Tanya (Francis) is blindingly in love with Tony (Cortez), a sleazeball on the run. To get a shipment of guns paid, he literally sells Tanya into a brothel, and says "chin up."
At the brothel, Tanya loses more than illusions but learns to manipulate men and blackmails herself out of a dire life of prostitution. She embarks on a ship going close to Black Fever country, and on the month-long trip, she meets drunk Dr. Burton (Talbot), and love soon blooms between them. But all is destroyed when Tony sneaks onto the ship and tries to pick things up right where he left them. The problem is that Tanya hates Tony, and she's no longer the bright-eyed young girl he left.
See Bhowani Junction for another black-and-white film set in British-occupied India.
You shouldn't mess with the following tropes:
- The Alcoholic: Dr. Burton. Not a comical one either, as he neglects his Hippocratic oath by failing to help a feverish baby because he’s flat-out drunk.
- Alliterative Family: Downplayed since it's only Tony and Tanya's names, which are also very similar sounding. They are lovers but aren't married and don't have kids.
- The Atoner: Dr. Burton's reason to go to the Black Fever-infested city of Mandalay is because he wants to make amends for being a terrible medic. He once operated on a patient while drunk, which caused the patient's demise.
- Bittersweet Ending: Tony is dead as a doornail (good riddance) but Tanya and Dr. Burton are going where the Black Fever is raging with no intention to come back alive.Tanya: Gregory, we arrive in Mandalay tomorrow. We are two wrecked people.
- Book Ends: The film begins and finishes with a shot of Tanya's face where her beauty and state of happiness are highlighted. In the beginning, it's because she's idealistic and in love. In the ending, though more of an expression of tender hope, it's because she has just fought her way out of a hellish life.
- Break the Cutie: Tanya is rather idealistic when we first meet her but that’s slowly destroyed as life as a prostitute only brings her misery.Nick: You can shriek in here for three weeks, and nobody will ever hear you. It was a question of you, or a cargo of guns. And you lost! I'm having your trunk sent to your room. From now on, this is your home!
- Chekhov's Gun: Tanya accidentally cuts herself. Dr. Burton lends her some iodine. Iodine taken internally in large doses is extremely toxic...
- Defiled Forever: Defied. Dr. Burton not only doesn't care that Tanya was formerly a prostitute, but he also states the reason he loves Tanya is that she was strong enough to seize her first opportunity to blackmail her way out of it.
- The Dog Bites Back: Tanya takes the iodine and poisons Tony with it while he's trying to strong-arm her into being a prostitute again.
- Easily Forgiven: Invoked but ultimately averted. After selling his girlfriend to Sex Slavery and later attempting to frame her for his own murder, Tony expects Tanya to return to him. Oh, and to be the hostess of a brothel he intends to open.
- Faking the Dead: Tony fakes his suicide to make the authorities think he offed himself by drinking iodine and jumping out the ship’s window.
- Fetishized Abuser: Averted. The film makes it exceedingly clear that Tanya should’ve dumped Tony a very long time ago not only on account of selling her into Sex Slavery to pay his debts, but also because he's an Entitled Bastard with an "It's All About Me" attitude. Considering this film is from The '30s, it's a very notable aversion.
- Tony's excuse for taking Tanya out is that they are going to travel to Mandalay (they are in Rangoon). Later in the film, it's Mandalay where Tanya flees after running away from the brothel.
- Tony fakes his own suicide by poison and drowning to fool the police. Tanya ends up poisoning him with iodine and then his body falls down the water to sleep with the fish.
- Frame-Up: It's a tad ambiguous whether Tony faking his own death was to make the police think he killed himself or to frame up Tanya, who has a reason to kill him. In the former, the police suspecting her is unintended collateral damage. In the latter, it'd be a convoluted story where Tony, faking his demise, makes it seem as if Tanya murdered him and then tried to pass it as suicide. With the added benefit of making her feel helpless, so she's easier to manipulate later.
