Review: Kay Francis in Mandalay - 1934

Kay stars as a Cafe Girl in Rangoon who dreams of going up river to the cool hills of Mandalay

This pre-code drama about being a "hostess" or "cafe girl" and doing what's "right & decent" was released on February 10, 1934, though with a 1933 copyright line on screen, but all the same it shows the effects of the building pressure of the "Hayes Code."

The Code, begun in 1930, was an end-run around the threat of government intervention over complaints about immoral and explicit content in some Hollywood film productions, was given teeth in June 1934 with the start of the Motion Picture Production Code addendum to the Hayes Code, and then Joseph Breen became president of the Production Code Administration aka PCA on July 7, 1934 to give it a firm hand in cooling off Hollywood's distribution of films with, shall we say, questionable morality.

When Mandalay was resubmitted for re-release in 1936 it was rejected, and this probably shows how closely this Kay Francis epic of a woman who gets "sold down the river" by an unscrupulous boyfriend (played by Ricardo Cortez) came to not being released at all.

Kay plays a young Russian refugee named Tanya who comes to Rangoon aboard the yacht of boyfriend Tony (Cortez) but because Tony's finances are collapsing, he trades her to Nick (Warner Oland) to gain favor for a lucrative gun-running deal. Nick requires Tanya to be his prime "Hostess" at his nightclub and to replace the aging "The Countess" (Rafaela Ottiano) who warns Tanya about how things can work out depending on the choices she makes. One of the choices Tanya makes is to want to go up river to Mandalay, a kind of heaven of "cool green hills" where she can rest from the humidity and heat from the hell of Nick's place in Rangoon.

And choices are what the film is truly about, as it is a love triangle of Ricardo Cortez, Kay Francis and Lyle Talbot (as an alcoholic doctor on a suicide mission to go into "Black Fever Country"), all of whom have a "past" as we approach the last act of the movie and the question is, are they to keep on repeating the same disastrous decisions from before into their future?

The film has gorgeous photography and Kay Francis has an arsenal of amazing outfits. At only 105 minutes, some jerky editing, and with a few unresolved story threads exposed at the beginning, its clear that scenes were chopped out, probably the material that would have detailed more of Tanya's activities at Nick's place, Nick's activities themselves (Warner Oland passes by rather quickly in the tale though having second billing behind Kay) and (apparently) Mandalay included more song singing by Kay (since Oland's character mentions having heard her sing before). In the place of the "action" inside Nick's club we have a montage which gives us a very shortened version of Tanya's club career, which is visually impactful if all the visible clues are spotted.

As it is, she does appear to sing twice with her own voice in Mandalay and throughout the dialogue I did not notice her having rhotacism trouble with the letter "R," something that shows up elsewhere in her career.

A 30's melodrama with good production values, Mandalay isn't given a lot of room to tell it's story, but the love-triangle actors of Kay, Ricardo and Lyle get to fashion an interesting portrait of three people each facing harsh choices aboard a riverboat in transit up the San Joaquin River, standing in for the Irrawadi River of Burma (Myanmar).

Older (and longer) review of Mandalay - 1934

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Original Page September 9, 2023