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Either by accident or design, MGM came up with the most unlikely partnership in the history of motion pictures in the late twenties. Imagine if you can a collaboration between Robert Flaherty, the filmmaker who pioneered the documentary form, and W. S. Van Dyke II, who was known in the industry as "One Take Woody" because of his quick, cost-saving shooting schedule. Flaherty's filmmaking method was just the opposite. His painstaking preparation for each film was legendary (Both Nanook of the North (1922) and Moana (1926) took over two years to complete) and yet these two men were brought together by MGM mogul Irving J. Thalberg for White Shadows in the South Seas (1928).
Rumor has it that Thalberg bought Frederick O'Brien's book because he found the title intriguing and not because of its powerful story which was a bitter denunciation of white civilization and its destructive effects on the lifestyles and cultural traditions of a Polynesian paradise. The central focus of White Shadows in the South Seas is Matthew Lloyd (Monte Blue), an alcoholic doctor who is shanghaied by an unscrupulous pearl trader and winds up being marooned on a Pacific island where the natives have never seen a white man before. As time passes, Lloyd is revered as a god but eventually his corrupt nature and inherent greed brings about the destruction of the island community through alcohol, lust, and disease.
Flaherty agreed to direct White Shadows in the South Seas because he was friends with the author Frederick O'Brien and was recognized as an expert on Pacific Island culture (He had spend over 20 months on the island of Savai'i in the Somoas filming Moana). Van Dyke was brought on board to head up the technical unit and the entire crew traveled to the island of Papeete in Tahiti for filming. Right from the beginning, things began to go wrong. The unit's interpreter was arrested a day after the crew arrived due to a past run-in with the local authorities. That situation immediately made the islanders suspicious of the movie people. Complicating the situation were tropical downpours that delayed filming, a climate that quickly spoiled food and basic edibles, and the unavailability of portable lights and generators for location shooting. And Flaherty's slow, meticulous method of filmmaking was trying the patience of the entire crew. In W. S. Van Dyke's Journal, the assistant director wrote, "Everyone hates everyone else's guts. They are fighting like mad. Flaherty doesn't know a thing....I have never seen a troop in a more deplorable condition. I am spending my days running around trying to pat them on the back and telling them to carry on as we will get home all the quicker. They are not sore at me, and when I am shooting they behave alright, but the minute Flaherty starts in, they start."
Flaherty knew his attempt to create a natural, ethnographic portrait was doomed when he came upon his disinterested crew members sitting on the sand, listening to a radio concert broadcast from the Coconut Grove, a popular Hollywood nightclub. Even though the natives were singing Polynesian songs in the nearby coconut grove, the crew were only interested in returning home. Reportedly, Flaherty said in disgust, "Why not go back and make the picture in the Coconut Grove?" He soon quit the production and returned home to Hollywood leaving MGM to frantically try and salvage the film.
Van Dyke was soon promoted to director and successfully rallied the troops to complete the filming in Tahiti. Back on the MGM lot at Culver City, he shot some additional material for White Shadows in the South Seas including a typhoon at sea and a shipwreck. Then the studio decided to make White Shadows in the South Seas their first sound film so they added synchronized music and sound effects including cries, laughs, whistling, and one spoken word, "Hello."
Despite all the behind-the-scenes difficulties, White Shadows in the South Seas was enthusiastically received by critics and the public alike. The cinematography by Clyde De Vinna won an Oscar and the film launched W.S. Van Dyke's directorial career. Ironically, Van Dyke would return to the South Seas the following year for another exotic picture - The Pagan - but this time, he completed the picture in one month and, in the process, delivered a profitable box office attraction.
Director: W.S. Van Dyke
Producer: Hunt Stromberg
Screenwriter: Jack Cunningham, Ray Doyle
Cinematographer: Cyde De Vinna, Bob Roberts
Editor: Ben Lewis
Songwriter: Dr. William Axt, David Mendoza
Cast: Robert Anderson (Sebastian), Monte Blue (Dr. Matthew Lloyd), Renee Bush (Lucy), Raquel Torres (Fayaway)
by Jeff Stafford