Plot: Tanya (Kay Francis) has fallen in love with Tony (Ricardo Cortez), who seems to be a man of wealth and power, based on his yacht and exotic tastes. But little does Tanya know that while he might have some resources, Tony is involved in illegal activities and usually up to his eyeballs in debt. His latest debts belong to Nick (Warner Oland), who owns and operates a nightclub with a bad reputation, as he happens to run it as a brothel at the same time. Nick sees big money when he looks at Tanya, as she is beautiful and would be a prime attraction for his clients. Taking advantage of his position, Tony trades Tanya to Nick in exchange for a clean slate, which means she finds herself as a call girl in Nick’s club. Now that she’s been abandoned and left to a life she never imagined, what will become of Tanya?
Entertainment Value: Even by pre-code standards, Mandalay is a pretty wild slice of melodrama that never fails to entertain. The movie clocks in at just over an hour, but fills every minute with scandalous exchanges and salacious situations, to the extent that once the production code was in place, the film was rejected for content. But it isn’t just spice and controversy for the sake of such, as the narrative is well crafted and the writing allows for some competent character depth, especially in regard to Kay Francis’ role at the film’s center. The story pulls off a lot of twists and turns given the short duration, so there’s no wasted time or slow stretches. The tone is mostly serious, with a melodrama soaked approach, but there’s also some effective comic relief, just enough to lighten things up a touch. But the melodrama is the real draw of Mandalay, tuned up high and put to use often, like a juiced up soap opera packed with romance, betrayal, and twists to keep you hooked in. The cast, the story, the visuals, the costumes, Mandalay has a lot to offer, especially for pre-code devotees, but anyone who appreciates classic cinema or intoxicating melodramas.
As I said before, Kay Francis is given a lot to work with here and she makes the most of the material, turning in a memorable performance. She conveys the drastic journey her character is put through and then some, going from wide eyed wonder to enrapturing presence and beyond. Francis is able to go through these stages in natural, believable fashion and while the tone is melodramatic, her performance remains strong and anchors the movie quite well. She handles the melodrama with ease, but also pulls off some genuine emotion when she needs to. Regardless of what she’s asked to do, she is fun to watch and has excellent presence. Her charisma shines through and she is given some highly memorable costumes as well, so from top to bottom, Francis delivers in Mandalay on all fronts. I also think Ricardo Cortez is a lot of fun here, as a great cad that lives up to the pre-code scumbags that came before. Francis shines when she goes toe to toe with her male costars and she is hyper bright in her scenes with Cortez, including one unforgettable scenario. The cast also includes Ruth Donnelly, Lyle Talbot, Warner Oland, and Reginald Owen.