This article was written by Jenni from Rollamo of Portraits by Jenni. Her analysis of the influence which Joseph Breen and the Production Code Administration undoubtedly had on a 1939 film, Lady of the Tropics, is the April entry in our guest series, What the Code Means to Me. It was originally published on her website here. Jenni, thank you for contributing the second article to our series exploring exploring other writers’ opinions on the Code!
A couple weeks ago I decided to watch a new to me film that I had recorded off of TCM. The film was MGM’s 1939 production, Lady of the Tropics, featuring two of the most photogenic stars at that time, Hedy Lamarr and Robert Taylor. I decided to watch this film looking for plot points that a censor probably would voice concerns about in this film. Mr. Joseph Breen, in 1939, was the main enforcer of the Hays Production Code, which until 1934, the Code was used by movie studios in a haphazard fashion. When Mr. Breen took over monitoring the Code, Hollywood studios had to adhere to the Code or face large fines. I was honored to be asked by the Pure Entertainment Preservation Society to write a post about the “Breening” of a film and this is my humble effort.
Lady of the Tropics, screenplay by Ben Hecht, is a romantic drama that loosely follows the plot of a Puccini opera, Manon Lescaut. In the film, Hedy Lamarr is the beautiful and exotic Manon De Vargnes. Saigon is her home, and she is a half-caste,born to a French father and a Vietnamese mother; both parents deceased. Manon longs to live in Paris and to travel the world but due to her status in Vietnamese society, she has never been able to obtain a passport. Two local men want to marry her: a rich Asian nobleman and Pierre Delaroch(Joseph Schildkraut), who is also a half-caste like Manon. Delaroch is obsessed with Manon and as he has great political power in Saigon, she is wary of him and doesn’t want to anger him, yet she doesn’t love him and is doing her level best to keep him at arms length, never giving him cause to think she would ever agree to marry him.
Bill Casey(Robert Taylor) is a handsome, happy-go-lucky playboy, on his last dime. He has agreed to travel the tropics with his latest girlfriend, Dolly Harrison(Mary Taylor) and her wealthy parents on their yacht. When they arrive in Saigon and Bill meets Manon, all thoughts of Dolly fly out of Bill’s head and it is Manon that he is entranced by, attracted to, and wants to give up bachelorhood for. He has some work to do in convincing Manon to marry him as she has seen it before all too often: foreign men coming to Saigon, falling in love with local women, marrying the local women and having to travel away to their home countries, and leaving their Vietnamese wives behind forever.
In order to explore how this film was probably “breened”, I will have to reveal spoilers so if you want to see this film without knowing how it ends, stop reading!
When Bill meets Manon, he asks her what does she do for a living. She tells him, with little explanation, that she is a temple dancer. In doing a bit of research about Vietnam, it is a predominately Buddhist country and it has a lot of Buddhist temples. Some women would be at the temples offering foods to the monks that lived at the temples, and others would dance at the temples for various religious ceremonies. We never see Hedy Lamarr dance but we see stock footage of Vietnamese dancers at Buddhist temples, and Hedy in a gorgeous outfit with a very fancy headdress, as she sits at a temple in one scene. Also tied in with Bill’s question is a hint about prostitution. Manon has a lot of people whispering about her behind her back and this gives her an aura of mystery and it does make the audience wonder how she supports herself. When Vietnam became a French protectorate, and even before that event happened, it wasn’t uncommon for European men to have been in Vietnam for their businesses(shipping) and to then take on Vietnamese women for wives. The families of these women encouraged such marriages as the European husbands were usually more financially stable than the Vietnamese families. The marriages usually only lasted for a few years and then the European husbands would go back to their home countries, marry again, and not look back at their Vietnamese wives and children, if any had been born to the unions. Often, the Vietnamese wives of European men would move on and marry Vietnamese men. When Christianity arrived in the country, with active missions’ groups, these marriages were frowned upon and declared not much better than prostitution. This new view caused conflicts among the Vietnamese as they had previously viewed such marriages from a purely pragmatic point of view. In the film, it is revealed that Manon had a French father and a Vietnamese mother, but it isn’t dwelt on too much, no implication that her mother was a prostitute or Manon is illegitimite. More is made of her being a “half-caste”, or an Euro-Asian. Also with the Delaroch character being half-caste too, it adds to the plot points of him being interested in possessing Manon for himself, and to Manon’s problem of not being able to obtain a passport. I think that in going over this film, Mr. Breen probably suggested that the plot revolve around the half-caste point and not dwell too much on the dubious marriages between French men and Vietnamese women.
