”

When Tanya follows Nick and Tony upstairs while they discuss their financial dilemma, she sits at a piano and begins to beautifully sing “When Tomorrow Comes…” Nick walks in to tell her that Tony has traded her into the sex trade, and she is now property of Nick’s. She struggles to resist, and her smacks her out of rage to keep her in line.

Depressed, Tanya doesn’t eat. She is given priceless information by an older, wiser countess, who instructs Tanya to stop making a fool of herself. Starving herself isn’t going to free her, but taking advantage of the men who come to the brothel will. The Countess instructs her to use men, take them for everything they have and use it against them.

Now equipped with the Countess’ tips on how to survive, Tanya makes a spectacular entrance into the brothel wearing a gold-sequined gown topped with an overly exaggerated feathered scarf. We see a montage of her smoking, drinking, dancing, and accepting jewelry from generous suitors.

Eventually, Tanya becomes the most notorious woman in Rangoon, prompting the police to execute plans to deport her back to Russia. She blackmails the officer, who has once come to Nick’s place himself for a little entertainment from Tanya, now known as “Spot White,” into giving her a huge amount of money to get herself financially stable and on her own two feet.

She runs away from Nick’s place and boards a steamship to Mandalay. There she meets an alcoholic doctor on his way to the same location, only going further inland to help fight an epidemic of black fever. It’s a suicide mission; as soon as he helps the village recover, he will likely die of the disease himself, but he insists that he must go, and that Tanya would never understand.

Onboard that steamship, Tanya runs into Tony, who goes out of his way to get her alone where he tries to make love to her. She fights him off, but the creep still doesn’t get it. He insists that they can go somewhere and open up their own brothel and make Tanya the headlining attraction. She refuses, and poisons him by slipping something into his drink.

“I loved you, Tony,” she tells him. “I loved you more than life. And what did you make of me? Spot White. I couldn’t go back to that. I couldn’t! Forgive me.”

He reaches out for her throat, but then throws himself overboard.

The next day, the ship arrives in Mandalay, and Tanya and the doctor head on for the black fever epidemic, knowing that they will die as a result.

I can’t stress how beautiful Kay appears in this film. From the establishing shot of her on Tony’s yacht, to the final walk into Mandalay, she is gorgeous. Her beautiful, tanned dark skin is contrasted by white gowns, and her hair is more grown out, with those jet black locks of curls flowing down to her shoulders. Rangoon was the perfect location for her exotic good looks, and she appears more exotic in this film than any of the others she ever made.

Her performance as Tanya is capable. It’s one of her best films, though Tanya’s circumstance is a little bit drastic. This is a well disguised attempt from First National Pictures to make Kay look like she’s acting when in reality she’s just doing what she does best: wearing stunning clothes and suffer in melodramatic situations.

For me, the most memorable aspect of this movie is Tanya’s entrance into Nick’s Place, walking down the stairs wearing that flashy gown. That, along with her entrance to a party in Stolen Holiday (1937) for me are the best she ever made. They don’t film stuff like that anymore.

Ricardo Cortez has another role as a sleazy creep with nothing on his mind but financial gain. Also good is Lyle Talbot as the alcoholic doctor. I like him here much better than I did in Mary Stevens, M.D. In Mandalay he is given a big task, and performs it admirably.

Mandalay was released with a huge success, despite being banned by the Catholic Legion of Decency. The direction by Michael Curtiz is brilliant, and probably would be a great example to show people who have never seen a movie made before 1950 a good example of how great the films from the early 1930s could be.


Vintage Reviews:

Kay Francis is a girl of doubtful past, present and future who eventually casts her lot with an outcast doctor in what an extra reel may have developed as possible reformation for both.

Picture trips along at a nice pace and except for one spot, toward the end, invites no adverse reaction. This is in connection with the faked suicide of Ricardo Cortez, a gun-runner who leaves an empty poison bottle and an open window in his ship’s cabin as evidence of his act.

The audience is let in on the phony suicide, whereas it would have been more effective to spring the surprise and the explanation on the audience the same as on people in the cast, notably Francis.

Much of the action [from a story by Paul Hervey Fox] occurs on a boat bound from Rangoon for Mandalay. Earlier sequences are in the former seaport, where the heroine has been forced into a life of doubtful purity when her gun-runner boyfriend takes a run-out powder. This portion of the story isn’t as convincing as it might be. Manner in which Warner Oland browbeats her into working for his joint is anything but convincing, either.
Published in Variety, 1934.

The screen of the Strand may be as near as most of us will ever get to Rangoon; if it is, “Mandalay” will make an adequate vicarious substitute. In the new film they have set the sultry picturesqueness of the East down on the screen so neatly that a New Yorker is tempted to throw his overcoat and earmuffs away, and cut a bee-line through the opium smoke to Nick’s. Now if a spectator is willing to estimate “Mandalay” by its power to convince him he is no stranger to the sarong and the rickshaw, “Mandalay” is a good deal better than adequate. But what if the story of Tanya, and of Tony, who loved her, and of Nick, who desired her, begins to sound like old stuff in the second reel and becomes tedious by the fourth?

Kay Francis is Tanya in the story. Ricardo Cortez is Tony and Warner Oland is Nick. Tanya has been living with Tony, a munitions smuggler, who is forced to turn his girl over to Nick, the big chief, when he gets in a jam. As hostess in Nick’s dive, Tanya sings a song called “When Tomorrow Comes” in a sultry contralto, and indicates, by many a narrowed eyelid that men are a total loss so far as she is concerned. Now, having saved her presents and jewelry, she says good bye to Rangoon and takes a boat for Mandalay, falling in love on the way with a clean-cut American physician who is bound for the black fever country. Meanwhile Tony reappears. He is wanted by the police. Apologizing profusely, Tanya puts poison in his whisky to clear the way for a new start in life.

A fundamental flaw with the film is that Ricardo Cortez generates so much sympathy as the villain that his demise removes the one character for whom the audience feels anything like affection. Warner Oland makes a usual sort of joss house menace, Miss Francis is highly decorative, and Lyle Talbot plays the young physician pleasantly.
Published February 15, 1934 in the New York Times.

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