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The 1970s may have been the era of the disaster film with such box office hits as Airport (1970), The Poseidon Adventure (1972), The Towering Inferno (1974) and Earthquake (1974) but the genre has been popular since the silent era when Noah's Ark (1928) first awed moviegoers with its spectacular flood sequence. Certainly the most famous disaster film of the early sound era is San Francisco (1936) with its spectacular earthquake scenes but even more ambitious and almost overlooked today is The Hurricane (1937), directed by John Ford. While not on a level with the director's later masterworks such as The Grapes of Wrath (1940), How Green Was My Valley (1941) or They Were Expendable (1945), this tale of colonial repression and injustice is set against the exotic background of the South Seas.
Based on Charles Nordhoff and James Norman Hall's novel which was first serialized in The Saturday Evening Post, the narrative follows Terangi (Jon Hall), a native of the French-occupied island of Manakoora. When he is goaded into a fight with a white man in a bar, he breaks the man's jaw and is sentenced to six months in jail. Despite the fact that Terangi acted in self-defense, Governor Eugene De Laage (Raymond Massey) strictly adheres to the ruling and refuses to commute the prisoner's sentence. But Terangi is no model prisoner and escapes repeatedly, increasing his jail sentence with each break. In a desperate attempt to see his wife Marama (Dorothy Lamour) and child, Terangi escapes once more, accidentally killing a guard in the process. De Laage commandeers a schooner and sets out in pursuit of Terangi who has returned to Manakoora just as a hurricane is bearing down on the island.
Originally, producer Samuel Goldwyn had selected Howard Hawks to direct The Hurricane but changed his mind after the two men clashed over the production of 1936's Come and Get It (William Wyler was called in to complete it). John Ford, an admirer of the Nordhoff/Hall novel, campaigned vigorously for the assignment and got it, even though he had had a frustrating experience with Goldwyn over a previous film, Arrowsmith (1931). As both men were autocrats, the filming of The Hurricane was predictably stormy, starting with the choice of locations. Ford wanted to shoot the entire film in the South Seas but Goldwyn only approved a second unit (under Ford's supervision) to capture background footage in the village of Pago Pago on Tutuila island in the American Samoa. The bulk of the picture would be shot on a Hollywood sound stage where Goldwyn could monitor the production more easily.
For the casting, Ford wanted Joel McCrea to play Terangi but the actor convinced him that he was all wrong for the role. Instead the part went to Jon Hall, a relatively unknown actor Ford spotted in a play at the Hollywood Playhouse. Hall, who was born Charles Hall Locher and temporarily changed it to Lloyd Crane during an early phase of his acting career, was actually the nephew of the co-author of The Hurricane - James Norman Hall. But this connection had nothing to do with why he won the role and his handsome, virile features quickly established him as a dashing hero in escapist fare (Aloma of the South Seas (1941), Arabian Nights (1942), and Cobra Woman, 1944). His co-star, Dorothy Lamour, was also a minor player at the time but had already established her exotic appeal as a "sarong" girl with her first film, The Jungle Princess (1936). She would go on to play a variety of ethnic parts and South Sea natives (Her Jungle Love (1938), Typhoon, 1940) before joining Bing Crosby and Bob Hope in their series of "Road" comedies (Road to Singapore (1940), Road to Zanzibar (1941), etc.). It should be noted that both Merle Oberon and Movita Castenada were first considered for the role of Marama but Lamour is an ideal choice and "Moon of Manakoora," which she sings in The Hurricane, became her signature song. In addition to Lamour and Hall, the seasoned professionals include Raymond Massey, Mary Astor as Massey's wife, Madame Germaine De Laage, Thomas Mitchell as Dr. Kersaint, John Carradine as a jailer and, in the role of Father Paul, seventy-six-year-old British character actor C. Aubrey Smith, who insisted that the cast halt for a tea break every day.
In his biography A Hundred Different Lives, Raymond Massey describes the sprawling set of The Hurricane: "The Polynesian island which Sam Goldwyn had built on his back lot was a photogenic masterpiece. Its peaceful beauty, however, could be exploded and re-exploded at will. It had a controlled climate which no natural location could offer. Winds up to 150 miles an hour could be concentrated on the whole or any portion of the beach and village. Foaming breakers could devastate the island at cue. Tanks of water totalling 150,000 gallons could be poured on various points of action at will."