Bill succeeds in wooing and winning Manon into marrying him. He vows that he’ll help her obtain a passport and then they will travel to Paris for a honeymoon, and visit some other European cities before settling in the good old USA. Manon is truly optimistic that this time, she will get a passport and be free of Saigon, and the half-caste issue forever. What she and Bill don’t count on is Delaroch’s ruthlessness in keeping a passport out of Manon’s hands. Bill tries and tries for weeks to obtain Manon a passport, and then the problem of having no more money to live on enters the scene. Without Bill’s knowledge, Manon goes to Delaroch to beg him to let Bill find good work to which Delaroch agrees, arranging for Bill to hire on with a rubber tree plantation that he owns. He agrees if Manon will become his mistress and desperate to help Bill, Manon agrees to this arrangement. When Bill returns for a visit from the plantation, he is deliberately set-up to find clues that reveal to him what Manon and Delaroch have been doing while he was away. Delaroch has finally let Manon gain a passport as a “thank you” for her services. Angry with Manon, Bill denounces her, threatens to find Delaroch to kill him, and tells Manon to get lost. He doesn’t care that she has a passport now. Manon sorrowfully begs Bill’s forgiveness, but he won’t give it to her. So, Manon gets a gun, finds Delaroch at a dinner party at his fancy house, lures him to the garden, and kills him. Then she returns to the apartment she and Bill shared, and shoots herself in the stomach. Bill has time to return to Manon, not knowing she has shot herself, he professes his love for her and forgives her, and urges her to hang on that they can make it to a ship he has tickets for, and he’ll get her medical care on the ship. Sadly, Manon won’t be able to make it to the ship, and as she smiles knowing Bill does love her and has forgiven her, she dies in his arms, as the passport slips a bit from her hand.
There is a lot to unravel here: deceit, adultery, anger, bitterness, murder, suicide, confession, forgiveness, and death. In 1939, characters in films couldn’t get away with murder unless it was self-defense. Adultery was certainly going to see guilty characters getting a punishment. Suicide was also not going to be celebrated. One of the film’s characters, a Catholic priest, Father Antoine(Ernest Cossart) has a line about Manon, that is foreshadowing as to what will happen to her eventually. Father Antoine utters the line to Bill, as a way of trying to warn him that marrying Manon may bring about troubles. He tells Bill that Manon may seem beautiful and happy on the outside but deep inside of her is darkness and turmoil. When Manon is dying of her gunshot wound, Father Antoine arrives to try and give her the last rites, and he tells Bill that now Manon is free from all the turmoil she has known in her life. Delaroch receives his comeuppance at the end of a gun for pressuring Manon into being his mistress. Manon dies for her consequences of adultery and murdering Delaroch. Part of me wanted to see her and Bill manage to get to the ship and a doctor and to sail away happily ever after, but since I knew this film probably had had Mr. Breen go over it with a fine-toothed comb, a happy ending was not to be. I also thought poor Robert Taylor! Greta Garbo had died in his arms at the end of Camille and now Hedy Lamarr at this film’s end!!
TCM will air this movie again this summer, on July 19th at 7:30 am Eastern time/6:30 am Central time. So tune in or record it to see two beautiful people trying to create a marriage in a sea of problems.
This was my post as a guest blogger at the Pure Entertainment Preservation Society and their series about films, Mr. Breen, and censorship in the movies. Be sure to visit their site and read more interesting articles about classic films!
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