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Monday, July 24, 2017

Where Sirens Lay In Wait For Yanks ...

Lady Of The Tropics (1939) Sets Exotic Sail

Wrote about this three years ago, admitted then that I had never seen it. That changed when TCM had a run, not HD as hoped, but OK enough for a watch. Curiosity held from a 16mm trailer I once had, overblown dialogue and kiss after kiss between Robert Taylor and Ecstasy girl Hedy Lamarr. Lady Of The Tropics is romance of playboy Bob for half-caste Hedy, us knowing from early that he'll get same stern lesson as Leslie Howard in Never The Twain Shall Meet, a title that should have been affixed anytime a Metro leading man cuddled with dusky females (an isolated time it clicked: Clark Gable and Mamo Clark in Mutiny On The Bounty). Signals are out that this romance is doomed, MGM writers schooled at preparing audiences for a weepy finish. Taylor pays dear for interbreeding, his wardrobe and immaculate grooming a first to go. A man might dream about exotics like this, but for lord's sake, don't marry one. Friends will be first to desert, then your credit is ruined. We're made to know blunder Taylor commits in letting his white girlfriend of a first reel get away. But ah, there's that ecstasy he gets from Hedy in between. Miscegenation was a big tease and good boxoffice even under the Code, so long as you knew where limits lay.

Under heading of exposition comes dialogue that natives are saddest where mixed with western Europeans, let alone Americans (by all means, leave them alone). Visiting Taylor and yacht party accept these as home truths to Saigon and ports east. Look, but never touch. Hedy Lamarr is introduced right away as possibly kept woman of Joseph Schildkraut, a character on seeming layover from earlier Von Sternberg at Paramount, his civility a thin veneer for native treachery bred to the bone. This sort of setup needed all the fairy tale telling it could get, to which Sternberg could reliably apply himself and get brilliant result (as with a Shanghai Express), but Lady Of The Tropics did not have Sternberg, so fun lessens as Taylor learns folly of not sticking with his own kind. Directing Lady Of The Tropics was Jack Conway (w/, it's said, uncredited assist from Leslie Fenton). As most at MGM was pre-cooked before directors arrived, it makes little difference who pushes traffic. A second unit donates Indochina views, here as cutaways or rear projection. 30's patronage accepted such stagecraft, even where knowing it was fake. For all that, Lady Of The Tropics shows splendidly how Hollywood could duplicate faraway time and place.

Taylor's "Bill Carey" is a walking glossary of cultural insensitivity, a "You savvy?" spoke to every shopkeeper he can't otherwise communicate with. It's a same trouble he'd have, with darker consequence, when visiting Germany in a following year's Escape, citizenry there lots less benign than ones he can roll over in Saigon. It took WWII to teach us that the world was smaller than we thought, or hoped. A Lady Of The Tropics needed authenticity of foreign-born Hedy Lamarr as native guide to Yank viewership. She would wear clothes well and sacrifice all for a Bill Carey or whoever might teach her superiority of Yank ways. She can't share our moral rectitude, however, so is doomed for it. That's where Lady Of The Tropics gets heavy. A few years later could have made a downer end less necessary, though I can't picture Lady Of The Tropics even being made past closure of the 30's. Interest in the film holds thanks largely to Lamarr, her legacy now less as actress than inventor of certain digital technology (I'm not sure just what) that we use every day. Apparently, there'd be no cell phones without Hedy, who famously said that all acting required was to "look dumb and act stupid." This woman seems to have been neither. Lady Of The Tropics is available from Warner Archive on DVD.


Blogger Mike Cline said...

Hedy (NOT Hedley) now credited with inventing WiFi.

12:14 PM  
Blogger Kevin K. said...

Miscegenation? She looks whiter than me, and that's saying something.

1:50 PM  
Blogger DBenson said...

