Watching 1939: Lady of the Tropics (1939)

In 2011, I announced I was trying to see every film released in 1939. This new series chronicles films released in 1939 as I watch them. As we start out this blog feature, this section may become more concrete as I search for a common thread that runs throughout each film of the year. Right now, that’s difficult. 

1939 film:  Lady of the Tropics (1939)

Release date:  Aug. 11, 1939

Cast:  Robert Taylor, Hedy Lamarr, Joseph Schildkraut, Mary Taylor, Ernest Cossart, Gloria Franklin, Charles Trowbridge, Frederick Worlock, Cecil Cunningham, Natalie Moorhead, Willie Fung (uncredited), Charles Judels (uncredited)

Studio:  Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

Director:  Jack Conway, Leslie Fenton (uncredited)

Plot:
A wealthy, jet setting vacation group is seeing the world on a yacht and stop in French Saigon, or Indochina. The party includes American playboy Bill Carey (Taylor), who is traveling with the family of his fiancee Dolly (Mary Taylor). When they arrive, the tourists learn about people of mixed race who are half French, half Asian. A priest, Father Antoine (Cossart) who describes these individuals as flying fish “trying to stay, flying above the water only to fall into the ocean and die.” One woman who is both French and Indochinese is Manon DeVargnes (Lamarr), who desperately wants to go to Paris. Bill and Manon fall in love and marry, but society keeps them from being happy or leaving Saigon.

1939 Notes:
• An important role for Hedy Lamarr’s career. This was her first film under contract at MGM and only film of 1939.
• Robert Taylor was in four films released in 1939.
• Joseph Schildkraut was in seven films released in 1939.

Other trivia: 
• Some of Hedy Lamarr’s costumes in the film inspired clothes sold in stores, according to the MGM short “Hollywood: Style Center of the World” (1940)
• Director Leslie Fenton filmed additional scenes uncredited when Jack Conway became ill.
• Robert Taylor wasn’t interested in the script but thought he should do the film to help out newcomer Hedy Lamarr, as Joan Crawford and Janet Gaynor had done when he was new at MGM, according to A Life of Barbara Stanwyck: Steel-True 1907-1940 by Victoria Wilson
• Josef von Sternberg was originally announced as the director of the film, according to the book Beautiful: The Life of Hedy Lamarr by Stephen Michael Shearer.
• Italian actress Isa Miranda was originally announced for the lead role in “Lady of the Tropics,” according to Shearer’s book.

Hedy Lamarr and Robert Taylor in a publicity photo for “Lady of the Tropics.”

My review: Searching for the “1939 feature”:
The basis of “Lady of the Tropics” (1939) is the tug-of-war that people of mixed race in French Indochina (or Saigon) experienced on a daily basis.

“Do the whites accept these half-castes?” asks Robert Taylor’s character.

“No they only create them,” says the priest, Father Antoine, played by Ernest Cossart. “… Somehow they remind me of, well, flying fish … Born to the water, they spend half their life trying to soar above it. Only to fall back again into the sea and die there.”

Called “half-castes” in the film, which is an offensive term, the plot focuses primarily on one woman, played by Hedy Lamarr, who had a French father and an Asian mother. Though Hedy’s character of Manon DeVargnes, a French name she took on, was raised by her Asian mother and abandoned by her French father, she longs to live in France as that’s where she feels she belongs. Manon is an assumed name, covering her Asian background, and she wears the most beautiful clothes from Paris, trying to hide appear more European.

However, though she longs to, Manon can’t go to France either and is unable to gain a passport to leave the country. This is because the French won’t accept her either. Even as the kept woman of Frenchman Pierre Delaroch, played by Joseph Schildkraut, she can’t gain a higher place in society. Delaroch thinks enough of Manon to make love to her but not to invite her to tea with European friends or marry her. He only brings up marriage when he realizes she’s going to marry someone else.

When Manon and American playboy Bill Carey, played by Robert Taylor, fall in love, this could be an out for Manon. But Bill can’t even get Manon out of Saigon to bring her back to America. When Bill tries to seek legal help from his American friends, they tell him that he’s foolish for marrying a woman of mixed race and refuse to help him or wire him money – saying everyone is laughing at him back home.

“Lady of the Tropics” receives a good deal of criticism since Hedy Lamarr is playing a woman who is half European, half Asian. However, I feel that the movie is much deeper than it is given credit. Society was telling Lamarr’s character of Manon and others of mixed race that they need to stay with “their own kind” in Saigon, but these characters were not sure who their kind was and who they identified with. Manon wanted to go to Paris because she felt she would be able to live less restrained, but would she have been accepted? Manon and the other individuals of mixed race in the film lived in a constant purgatory of never knowing where they belonged – or like the flying fish always trying to keep their head above the water, like the priest says.

“Lady of the Tropics” does not have a happy ending. And even if it had, you have to wonder if Bill and Manon would have been able to live happily in America without prejudice. Since “everyone back home” was laughing at Bill, probably not.

As for 1939, “Lady of the Tropics” is an important film.

This was Hedy Lamarr’s first film under contract with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer and only her second released film made in Hollywood. Though her time with MGM was not lengthy, Lamarr went on to be one of their top stars and hailed as one of the most beautiful women in the world.

Robert Taylor was already one of MGM’s top stars by 1939, with his career taking off in 1935 and 1936. Taylor didn’t like the script to “Lady of the Tropics,” but took the role to help out newcomer Hedy Lamarr, as other top stars had done for him early in his career, according to the book “A Life of Barbara Stanwyck” by Victoria Wilson.

When this film was released, the press said that Hedy Lamarr was even more beautiful than Robert Taylor.

Robert Taylor and Hedy Lamarr aren’t the elements beautiful about this film. “Lady of the Tropics” is visually stunning. The black and white cinematography by George J. Folsey is gorgeous, and Adrian’s gowns and Eugene Joseff’s jewels for Hedy Lamarr are breathtaking.

Funnily enough, I get this film title confused with another Hedy Lamarr film, “Lady Without Passport” (1950), which is a title that would also fit this film, because Lamarr is in need of a passport.

“Lady of the Tropics” is generally categorized as a bad film and has even been called “unwatchable.” While it may not be the best film of either Lamarr or Taylor’s career, I wouldn’t go that far. After “Algiers,” “Lady of the Tropics” elevated Lamarr’s star status into MGM’s constellation.

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5 thoughts on “Watching 1939: Lady of the Tropics (1939)

  1. Ooops! I should have looked up funnilly before I asked you? Yes, Virginia, funnily is a real word. Apologies for calling it into question. Is Lady of the Tropics slated to show on TCM soon? Never saw it. But would like to just to see the competing beauties of Lamarr and Taylor, I remember Noel Coward’s remark after seeing “Lawrence of Arabia”” — Peter O’Toole was so gorgeous, it should have been re-titled “Florence of Arabia.”

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  2. I thought Hedy, considering not knowing English too well, was not only the most stunning beauty I had ever seen, but i thought her character was ‘right on.’ Robert Taylor was too wooden in his role and he had to do the film, cause he was under contract to MGM, and Mayer, the boss wanted him to because of “Camille”.

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