I was interested to see this one because it’s a pre-Code (just) and also stars Spencer Tracy, an actor who I find extremely watchable. It’s also actually out on an official DVD. However, I must admit I was a bit disappointed with the film, directed by Henry King, as it is rather slow and also has a convoluted plot which I found hard to follow.
The movie was originally intended as a star-making vehicle not for Tracy, but for French actress Ketti Gallian, who was being groomed for stardom by Fox at the time. She takes the title role as an innocent girl from a French village who is inadvertently kidnapped by a drunken ship’s captain. He abandons her somewhere in central America, and she makes her way to the Panama canal zone, where she starts to perform in a local nightclub, hoping to make enough money to get back home – but also runs into a variety of shady people working for different governments. The only person who believes in her is American doctor Crawbett (Tracy), who is in the area to carry out a study of tropical diseases, but gets caught up in the general plotting and paranoia.
The film looks forward to Casablanca in its portrayal of a community of foreigners marooned in a small enclave where no one trusts anyone else, but the story doesn’t have nearly the same power or romance. Also, although Gallian is beautiful, she doesn’t really carry the film – partly because she has such a heavy French accent that she is hard to understand. I know heavy accents never stopped Garbo or Dietrich, but hers seems even stronger. I really want to see her acting in French, as I think she seems to come across better in the sequences where she speaks her own language, but there my problem is that there are no subtitles! I’ve now seen a number of 1930s American films with scenes in foreign languages and no subtitles, and am wondering when these started to come in.
Tracy is good as ever, with the sort of stubborn personality he could play so well, but this isn’t one of his more memorable roles. For me the best parts of the film by far are the musical scenes in the nightclub. As well as Gallian singing, there are also torch songs from Helen Morgan of Showboat fame, again playing a drunken singer, and there’s also a black male singer who plays the piano and sings beautifully in an all-too brief scene - unfortunately I don’t know his name, but if anyone reads this who does, please let me know.
All in all, a bit creaky, slow and hard to follow – but worth seeing for the music.