The rule of thumb used to be that non-white women were inducements to sin, regardless of whether they meant good or ill. If they meant good, they might be allowed to sacrifice themselves. Non-white men, of course, were a Fate Worse Than Death. They were either savages overwhelming some outpost of civilization, or decadent tyrants clapping their hands for the yellow-haired prize to be hauled off to the pagan equivalent of Frederick's.

The gloriously bizarro serial "The Lost City" dabbles in disapproval in miscegenation.

The hero icily spurns the quasi-Asiatic sexpot Queen Rama; the tone of the scene implies her being a slave trader is not his chief objection. A renegade white trader who lusts after her jealously ties the hero to a tree, then writes "Rama's Desire" on his chest before initiating target practice. But the trader regains his civilized perspective, and he turns against Rama.

A trollish but articulate henchman (Billy "Big Bad Wolf" Bletcher) suffers unrequited love for the heroine; near the end he confesses -- with averted eyes and genuine shame -- he used to be a black man until he was the subject of an experiment. Her sensitive reaction is "How horrible!"

4:49 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Canadian Ken shares interesting observations on the career of Hedy Lamarr (Part One):

Pardon me if I ramble here. But your spotlighting of "Lady of the Tropics" has got me thinking about my own reactions to Hedy Lamarr. I wouldn't say the doomed romance genre is an automatic bull's-eye for me. I've hated plenty of them - 1970's "Love Story"'s the first title that springs to mind. But when they work for me, they tend to do so pretty strongly. "Lady of the Tropics" is one that's always hit my sweet spot. Yes, the implied "keep to your own kind" message is problematic. But that doesn't make the story any less sad. Metro's best musicals have probably survived better than their melodramas. But it's hard not to be impressed by the level of hot-house exotica,glamor and sheer technical know-how on view here, especially as it's all swirling round peak era Lamarr. After all these years, Hedy's status as fairest of them all has yet to be definitively supplanted. My own attachment to the lady follows a pattern that departs in some ways from received cultural opinion of her career. I see 1933's "Ecstasy" as something of a classic, with Lamarr, though still embryonic, subtly expressive and well-cast. Five years later, her Hollywood debut "Algiers" was a wow with the public. I think it's pretty good, but Lamarr's contribution is probably its prime asset - a stunning combination of beauty and wounded sensitivity. Sometimes an actor's unfamiliarity with English can make their line readings seem wooden. In Lamarr's case, the opposite happened. Her linguistic hesitancies seemed to heighten the impression of thoughtful vulnerability. She did "Algiers" on loan-out and came back to MGM a star. Metro is generally considered to have bungled her first two home studio vehicles ("Lady of the Tropic" and "I Take This Woman"). I take the opposite view. Both pictures not only manage to enhance her already staggering beauty, but they also discover even greater levels of tenderness in her acting. "Lady of the Tropics" and (the even better) "I Take This Woman" are women's magazine fodder raised to the level of art by the MGM team's ability to zoom in on the very singular qualities Lamarr embodied at the time. Nowadays both films are often dismissed as junk. It took a teaming with Gable, Tracy and Colbert in "Boom Town" to finally give her a big MGM hit. But, for me, this is where the lady began to emerge as commodity rather than artist. As a kind of sideline attraction in the picture, she's neither called on or perhaps even able to add any emotional weight to a vehicle that seems to take pride on its lack of same. Folderol like "Comrade X' and "Come Live With Me" may have momentarily captured the public's fancy. But they were definitely the wrong way to go in developing Hedy Lamarr artistically.

