Happy Manning (Sam Hardy) is a man who lives up to his name. The owner of a saloon in a town on the border of Mexico, Happy is a well-liked and friendly man.
Perhaps his mood is so bright because he’s in love. Happy’s lady is Rose (Barbara Stanwyck), an affectionate but money-hungry young woman.
Happy has the wealth to give Rose gifts now and then, but most of his dough goes to his younger brother, Bob (William Janney) — a college student and rising-star football player.
Bob believes Happy owns a gold mine rather than a saloon, and he may soon discover the truth. Meanwhile, Happy begins to suspect that Rose is stepping out on him. Will Happy’s world come crumbling down?
Erle C. Kenton directs 1929’s Mexicali Rose. The film was written by Norman Houston and Gladys Lehman.
Mexicali Rose was Stanwyck’s third film to be released, and boy is it a must-see for Stanwyck fans. The character of Rose is a prototype for the later scheming women and femme fatales Stanwyck portrayed. She wants money, and she’ll use any and all of her charms to get it. Same goes for revenge. She’s a woman with a plan. The character is the origin of that “tough girl” persona Stanwyck played so many times, and so perfectly.
Laughably, the character is apparently supposed to be Mexican, despite Stanwyck’s distinct Brooklyn accent. According to barbara-stanwyck.com, the UK release title was The Girl from Mexico. But Stanwyck’s performance is still the film’s strongest asset, more “human” and natural than any other inhabitant of Mexicali, Mexico. It’s easy to see why Stanwyck became a star, this being only her third time in front of the camera, and already she captivates the audience, showing a knack for wholly absorbing herself into a character. She does seem somewhat less self-assured than she did in later films, but I repeat: This was only her third film!
The same praise can’t be heaped on the rest of the cast. Sam Hardy’s attempts to speak Spanish aren’t too impressive. William Janney is a real cornball, drawing out every word he speaks as though he’s been given a sedative that’s starting to kick in. The film is shaky when Stanwyck isn’t on screen, but it isn’t a terrible watch. One of those “seen worse, seen better” stories — interesting enough to hold the viewer’s attention, but packed with cliches and contrivances, and elevated by its leading lady.
So, if you’re not a Stanwyck fan and are instead looking for a gripping drama about a border town saloon, keep on walking right past Mexicali. But Mexicali Rose is definitely worth watching for sneaky miss Rose herself, and the actress playing her.
NOTE: This film has never been released on home video. A rough but (to my knowledge) complete version is available on YouTube, if you’re interested in watching.