- Getting Crap Past the Radar: The film is produced before the Hays Code takes effect but is released afterward. Michael Curtiz takes it upon himself to sneak as much "objectionable" content as possible for the sake of art, so there are several examples of this. You can read this article for the full story.
- The steamy scene at the bathtub between Tanya and Tony, who are unmarried. Or even the fact they are living together without wedding rings on their fingers. The former was allowed thanks to a Modesty Towel and a Discretion Shot. The latter, well, probably because of the unique limbo the film found itself in.
- The true nature of the "Jardin d'Orient" is technically never stated. Curtiz's boss wanted the scenes to make it look like more of a nightclub and a gambling house than a brothel. Curtiz still shows women in less than prudish attires and has this exchange that is short of explicit:Tanya: All these girls. What are they?
Tony: Just like cafe girls anywhere.
Tanya: You mean...?
Tony: I mean exactly that my dear...
- Give Me Liberty or Give Me Death!: Tanya would rather kill her ex-lover and die of Black Fever in the city of Mandalay than return to a brothel and be a sex worker.Tanya: (slowly breaking into tears) I love you, Tony. I love you more than life. And what did you make of me? "Spot White". I couldn't go back to that. I couldn't. Forgive me.
- Gorgeous Period Dress: At the "Jardin d'Orient" nightclub, Tanya wears a stunning golden dress◊ with matching jewelry and a white, fur boas.
- Got Volunteered: Played for Drama. Tony volunteers Tanya to be the new hostess of the "Jardin d'Orient" nightclub as a way to pay for his debts. It's even worse if you take into account she is tricked — she and Tony were going on a date and he never even mentions he's in a stick situation. After Madam Lecalles's advice, Tanya ends up just biting the bullet, just to make the best of a bad situation.
- Gray-and-Black Morality:
- On the good guys' side, we have Tanya, Love Interest Dr. Burton, and Madam Lacalles. By the end of the film, Tanya is essentially a murderer. However, she kills an Asshole Victim who very much deserves it and does so because he wouldn't let her alone. So, it's pretty gray despite how much The Hays Code censors would like to label her an immoral woman. Dr. Burton doesn't mind the work Tanya was forced to do in the brothel and loves her for who she is, but is a drunkard, wacky medic who fails to help a person. Madam Lacalles, despite the period's standards, is the most morally white. The only grayish thing she does is give Tanya advice with manipulative undertones, however, it's aimed to help Tanya make the most of her terrible situation.
- The bad guys, in turn, are Manipulative Bastard Tony and pimp Nick. The former sells his girlfriend as a sex slave so he can weasel out of a debt he acquired for trafficking guns. The latter is a human trafficker who treats his prostitutes unkindly.
- Hate Sink: Tony is a lowlife involved in gun trafficking who sells his girlfriend into sex slavery to pay a debt without batting an eye. He even has the gal to hunt her down so she can keep being a prostitute, it's just that this time the brothel would be his. When Tanya poisons him, he becomes an Asshole Victim whom nobody pities.
- Impossibly-Low Neckline: Enforced. As is with any film from the early thirties starring Kay Francis, there are bias-cut gowns with amazingly low necklines. Special mention goes to the dresses she wears while working as a prostitute at the "Jardin d'Orient" nightclub. So, it's kind of justified as well.
- It's All About Me: When he reunites with Tanya, all Tony can think about is himself. Sure, the first time he frames as if he is concerned with his broken relationship with Tanya but, quickly enough, he just plain asks if Tanya can't just forget her time as the hostess of the "Jardin d'Orient", completely ignoring he was the one who dumped her in there. Oh, he doesn't blame her, but it's not been very fun for him either. The second time is much more blatant. He just goes about how is he going to open a nightclub in Mandalay with Tanya as the hostess, how much he missed Tanya, and how difficult have things been for him while evading justice.
- Karma Houdini: Nick, the owner of the "Jardin d'Orient" brothel, gets scot-free even after there's a police intervention. The police officers go searching for Tanya because of her increasing notoriety and refugee status.
