Filled with illicit relationships, alcohol, prostitution, murder without consequence and tons of sexual innuendo, ‘Mandalay’ (1934) is a perfect example of a Precode film at its best. The Warners/ First National production packs a punch at around 65 minutes, a perfect vehicle for the then reigning queen, Kay Francis, alongside habitual irresistible ‘bad-boy’ Ricardo Cortez.
Francis plays Tania Borisoff, a Russian refugee living with her lover, gunrunner, Tony Evans (Cortez) on a yacht in Rangoon, Burma. One night, Tony is offered a lucrative contract trafficking weapons for nightclub owner Nick (Warner Oland). Nick knows of Tony’s relationship with Tania and is using the deal as a front to lure her to work as one of his principle “hostesses” (a euphemism for prostitute). The plan works and Tony abandons destitute Tania at the nightclub and alone, depressed and hopeless, Tania agrees to work as a “hostess” for Nick.
Renaming herself, “Spot White”, Tania creates a new persona for herself; tempting and flirting with men while remaining cool and aloof all with the aim of receiving expensive gifts and money. It is a game that she succeeds at but one that draws the attention of law enforcement. The Police Commissioner (Reginald Owen) eventually breaks and threatens to deport her because of her negative influence on the army officers stationed in the area. Calmly, Spot White blackmails the commissioner using his behaviour towards her one night at a masked party and showing him gifts as evidence. He caves to her pressures, removes the deportation order and even gives her 10,000 rupees for her silence. With her money, Tania is now free and leaves the nightclub boarding a steamer destined for Mandalay, Burma. She takes on a new identity as Marjorie Lang and aims to put her past behind her. On the boat, Tania meets an endearing but broken doctor, Dr Gregory Burton (Lyle Talbot) who – because of his equally troubled past – has become an alcoholic. They create a repour with Tania persuading Gregory to become sober and slowly fall in love. The couple know the relationship will be short-lived as the doctor is travelling to a camp in the hills plagued with a contagious fever and is unlikely to survive long.
But Tania’s past couldn’t be forgotten for long as Tony, back from his trip, has entered the boat intending to win Tania back. He books a cabin in a room adjourning hers and begins harassing her to continue their affair. Tania, not forgetting his treatment of her, refuses him. That night Tony receives a letter warning him that the police are after him and to escape. Instead of running, Tony decides to fake his own death. He lures Tania to his apartment for a drink, spikes his drink with poison and ensuring that her glass is clearly marked with her lipstick, opens a window making police believe the drugged man has fallen overboard. Tony waits, patiently, hiding on a lower deck while Tania is instantly implicated and charged with the death. Thankfully with the assistance of Dr. Gregory, Tania is cleared and the death is ruled a suicide. Later that night, seeing the police have abandoned their case, Tony enters Tania’s cabin still eager for a reconciliation. In a truly Precode moment, Tania poisons Tony and he falls overboard to his death. Finally rid of her past, Tania and Dr Gregory disembark intent on starting a new life in the diseases ridden camps of Mandalay.
For Precode and Miss Francis lovers admittedly this is a very formulaic movie. Francis is spectacular in a strong dramatic role playing between a sultry vamp and a damaged women heavily influenced by her circumstances. Ricardo Cortez and Lyle Talbot are great male counterparts neither portrayed as heroes or villains but realistic depression-era characters. Director Michael Curtiz manages to pack a wide array of interesting shot types, wipes and opticals in the relatively short film. The movie’s most thought provoking element is its ending. It is a pure double-edged conclusion – Tania is finally liberated from her past and has found love with another man; however, she has agreed to follow him to a life that will probably bring both their deaths. This ending is an integral part of many realistic, Precode dramas and makes the film a believable and engrossing tale.