Robert Taylor returns in this old-fashioned tale of forbidden love, miscegenation and fabulous fashions! Lady of the Tropics saw Taylor as a Hollywood star, paired up with actress Hedy Lamarr in her second Hollywood film, all directed by the fabulous Jack Conway who helmed the likes of Libeled Lady (1936) and Red-Headed Woman (1932). Despite its basic Hollywood romanticism of death as the ultimate gesture of love, Lady of the Tropics is swoon-inducing entertainment.
Bill Carey (Taylor), traveling with a group of hoity-toity Americans to French Saigon, meets and falls in love with the half-caste Manon DeVargnes (Lamarr). The two have a whirlwind romance and marry, but neither can secure Manon’s passage out of Saigon due to her mixed race and past romantic entanglements.
Lady of the Tropics sails on the winds of Ben Hecht’s romantically deep material. The racist thoughts espoused by Carey’s travel companions were normal for the time and have been captured in other films regarding colonialist locales. Events start on a yacht where a group of people nearly blind the audience with their white skin and white clothes. They’re visiting French Indochina as if its a zoo, and they’re stopping by to see the newest breed of baby giraffes. Carey’s heiress paramour equates the locale to an “aquarium” which is apropos; aquariums are closed environments with fish that are cared for and maintained, much like Manon is. “Flying fish” Manon is more of an angel fish with her exquisite good looks and a wardrobe to match.
Bill and Manon’s star-crossed romance allows Hecht and Jack Conway to explore the horrors of prejudice. Carey’s frustration at his friends’ disinterest and embarrassment of his relationship, coupled with what the audience is given of his friends being self-indulgent snobs, cements the power of their relationship.
Ironically, the entire presentation acts as a “screw you” to the Hays Code itself, which required films to refrain from presenting happy depictions of interracial dating. Neither Bill’s friends nor Manon’s government have any respect or interest in perpetuating the twosome’s romance. Unlike Bill’s friends who find the entire ordeal ridiculous, those who live in Saigon perceive the people – particularly those of mixed blood – to be half-native children who “need to be protected” by staying with their “own kind.” The language in Hecht’s script is so loaded with meaning that Lady of the Tropics can’t live in its own aquarium. Audiences of the time, and later, had to be able to discern the thoughts regarding African-Americans and other oppressed groups in America.
Manon’s difficulties leaving the country is reminiscent of Casablanca (1943). Actually, you could say this is a test case for Casablanca with its doomed romance, foreign locale, and interest in exit visas/letters of transit. Remember the young girl sexually blackmailed by Claude Rains’ character for safe passage? Extrapolate that out to 90-minutes and you have Manon’s plot. It actually creates a more compelling character in Manon in spite of Joseph Schildkraut’s bizarre Asian eye effects which looks about as legit as the painted eye on Boris Karloff’s face in The Black Cat (1934).
Lady of the Tropics is my first Hedy Lamarr feature and, goodness, is she remarkably gorgeous! There’s a fragility and vulnerability in her that reminds me of Simone Simon, albeit Lamarr sticks in audiences’ minds. After making the queen of all entrances, Lamarr’s Manon finds herself drawn to Bill, mainly because she believe he can finally secure her passage out of Saigon. Both Manon and her sister, Nina (Gloria Franklin) have watched a parade of men traipse through Saigon, use the ladies (like Nina) for their own pleasure, and get on the boat, never to be seen again. Manon, like many women in the world, dreams of a bigger life but, unfortunately realizes she needs male intervention in order to secure her freedom. Ambiguity runs throughout the relationship between Bill and Manon because you’re never entirely sure whether Manon loves Bill, or is so consumed with freedom that love no longer applies in her mind.
Really, it is Manon’s story that attracts far more than Bill’s. Lamarr’s look of sadness at the being told she’s doomed to live and die in Saigon is heartbreaking, and her scenes opposite Gloria Franklin introduce a sisterly bond as well as a community of supporters for Manon. Bill, despite his good intentions, is a harder pill to swallow. Starting the film with one girlfriend then dumping her for Manon already leaves the audience thinking he’s fickle. For his part, Robert Taylor is definitely a man worthy of catching Hedy Lamarr’s eye and those tropical locales only enhance their mutual attractiveness. I’m interested in comparing this alongside Taylor’s role in another doomed romance, the remake of Waterloo Bridge (1940). His Bill is willing to do whatever necessary for his woman, but bristles at her doing the same – like dating a man.
The message is strong in Lady of the Tropics. Taylor and Manon are photographed beautifully and tell a love story of equal measure.