4:58 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Part Two from Canadian Ken:

Oddly enough, the only other MGM film to successfully capture her sensitivity was the all-star musical "Ziegfeld Girl". But that film's full of happy surprises - including a great performance from Lana Turner of all people. Even today, commentators like to praise "H.M Pulham, Esq.". Is it its literary pedigree, its dignified detachment? I don't know. I just find it dull - and Lamarr's totally miscast. I suspect it was her disenchantment with Hollywood life and stardom that blew the light out in those beautiful eyes. But after "Ziegfeld Girl", she tended to seem a bit zombie-like onscreen, uninvolved and uninvolving. Though what actress could have possibly saved things like "Tortilla Flat" and "The Heavenly Body"? I don't know how it happened, but two years after she left Metro, in Robert Stevenson's "Dishonored Lady"(1947), the wonderful Hedy of old suddenly re-emerged. The picture had one of those pseudo-psychiatric scenarios so prevalent at the time. Yet Hedy was in wonderful form. Not just more beautiful than she'd been in years, but emanating the same kind of sensitivity she'd done so beautifully in her first three Hollywood vehicles. Sadly, reaction to the picture was negligible. And it proved to be her last first-rate performance. Not, however, her last commercial success. I love peplum spectacles. But I've never felt the pull of DeMille's "Samson and Delilah", which briefly (and spectacularly) re-ignited Lamarr's stardom as the 50's dawned. For one thing, I can never get over the early scenes of a glamorously made-up Hedy playing what all the other characters (and the audience) are supposed to accept as a hoydenish tomboy-type child. I doubt if a deglamorized and make-up free Lamarr could have pulled this off, considering the cardboard script. But certainly Wally Westmored to the hilt as she is here, Hedy's a vamp from the word go. And not a particularly interesting one. The freshness and delicacy that had hallmarked her best work is just not there. Still, on the strength of what she gave us in "Ecstasy', "Algiers", "Lady of the Tropics", "I Take This Woman", "Ziegfeld Girl" and "Dishonored Lady", I'd say Lamarr's more than earned her status as permanent screen goddess. Unparalled beauty combined more than just once with a genuine emotional resonance.
Canadian Ken

4:59 AM  
Blogger iarla said...

I like Lamarr - as a talentless, wooden beauty and a faded nostalgia piece. She was hardly more. It was enough, for me. A great inventor? Hardly - credit most go to Antheil, her co-inventor. I have read a fair bit about her, including all the recent biographies, and she is very hard to define, as a person, because, I think, she was frankly mentally unwell. You just cant rationalise 'crazy'. She is unique - human Art Deco.

11:54 AM  
Blogger Dave K said...

Put me in the camp of those thinking the lady's life away from the studio was way more interesting than her Hollywood career ... and that's not really a slam on her movies! Can't believe they haven't got around to doing a mini-series based on her life (or have they?) Like icarla, I've read a lot about her in the last decade or so. Must have been different books! After scraping away some of the hyperbole, you can still find plenty of evidence of her amazing talents. Can't pretend to fully understand the achingly detailed explanations in HEDY'S FOLLY by Richard Rhodes, but he makes a compelling case that she and George Anteheil were every bit as prescient with their frequency hopping system as now advertised. He's also pretty convincing providing biographical context to support the notion of Lamarr as full intellectual partner in this collaboration. As to being mentally unwell, well, I'm not sure that's an argument against the spark of genius.

Oh, and MY favorite Lamarr movie? I'm afraid I'd say the Bob Hope comedy MY FAVORITE SPY!

7:56 PM  
Blogger b piper said...

"Talentless,wooden beauty" was the way Hollywood saw Lamarr so she never got much chance to be anything else. The cliche is you can be beautiful or talented but you can't be both, but she could be quite good when the opportunity arose (as in the aforementioned H. M. PULHAM ESQ and Jaquies Tourneur's bizarrely titled EXPERIMENT PERILOUS, where she's damn near perfectly cast).

2:10 PM  
Blogger RichardSchilling said...

There is a new documentary (oddly) entitled "Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story", co-executive produced by Susan Sarandon. It was a hit at the recent Tribeca Film Festival here in New York and Sarandon even appeared in person to discuss the film. Unfortunately I missed it, but I read it will be on TV soon - I think PBS, as part of American Masters.

After the stardom years ended, for a glimpse of Hedy in 1957/1958, head to youtube. Hedy appeared as a guest, and then a guest panelist, on What's My Line. Both are interesting and fun to watch.

6:24 PM  

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