Happy Friday, all! This has been a long week. I wanted to do something completely different from last week’s movie pick, and I mentioned heroines in 1930s films. I have a few movies from Netflix. which will be used in future posts, but they just didn’t seem to fit my mood this week. So I looked at what I had, and I found an old Spencer Tracy movie from 1934 called “Marie Galante,” which is based on both a French novel and musical. It’s more of a spy romance, but it’s still all right, if not a little corny, and guess what? I’m linking this to my recap of Chapter Fifteen of Fifty Shades of Grey. How? It featured a picture of Spencer Tracy as Mr. Hyde, and Spencer Tracy is in this film as the hero, so on we go.
Marie Galante (Ketti Gallian) is a young telegram messenger in a French seacoast town, and it’s the delivery of a seemingly innocent telegram that gets her in trouble. The recipient of the telegram, a sea captain, is given orders to pick up some cargo and recruit some more crew before meeting with an associate named Ryner at the Panama Canal in six months’ time. The captain, who is drunk, is concerned that Marie has seen the contents of the message, and he lures her on board the ship, where he promptly locks her up and reports her as a stowaway. Marie escapes and finds herself in a port in the Yucatan after he discovers Marie doesn’t know anything. Marie, unable to get a boat back to France, heads to the Panama Canal, where she ends up working as a nightclub singer to earn enough money to get home.
Meanwhile, Agent Crawbett (Spencer Tracy) of the United States Secret Service has just arrived at the Panama Canal to meet with the head of British intelligence, Ratcliff, and General Phillips, who is in charge of the Panama Canal Zone. British Intelligence has received word of two men, Ryner, and Saki Tenoki, a Japanese general who is now a curio shop owner, who have a hand in a plan to sabotage the canal on the arrival of the
U.S. fleet. The only thing the British know about Ryner is that any woman associated with him dies mysteriously. Ratcliff and General Phillips take Crawbett to the Pacific Gardens nightclub, where they meet Marie, and Crawbett takes an immediate liking to her. However, there are two other men interested in the young singer: Tenoki and another shop owner named Brogard.
Marie visits Brogard, who offers to help her return home if she can find out when the next American fleet will pass through the Panama Canal so that he can prepare and order merchandise that will cater to them. Tenoki calls Marie to his shop late at night as well, but Crawbett intercepts the message and waits outside just to see what’s going on. Because it was raining hard that night and her clothes were wet, Tenoki gives Marie a dry kimono. Crawbett grows angry with Marie because of his jealousy of the different men she’s been hanging around with despite her assurances that nothing untoward is happening. Upset, Marie goes to church to pray. When Crawbett sees her, he approaches her and apologizes for his behavior, advising her to stay out of trouble until he finds out just what exactly is going down and what he can do to help her get back to France. His inquiries to Washington, D.C., reveal
much about Ryner and Tenoki, but he also finds out that Marie was a stowaway and that she’s considered quite dangerous. It’s when Crawbett tracks down the ship she was on and the captain who kidnapped her that the truth begins to come together, and that not everyone is whom they claim to be, except, of course, for Marie.
This film contains a lot of problematic elements that many films of the time did, mostly dealing with racism, colonialism, and white imperialism. For instance, the bar owner’s lackey is an African-American man who has been to jail “for shaving a man too close,” and is portrayed as being slow and indolent. There is also an exchange early in the movie between Ratcliff and Crawbett about the measurements of this particular man’s head and what personality traits they indicate, namely that he’s someone who isn’t of high intelligence and who’s inclined to criminal behavior. The actor who plays Tenoki is also a white actor (Leslie Fenton) in “yellowface,” which means that he’s been made up to look like a Japanese man. The film also uses many stereotypes of the Japanese culture at that time; for example, Tenoki is depicted wearing traditional garb within his home, and he almost always has a wise proverb or some such from his homeland. His role in the plot is ambiguous at first: you don’t know whose side he’s on or what he’s going to do until he reveals it, which echoes of the old adage that you couldn’t fully trust people from that part of the world and that they were very cunning and sneaky. The concerns of three foreign powers – the Americans, the British, and the Japanese – drive the story, not the concerns of the people of Panama themselves. The Canal itself is shown as a symbol of Western expansion and progress and as a means for each “important” country to connect to the other. The locals who live in the city around the Canal are shown as just that: locals who are there to entertain the white sailors, tourists, businesspeople, and bureaucrats who come through the Canal, and they serve no other purpose.
There are some positive points to this film, though. There are some lovely musical numbers, and the women’s costumes are very lovely, particularly Marie’s dresses. If you’re a Spencer Tracy fan, this is one of the films showing him as romantic leading man as well as a man of action, and it’s a good one to watch if you’re interested in his early career as an actor. Even though it’s an earlier film, he still has that same style of acting and charm that we all know about and is just so nice sometimes, just because you know who he is.
Sadly, even though she was a very likeable heroine in this film, Ketti Gallian wasn’t as popular in the United States as she was in France, so she ended up returning home and maintaining a successful career there.