- Kubrick Stare: During her time in the "Jardin d'Orient" brothel, Tanya shoots one of these aiming right at the camera. Click here◊ to reveal why you shouldn't Kick the Dog.
- Last Guy Wins: It's made very clear Tony is not boyfriend material by any means, even if Tanya still holds feelings for him. So, when Tony comes back to strong-arm Tanya into starting a business with him (and being a sex worker again, just this time voluntarily), it's not that unexpected Tanya doesn't even consider it and, instead, poisons his drink to get rid of him and his manipulative ways. It's Dr. Burton, the medic she meets while on the ferry boat, she ends up with.
- Love Hurts: Especially when the gun racketeer you love sells you into slavery...
- Lured into a Trap: Tanya goes to the "Jardin d'Orient" nightclub with Tony because she thought she was going to have a night of fun. It turns out it's a brothel, so Tanya's hesitant but accepts to sing for the patrons when he asks her. Then Tony ditches her by leaving a note. Ouch.
- MacGuffin Location: The city of Mandalay serves as this for both Tanya and Dr. Burton. Tanya wants to start a new life without scumbag boyfriends who force her to be a sex worker. Dr. Burton is on a suicide mission to help the Black Fever patients because he wants to atone for being a terrible medic due to his alcoholism.
- MacGuffin Title: The ferryboat that the main characters board goes to Mandalay city. Tanya hopes to flee from a life of prostitution while Dr. Burton wants to help the Black Fever patients.
- Meaningful Name:
- Madam Lacalle's surname means "the street" in Spanish ("la calle"). She is the former hostess of the "Jardin d'Orient" brothel, so it's very streetsmart.
- The "Jardin d'Orient" nightclub itself is an example. Translating from French, it means "Eastern Garden", which, while heavy-handed due to the period, is fitting since the film is set in British India — today a conglomerate of countries in Southeast Asia.
- Modesty Towel: Tony sneaks a peek at Tanya while she’s showering. The pre-Code element comes in when we see a shot of the towel falling down to her ankles when they're kissing.
- Mood Whiplash: At the end of the movie, there's a sequence of Tony, freshly poisoned, falling down the board and drowning in the river. Cue the ferry boat's propellers and a Fade to Black right to Mandalay, the next, with people going about their lives and the passengers disembarking. All of this clashes against Tanya's heartbroken, haunted expression in the previous scene. Then, slowly, Tanya starts leaving her past behind and softly smiles.
- My Greatest Failure: Dr. Burton's problems with alcohol have led him to betray his Hippocratic Oath at least twice. The first occasion is the one he considers to be this trope — due to being too drunk, he committed misconduct and caused a patient's death.
- Never Found the Body: Since they’re on a boat, they don’t really look for Tony’s body after his “suicide.” And even when Tanya does kill him, he conveniently falls out the window into the endless sea.
- Odd Couple: The former sex slave who just managed to run away from that life and the drunkard medic who wants to atone for his mistakes. They fall in love.
- One-Way Trip: Dr. Burton and, shortly after, Tanya are both aware their trip to Mandalay is this trope, what with a deadly plague ravaging the city. The former is, in fact, counting on it so he can atone for his mistakes. The latter, on top of preferring certain death to be a sex worker, warms to the idea because she will be with a man who loves her (and won't manipulate her) and also will be helping people, thus finding a new purpose in life.
- One-Word Title: Mandalay is the name of Myanmar's second-largest city and the capital of Burma, part of British India, at the time.
- Opportunistic Bastard:
- Tanya is a heroic example. First, she blackmails a police officer into not only releasing her without charges but also handing her 1000 ruppees because he happens to be one of her clients in the brothel. This quick thinking allows her to escape to Mandalay. While doing that, Tony finds her and tries her to convince her to be the hostess of a brothel he'll own. While still processing the fact Tony's alive, Tanya devices a plan to get rid of him permanently. She remembers Dr. Burton's stack of iodine, so when Tony dares to ask her to make him a drink, she poisons it with abundant, deathly iodine.
