Marie Galante (1934)

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.

Ketti Gallian

Ketti Gallian


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.

mariegalanteThe 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.  

A Swedish poster for the movie

A Swedish poster for the movie


5 thoughts on “Marie Galante (1934)

  1. Just a thought. You don’t mention a book upon which the film was based. In the famous study I read (Asheim, later 1940s) the author showed a large number of films were adaptations. As I read, I was reminded of _Arrowsmith_ by Sinclair Lewis. Lewis is a centrally important American novelist of the 20s and 30s. Tracy reminds me of the hero. The material of this novel (its themes) would jar with the European-American folklore typology of the film as you describe it.



  2. Thank you, Ellen – I’ve just checked and it is indeed based on a book, a spy thriller, ‘Marie Galante’, by French writer Jacques Deval. Prompted by your comment, I’ve found a long article online about how the book was adapted not only to make the film, but also into a French stage musical with a script by Deval and songs by Kurt Weill – apparently the play is largely forgotten but some of the songs survive. Here’s the link:

    I’m interested to see from this that in the original novel Marie is a prostitute rather than an innocent village girl as she is in the film – this was the end of the pre-Code period so this is likely to be down to the censors – and ‘Galante’ was originally a reference to her trade rather than being her surname, as it is in the movie.

    Must admit I haven’t read any Sinclair Lewis, but am interested to hear of the plot similarities.


  3. Thank you in turn Judy. I read the short essay too — and what a shame the real content of the story is still lost. It’s no use to blame the censors who erased the real Marie’s story, for clearly they are doing what the public wants, not to articulate what’s in front of them or only take from it what they want to see (erase her).

    Reading it, it does seem less likely _Arrowsmith_ was meant, only that the story of Tracey recalls _Arrowsmith_’s, an enough socially acceptable presentastion of the career of a researcher, doctor in the US at the time. The tone or mood you describe reminds me of a sentimental reading of _Arrowsmith_.

    You must read some Sinclair Lewis. He is still utterly relevant and strong. I’d say begin with his most satiric, _Dodsworth_: this is the story of an American businessman who retires and takes a trip to Europe so we have the Europe (or England) v America contrat Henry James once did but in modern hard terms. Lewis hates the spiteful wife and it’s misogynistic but unforgettable because she is real enough. The second one I recommend is _Main Street_: the story of the boredom and frustration of a doctor’s wife living in midwestern America. Lewis is an important mirror of American life: his famous book, _Elmer Gantry_ bring you people you can still see on US TV (religious channels) and _Babbitt_ is the ultimate philistine — who towards the end is sympathized with. As I recall like Howell’s Silas Lapham he rises when he falls (fails in business).

    We learn so much more when we dialogue and question and answer. Ellen


  4. Hi Jane, unfortunately the Weill songs from the stage musical are not in the movie, although it does have some good music in it all the same.


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