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The Tuttles of Tahiti (1942) was based on The Saturday Evening Post serial Out of Gas which appeared from September - December 1939. Ironically, it had by written by Charles Nordhoff and James Norman Hall, authors of Mutiny on the Bounty, which had been a hit for Charles Laughton seven years earlier, and forever associated him with the character of Captain Bligh.
The film was first mentioned in the Hollywood Reporter as having the working titles of Out of Gas and later No More Gas. Originally, it was to be produced by Islin Auster, but Sol Lesser later took the helm after pre-production had begun. Laughton was to co-star with his real-life wife Elsa Lanchester as Emily (later replaced with Florence Bates) and Maureen O'Hara, who had co-starred with Laughton in Hitchcock's Jamaica Inn (1939), was briefly considered for the role as Emily's daughter; the part eventually went to Peggy Drake. Charles Vidor was assigned to direct, and the screenplay was adapted by Lewis Meltzer, Robert Carson and James Hilton.
The Tuttles of Tahiti features Laughton as the lazy Jonas Tuttle, whose handsome son Chester (Jon Hall) returns after three years at sea with nothing but a fighting rooster. Laughton decides to enter the rooster in a fight against the prized bird owned by Emily Taio (Bates), his rich neighbor and rival. Along the way is a Romeo and Juliet romance between Hall and Drake, a giant storm, and a happy ending.
The film began shooting on November 7, 1941 and extended through the Christmas holidays to late January 1942, when production was shut down due to Peggy Drake contracting pneumonia. It later resumed in February. The storm sequence, in which Chester finds an abandoned ship, cost $847,000 (the equivalent of $11 million in 2009 dollars). Modern audiences will flinch at the cock-fighting scenes, which were toned down after the PCA (Production Code Administration - the censor board that issued certificates of approval clearing American films for release) ordered the producers to remove scenes of bloodshed. In addition, the original story of an Anglo-Polynesian romance was also ordered to be changed to purely Anglo because the censors would not allow miscegenation, which was a violation of the code.
The Tuttles of Tahiti suffered from a skimpy plot and while the cast were competent actors, Laughton at least, clearly does not enjoy his role. As actor and author Simon Callow wrote in his biography of Charles Laughton, "There are of course, pleasant interludes, especially in his scenes with Florence Bates, an amateur actress, with whom Laughton, always attracted to the simplicity and directness that eluded him in his own personality, struck up a friendship. Here are the obligatory eating and chase scenes - showing him, as usual, in the one, shamelessly indulgent, in the other, comically fleet of foot, but there is no animating spirit. He acts like a little boy persuaded to play, but determined not to enjoy it. Laughton is often accused of mugging, implying a certain relish, an actor unrestrainedly indulging his favourite tricks, but that is a false definition of the word. Mugging is what an actor does when he is not engaged. He manipulates his mug into shapes, instead of reconstructing the impulses which would create those shapes. In The Tuttles, Laughton is mugging."
The Tuttles of Tahiti was not a box office success when it premiered in New York on April 29, 1942 (it went into general release on May 1st). "T.M.P.", the reviewer of The New York Times noted, "In a world of harsh realities it is pleasant to meet for a change such an irresponsible and altogether likably Puckish brood as The Tuttles of Tahiti who dropped in yesterday at Loew's Criterion. But alas! there is (or should be) a time limit even to visits from such genial and childlike folk--a social prerequisite that their RKO mentors failed to advise the Tuttles about until after they had overstayed their welcome by almost thirty minutes. An hour's visit would have been most satisfactory, for the Tuttles' enviable, carefree existence is not altogether unfamiliar."
Producer: Sol Lesser
Director: Charles Vidor
Screenplay: S. Lewis Meltzer, Robert Carson (screenplay); James Hilton (adaptation); Charles Nordhoff, James Norman Hall (novel "No More Gas")
Cinematography: Nicholas Musuraca
Art Direction: Carroll Clark, Albert S. D'Agostino
Music: Roy Webb
Film Editing: Frederic Knudtson
Cast: Charles Laughton (Jonas Tuttle), Jon Hall (Chester Tuttle), Peggy Drake (Tamara), Victor Francen (Dr. Blondin), Gene Reynolds (Ru Tuttle), Florence Bates (Emily), Curt Bois (Jensen), Adeline De Walt Reynolds (Mama Ruau), Mala (Nat), Leonard Sues (Fana).
by Lorraine LoBianco
The AFI Catalog of Feature Film
Callow, Simon, Charles Laughton: A Difficult Actor
"The Tuttles of Tahiti at Loew's Criterion", The New York Times , 30 Apr 42