Lamour recalled the film shoot as well in her biography My Side of the Road (as told to Dick McInnes): "While filming the big luau wedding scene, he [Ford] had truckloads of real gardenias, ginger, and every conceivable Hawaiian flower delivered to the set each morning. All of the 200 or more extras wore gardenia leis around their necks, and every woman had flowers in her hair. This scene took weeks to shoot, and the beautiful scent floated through the air for blocks around the Goldwyn Studios. It was during this, the most pleasant part of the filming, that I first became an adopted Hawaiian."
Then the storm clouds gathered. Easily the most stressful, dangerous and difficult part of The Hurricane's production was the climactic catastrophe. Even though it occupies little more than twenty minutes of screen time, the sequence took five weeks to film. According to Lamour, "To make the great winds, the special effects department rigged up a dozen airplane engines with huge propellers. Then to make the wind whistle, they mixed a concoction of dried leaves and yellow sulfur, which photographed like dust, and flung it in front of the propellers. Each night after work, I was covered from head to foot with small nicks from the gale-swept leaves, and the sulfur didn't have the greatest effect on my eyes and throat."
Mary Astor, who also spent most of the hurricane sequence lashed to a tree with Lamour, Hall and child actress Kuulei De Clercq, didn't fare any better. In her autobiography, A Life on Film, she recalled, "...there was a tree. Oh, that tree! It was a big one, and it...was to last most of the storm, then uprooted, to drift out to sea...Close-ups had to be done inside the studio with a replica of the tree built into a tank, and it was made of wood and wire and papier-mch and canvas. There they would turn the wind machines and hoses on us, and there they suspended the tree so that it would turn as though its roots were being loosened." But one day things didn't go as planned and Astor heard the tree make a terrible crunching sound. "All of a sudden it gave way....with a sickening scary plunge. It held at the trunk, but I was suspended....head downward over the concrete floor of the tank twenty feet below. If the branch had come loose completely and if I hadn't been tied securely, it would have been serious." Curiously enough, the entire hurricane sequence wasn't filmed by Ford but second unit director Stuart Heisler and special effects expert James Basevi (who had also "designed" the earthquake scenes in San Francisco). Ford liked to personally supervise all of the filming on his movies but in the case of The Hurricane he made a rare exception.
When filming was completed on The Hurricane, Ford received news from Goldwyn that the producer wanted the interior scenes reshot, replacing the original dialogue by Dudley Nichols and Oliver Garrett with a rewrite by Ben Hecht. The decision infuriated Ford but Goldwyn would continue to tinker with the film in post-production. Ford later confessed to Dorothy Lamour more than thirty years later, "I was feuding with Sam Goldwyn so much over the cutting of the film that I never saw the finished film."
Despite the acrimonious relationship between Ford and Goldwyn, The Hurricane displayed no ill signs of creative differences and was enthusiastically received by the public and critics alike, ending up on many top ten lists of the year's best movies. It was nominated for three Oscars® including Best Supporting Actor (Thomas Mitchell), Best Music Score (by Alfred Newman), and Best Sound Recording (for which it won a statuette). Among the films Ford directed in the thirties, The Hurricane still holds up as a handsomely mounted entertainment, particularly in the purely visual, non-verbal passages such as Hall's escape attempts or the wedding feast. And it's a masterpiece in comparison to Dino De Laurentiis's bloated 1979 remake simply entitled Hurricane. Even though it was filmed on location in Bora Bora and starred Jason Robards, Mia Farrow, Max von Sydow, Trevor Howard and Timothy Bottoms, critics panned it and it was one of the biggest box office disasters of the seventies in relation to its costs.
Producer: Samuel Goldwyn, Merritt Hulburd
Director: John Ford
Screenplay: Oliver H.P. Garrett, James Norman Hall (novel), Charles Nordhoff (novel), Ben Hecht, Dudley Nichols
Cinematography: Bert Glennon
Film Editing: Lloyd Nosler
Art Direction: Richard Day
Music: Alfred Newman
Cast: Dorothy Lamour (Marama), Jon Hall (Terangi), Mary Astor (Madame Germaine De Laage), C. Aubrey Smith (Father Paul), Thomas Mitchell (Dr. Kersaint), Raymond Massey (Gov. Eugene De Laage).
by Jeff Stafford