- Tony, by contrast, embodies both the opportunistic and bastard parts of this trope. His gun-trafficking affairs land him in a sticky situation — he's got to pay lots of money he doesn't have. What does he do? Sell his girlfriend as a sex slave. Later, when Nick informs him he's got the police hot on his heels, he fakes his own suicide by leaving hints that he took poison and jumped overboard.
- Parasol of Prettiness: Tanya is introduced twirling a lovely parasol on a hot day, unaware of her imminent betrayal. Her physical beauty is key to the plot since it's because of it that she becomes the brothel's main attraction after her lover sells her to a pimp. And then again, why she's able to blackmail her way out of it.
- Plucky Comic Relief: Mrs. Peters, a fellow passenger on the ferry boat, is the main supplier of comical scenes. Her interactions with her husband, as they are an old, married couple, are hilarious in a light-hearted sense — she's the one doing the talking, only pausing to get confirmation from Mr. Peters who, in turn, is resigned to not quite catch what his wife is saying.
- Porn Names: Tanya is nicknamed "Spot White" at the brothel. She rises to be the new star and even the police know her by this alias.
- Pyrrhic Victory: At one point, Tony seems to have offed himself. However, the police suspect Tanya, his girlfriend, of murdering him, so she's arrested and is probably going to be deported to Russia (she's a refugee) — something she successfully avoided before.
- Redemption Equals Death: Tanya gets away with murdering her vile boyfriend and goes to Mandalay to help alleviate the Black Fever plague — a noble, if doomed, endeavor. She knows she's going to die, but she's going to do so as a hero, not as a villain.
- Sex Slave: Tanya is forced into this lifestyle when her jerkass lover sells her off for payment of guns. She becomes the infamous "Spot White", the main hostess of the "Jardin d'Orient" brothel. The film is a rare case where the sex slave is the main character and not in a Romanticized Abuse kind of situation.
- Shown Their Work: Tanya's surname, Bodoroff, is a modified version of the Russian surname Bodorov. Back then, Russian emigrants tended to tinker with their surnames a little so they were easier to pronounce and spell in the receiving country. The -off ending, in particular, is the French version of the Russian ending -ov. Tanya is a Russian refugee, so it all checks out. Additionally, the modifications also eliminate the gendered versions of Russian surnames, which in this case would be -ova. So it makes sense Tanya's last name is just Bodoroff instead of Bodorova.
- Whole-Plot Reference: To Rudyard Kipling's eponymous poem. The poem is about a working-class, British soldier whose boring life in London pales in comparison with the time he spent in the city of Mandalay (part of British India). In the film Mandalay, the protagonist goes from a miserable life in Rangoon (also part of British India) to Mandalay; therefore, her route is not quite equal to that of the soldier. Tanya does, however, arrive there in a ferry boat — the soldier goes back to London in a paddle steamer, so both of them travel by water. The city of Mandalay, nonetheless, holds the same connotations of freedom (and getting a romantic partner there) as the poem. Unfortunately, there's a tweak — the city is currently ravaged by the Black Fever, so she's kind of doomed anyway.
- Would Hit a Girl: Nick slaps Tanya across the face. Granted, she called him a racial slur.
- The Vamp: Tanya as "Spot White". Granted, she didn't want to be a sex worker but, in an attempt to make the best of a bad situation, she takes a fellow prostitute's advice to heart and uses men's lust to her advantage. One clear example is one she blackmails herself out of prostitution by seducing a policeman — he used her services during a masquerade party. She also threatens him with revealing their encounter.
- Who Needs Enemies?: Tanya Bodoroff is already in a precarious situation by virtue of being a Russian refugee. But what's the constant risk of being deported back to her country when she's got a scumbag, opportunistic boyfriend willing to sell her into sex slavery to pay his debts?