Title: Bird of Paradise
Director: King Vidor
Starring: Dolores del Rio, Joel McCrea, John Halliday, Richard “Skeets” Gallagher, Bert Roach, Lon Chaney Jr., Wade Boteler, Arnold Grey, Reginald Simpson, Napoleon Pukui, Agosino Borgato, Sofia Ortega
Plot: When Sailor Johnny (McCrea) sails into an island chain in the South Pacific, were he soon falls for Luana (del Rio), the daughter of the tribal chief, unaware she is to be sacrificed to the island volcano god.
Review: This film marks a first here in the blog seeing how it’s my first pre-code film I’ve reviewed here, but after being inspired by both Todd over at “Forgotten Films” (who I also had the honour of also being on his podcast after he came on the MBDS Showcase) and Kristen at “Journeys In Classic Film” I felt it was time I checked out some pre-code cinema for myself.
Okay so what is Pre-code cinema? Essentially this was an era in the American film industry from the late 1920’s through to 1934 which saw films being censored by local laws, or decided by negotiations between the Studio Relations Committee (SRC) and the studios themselves rather than following any kind of code as to what they could and not show. This in turn meant that films being produced in this era could get away with such delights as Sexual Innuendo, Miscengenation, Profanity, Illegal drug use, Promiscuity, Prostitution, Infidelity, Abortion, Intense violence and Homosexuality all which would be essentially forced out when studios would be forced to follow the Motion Picture Production Code in 1934.
One of a number of exotic adventure movies released during this era, the film would cause a fair amount of scandal for featuring Dolores del Rio swimming naked but bizarrely not for the fact that she spends pretty much the whole film topless bar a strategically placed Hawaiian Lei but this is just a small part of the many fun delights contained within such as the numerous counts of casual sexism and racism reminding us all of just how different things were back in the 30’s.
Directed by King Vidor who holds the Guinness World Record for longest career as a film director, with his career stretching from 1913 through to 1980. While he would over the course of his career be nominated for an Oscar five times he never won until he received an honorary award for his “Incomparable achievements as a cinematic creator and innovator” in 1979. However when it came to this film he had originally been tasked by RKO boss David O. Selznick with adapting the original play by Richard Walton Tully, only to like Selznick found himself unable to finish it. In the end Selznick told Vidor to just take the title and make whatever he wanted under the condition the film featured three love scenes and a finale which would see Dolores del Rio jump into a volcano at the end.
The end result is now unquestionably dated in its attitudes as we see Johnny and the crew on the yacht finding great amusement in having the local natives diving for the trinkets they throw from the deck of their boat and while these casual acts of racism exist throughout the film, undoubtedly cause the film to seem dated in placed while at the same time not to the point where it stops being an enjoyable romp.
It is this opening scene in which our pair of star-crossed lovers meet, with all these diving antics attracting possibly the smallest shark to ever be deemed a threat and who while the crew attempt to harpoon the poor creature, leads to Johnny getting his leg caught in the harpoon rope and dragged overboard with Luana soon diving to his rescue to the cut the rope. It is soon after this that Johnny and Luana are stirring up trouble for themselves, as while the tribe are more than happy to invite the sailors into their village (the huts would later be reused in “King Kong”), their chef strongly objects to his daughter getting involved with Johnny, especially when he’s arranged for her to be married off to the prince of a neighbouring island. Needless to say it is only a matter of time before Johnny aggravates the situation, by breaking up that arranged marriage when he busts into the wedding and runs off with Luana. The fact that neither speak each other’s language seems to of little concern to either of them even though Luana does randomly start speaking almost perfect English when they run off to the island.
While it might seem that Johnny is the strong leading man, Luana is a great early feisty leading lady as she clearly is more than capable of looking after herself as proven on more than one occasion while even being the one who looks after Johnny when the pair escape to a neighbouring island as she dishes out tasks for him to do, while generally taking control of their situation. Johnny meanwhile seems quite content to screw around climbing trees for coconuts and making house with Luana with the most random bit of island life for him coming during the scene in which he appears to trying to take advantage of a turtle before proceeding to body board on the poor creature before dragging it up the beach and dumping it on its back!
A simple romantic tale with a dash of the South Seas to help add an exotic element to what essentially boils down to the usual formula of boy meets girl, girl’s father disapproves, boy gets cursed and girl jumps into a volcano. Ultimately though this is a fun enough watch and an interesting reminder of how times and ideas have changed.