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The movie career of Viennese-born Hedy Lamarr (1914-2000) was bookended by the Czech-made Ecstasy (1933) and Hollywood's Samson and Delilah (1949). The first made her an international sensation, both for its nude scene and her facial expression accompanying orgasm. Her career peaked (then declined) after the second, which served her up to a public prepared to see her as a world-class seductress of Biblical proportions. Everyone agreed that she was among the most alluring and glamorous stars of her era. Her acting abilities were another matter, partly because she seldom got a chance to develop or display them. After a dramatic escape from a teenage marriage to a Nazi-sympathizing Viennese munitions broker, she made her way to America on an ocean liner that also carried MGM mogul Louis B. Mayer. By the time the ship docked, he had signed her to a $500-a-week contract. Not that he had any idea of what to do with her after changing her name from Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler to Hedy Lamarr, inspired by his admiration for the beauty of silent film actress Barbara LaMarr.
Not that she had much of an idea of what to do with herself. In a career marked by more bad script choices than good ones-- she turned down Gaslight (1940) and Casablanca (1942) -- she remained, metaphorically, at sea. Her American debut, as the object of Casbah-minded Charles Boyer in Algiers (1938), was a smash. Lamarr's Hollywood honeymoon ended one film later, with Lady of the Tropics (1939). Far from seeming awash in the sultriness promised by its title, it's a half-hearted manufacture, tepid in every way, except its costumes, lighting and ability of cinematographer George Folsey to create on a Culver City backlot the movies' idea of between-the-wars exoticism in what was then known as French Indochina. Essentially, the story is a barely warmed over version of the durable never-the-twain-shall-meet Manon Lescaut, which has been jerking tears from the eyes of readers, opera-goers and filmgoers ever since the Abbe Prevost published his novel in 1731.
In this version, a Ben Hecht script that seems (like so much of the rest of the film) mailed in, Lamarr plays Manon deVargnes, a so-called half-caste whose father was French, whose mother was native, and whose dream of living in Paris as a Frenchwoman is doomed to failure by racism. The best she can hope for is a double-standard liaison with a powerful French businessman, in charge of looting the country's rubber resources on behalf of France. He's happy to sleep with her, but inviting her to tea with his respectable friends, much less marrying her, is out of the question, even a charade of a local marriage, to be annulled by his return to France. Enter Robert Taylor, stalwart member of the MGM rep company, as an American playboy, traveling on the yacht of his girlfriend's rich family. Taylor, a newly established MGM star, seems to be recycling bits of his redeemed playboy from Magnificent Obsession (1935) and his rueful aristocratic lover watching Garbo's Camille (1936) expire. He and Lamarr had to summon more than the usual amounts of stardust. Off-camera Taylor was romancing Barbara Stanwyck, his co-star in His Brother's Wife (1936), and took time off during the shoot to marry her.
One look at Lamarr's demure Manon here, however, and Taylor's cocky rake turns his back on riches, jumps ship, and marries her, assuming with misplaced American optimism that he'll take her stateside, where they'll live happily ever after. But no. The influential Frenchman can block her passport, and does. As the playboy's money runs out, and his friends tire of his increasingly desperate cablegrams, she contrives to get him a job upriver on a rubber plantation. He hasn't a clue that it's the rich Frenchman pulling strings. She, meanwhile, never gets as far as sleeping with the string-puller. But she does attend the opera (Manon Lescaut, mais naturellement!) with her well-heeled benefactor as arm candy on opening night. It would help if sneering or nastiness came a bit more naturally to the noble-profiled, noble-figured Schildkraut. But he seems ill at ease, bowing stiffly from the waist a lot, saying "Thank you" a lot. His veneer of good manners never seems nasty, malicious or gloating. He seems more like a nervous headwaiter.
The discovery here is Gloria Franklin, in the subsidiary part of Manon's sister. As a nightclub singer with a string of casual marriages behind her, she projects a genuine sweetness in her acting and singing. (Her song, "Each Time You Say Goodbye, I Die a Little," not to be confused with Cole Porter's "Every Time We Say Goodbye, I Die a Little," was composed by Phil Ohman, best known as half of the duo-piano team of Arden & Ohman.) Franklin played a few more bits in such films as Road to Singapore (1940), Drums of Fu Manchu (1940), Meet the Wildcat (1940) and Singapore Woman (1941). Her presence here makes you think she was underutilized. But then underutilization seems the stuff of which Lady of the Tropics is made. It of course ends in tears.
Lady of the Tropicswas never meant to be about its melodrama, or even about style. Today, it's almost unwatchable, not just because of its ludicrous contrivances, but because of its racism not the racism of the plot, which was at least conscious and intended, but of its casual, unintended, oblivious racism. One can imagine non-white actors of the period going home and sticking pins in their nominal superiors after each day's shooting. The shots of the backlot Saigon are intercut with stock footage of the temple of Angkor Wat, now in Cambodia, then a part of French Indochina. The temple was originally Hindu, then Buddhist. But characters in the film refer to Allah as if all non-Western religions matter so little that they're interchangeable! The only reason the film is worth preserving is as a series of photo ops for Lamarr and Taylor in close-ups and two-shots. They're truly lustrous, even if their vehicle here is not. Not three years later, Lamarr got Hollywood revenge of sorts, driving African plantation Brits mad in White Cargo (1942), in which her half-breed sexpot arrives on the entrance line that was to haunt her for the rest of her life: "I am Tondelayo."
Producer: Sam Zimbalist
Director: Jack Conway; Leslie Fenton (uncredited)
Screenplay: Ben Hecht
Cinematography: George Folsey; Norbert Brodine (uncredited)
Art Direction: Cedric Gibbons
Music: Franz Waxman
Film Editing: Elmo Veron
Cast: Robert Taylor (William 'Bill' Carey), Hedy Lamarr (Manon deVargnes Carey/Kira Kim), Joseph Schildkraut (Pierre Delaroch(e)), Gloria Franklin (Nina), Ernest Cossart (Father Antoine), Mary Taylor (Dolly Harrison), Charles Trowbridge (Alfred Z. Harrison).
by Jay Carr
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