Sunday, May 13, 2018
Lady of the Tropics (1939)
Bill Carey (Robert Taylor) is young, well-educated, good-looking, charming and penniless. Being penniless isn’t too much of a problem. He survives by being a kind of professional house-guest, his accomplishments ensuring him a welcome among the wealthy. There is no doubt that sooner or later he will snare himself an heiress. In fact he’s well on the way to securing such an heiress when the movie opens.
Manon knows it would be very foolish to become involved with Bill. It cannot end well for either of them. But of course they fall in love anyway. They intend to get married and Bill will take Manon back to America with him. Things do not turn out so smoothly. Bill and Manon find themselves trapped in a bureaucratic nightmare when Manon is refused a passport.
Modern viewers are likely to focus on the doomed inter-racial romance but the plot is actually not quite that straightforward. It’s Manon’s difficulties with the French authorities that drive the plot to its inevitable conclusion but it’s worth noting that these difficulties are caused more by the not quite respectable aspect of Manon’s character than the not quite French aspect. Whether she is actually a courtesan or has simply been the mistress of powerful men is not entirely clear. It’s also worth noting that Manon does have a habit of being economical with the truth, and even out-and-out deceitful. That’s what makes the movie a bit more interesting - Manon is not just an innocent victim of social prejudice, she has created some of her own problems and when she feels trapped her instinct is to lie. She’s a sympathetic but very much a flawed heroine.
Robert Taylor seems to me to be a terribly underrated actor. He got a lot of lightweight roles but his performances were always more than adequate and on those occasions when he landed meatier roles he was often very impressive. This is not one of his more demanding roles, being pure melodrama, but I can’t really see how his performance can be faulted.
Lady of the Tropics has been released on made-on-demand DVD in the Warner Archive series. I caught this one on TCM so I can’t comment on the DVD transfer.
I’m always suspicious of Hollywood movies dealing with “social problems” since they’re almost invariably clumsy, obvious and heavy-handed but Lady of the Tropics is less heavy-handed than most. It is certainly overheated and melodramatic but for me those are features not bugs. It looks splendid and Lamarr’s odd but interesting performance adds interest. I think this one is worth a look. Recommended.