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Bird of Paradise

Bird of Paradise(1932)

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There was a vogue for South Seas exotica in the late silent and early sound era, films made up of varying degrees of ethnographic revelation, social commentary, and erotic spectacle. Moana (1926), Robert Flaherty's documentary portrait of life in Samoa, is the first expression of this idealized screen fantasy (every scene was carefully staged for his cameras), and the most spectacular expression comes via King Kong (1933), which exaggerates both the primitive exoticism and the primal fears of savage tribal culture to outrageous extremes. Along the way are films as varied as White Shadows in the South Seas (1928), The Pagan (1929), Tabu (1931), and King Vidor's Bird of Paradise (1932).

You wouldn't peg King Vidor, a social realist by nature, as a natural for such a subject, and the director himself dismissed 1932 Bird of Paradise as "a potboiler." He took the assignment with no script, merely a Hawaii location, a South Seas setting, Dolores Del Rio and Joel McCrea set for the starring roles, and a few directives from producer David O. Selznick, new ensconced as head of production at RKO. "Just give me three wonderful love scenes like you had in The Big Parade and Bardelys the Magnificent. I don't care what story you use so long as we call it Bird of Paradise and Del Rio jumps into a flaming volcano at the finish," is how Vidor (writing in his autobiography A Tree is a Tree) recalled Selznick's request. And that's what, after weeks of waiting out tropical storms to shoot location footage in Hawaii and completing the production with Catalina doubling Hawaii, he finally delivered. So many of these films revolve around forbidden love, often (though not always) about white male adventurers intoxicated by the primal innocence in a land of plenty and a culture of easy living. And so goes Bird of Paradise, with McCrea as Johnny, the all-American sailor who (with the blessing of his paternal captain) jumps ship to spend time on a tropical island and the chief's beautiful young daughter Luana (Del Rio), who is betrothed to the prince of another island. But of course.

McCrea, in an early leading role, makes Johnny quite the strapping specimen: athletic, courageous, generous, a real boy scout but with a red-blooded passion for adventure and for love. He's the youngest hand on an all-male crew in an undefined voyage through the South Seas and the rest of the crew (not really roughnecks -- they talk more like urban wiseguys than wharf rats -- but certainly more experienced than the boyish Johnny) looks out for the guy like he's a beloved kid brother. Del Rio, the bigger star in 1932, takes top billing here as the native princess. The Mexican-American actress doesn't look particularly Polynesian, especially next to the cast of Hawaiian locals as the tribal islanders, but her dark, exotic beauty contrasts nicely with McCrea's strapping boy-next-door, and she carries herself with a sense of regal confidence and assurance that gives Luana a gravitas beyond the usual virginal innocence of such portrayals. She's no passive maiden but a resolute woman. After Johnny has been warned to steer clear of her, she takes matters (romantic and sexual; there's little difference between the two in this pre-code production) into her own hands.

Luana is a fantasy, to be sure, dancing with abandon in grass skirts and resilient flower leis (which manage to stay put through all sorts of physical activity) or discovering the joys of kissing like a teenager eager to practice at any opportunity. But she is sexually forthright, a woman who knows what she wants and goes after it with a giddy playfulness and a sense of purpose. Her nude midnight past the sailboat is like a mermaid siren teasing sailor Johnny to follow, which he most assuredly does, but the only trap here is desire and romance. (She's not actually naked, but through the haze of underwater shooting and careful backlighting, you get a comely image in motion that suggests more than it reveals.) And in the interest of fair play, McCrea is constantly stripping off his shirt and displaying his well-toned physique.

They are a frisky pair of lovers and Vidor makes their affair both physically intimate and earnestly innocent as they leave their respective societies behind to make their own Eden as a star-crossed Adam and Eve. But their societies haven't left them. As Johnny pines for the bustle of the city and the marvels of modern technology, the roar of the volcano on Luana's nearby island calls her back to her fatal destiny. It is indeed quite the potboiler tale, an echo of Murnau's more resonant Tabu with a snappy American attitude in paradise, but Del Rio and McCrea bring both an unaffected earnestness and a youthful playfulness to the film and Vidor matches them with a commitment to the innocence of their love and the inevitable tragedy, just as requested by Selznick. Paradise: found and lost.

The rights to this film, produced by David O. Selznick for RKO, fell into the public domain decades ago and it has been a familiar title in VHS and DVD bargain bins as long as such things have existed. As a result, previous editions have ranged from unimpressive to unacceptable. Kino's edition, licensed from Selznick Properties and mastered for DVD and Blu-ray from an original nitrate 35mm print preserved by George Eastman House, is not pristine but it is light years ahead of any previous release (at least that I've seen). There is minor scuffing and surface scratches throughout the print and a slight loss of contrast, but the image is otherwise crisp and the clarity enables you to see through the scratches to the beauty of the image.

The soundtrack, however, is an issue, trebly and distorted, as if a weak source has been cranked up beyond its limits. The source is aurally thin but the audio mastering just makes it worse and mars what is otherwise the definitive home video edition of the film. There are no supplements beyond a trailer.

For more information about Bird of Paradise, visit Kino Lorber. To order Bird of Paradise, go to TCM Shopping.

by Sean Axmaker