Bird of Paradise
Cast & Crew
Dolores Del Rio
Richard "skeets" Gallagher
While cruising the South Seas Islands in a yacht, Johnny, a virile young sailor, encounters Luana, the beautiful daughter of an island native chief. Mesmerized by Luana's sensuous charms, Johnny decides to spend a few weeks on her remote volcanic island and bids his shipmates goodbye. Although he has been warned that she is "taboo" and cannot be "touched" because she is promised to a neighboring native prince, Johnny pursues Luana, and she encourages his advances. After she is caught kissing Johnny, Luana is dragged back to her camp by her angry father and the tribe's medicine man. Later, a sympathetic native woman informs the banished Johnny that Luana's wedding is about to take place. Johnny follows the wedding party and, during the pre-nuptual dancing, snatches Luana and carries her off to another island. On "Paradise," their private island refuge, Johnny and Luana live in romantic bliss for several weeks. However, while Johnny is dreaming of showing Luana the lights of San Francisco, Luana begins to worry about the curse of the volcano Pele, which stipulates that when Pele erupts, she must be sacrificed. As feared, Pele begins to erupt, and tribesmen, led by the medicine man, come to claim Luana. Johnny pursues Luana and, after nearly drowning in a whirlpool, is seized by tribesmen, who pierce him with a poison arrow. Tied to a stake at the mouth of the bubbling volcano, Johnny is about to die with Luana when his shipmates arrive and rescue them. Nobly accepting her fate, Luana, who believes that Johnny will die from fever unless she sacrifices herself, leaves the white men's boat with her tribesmen and gives herself to the fiery volcano.
Dolores Del Rio
Richard "skeets" Gallagher
John E. Burch
Archie F. Marshek
David O. Selznick
Bird of Paradise - Joel McCrea & Dolores Del Rio in BIRD OF PARADISE
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
Bird of Paradise - Joel McCrea & Dolores Del Rio in BIRD OF PARADISE
Bird of Paradise (1932)
For the male lead, Selznick cast the strapping, athletic Joel McCrea. According to McCrea, Selznick had seen him surfing at the beach in Santa Monica. Selznick told McCrea he'd cast him in a movie if McCrea taught him to surf. McCrea agreed, but Selznick never got the hang of it. However, he told the actor "I always keep my word," and gave him the lead in Bird of Paradise (1932). Cast in a bit part as a sailor who helps rescue McCrea from a shark was Creighton Chaney, the son of Lon Chaney. It was young Chaney's film debut. He would later be billed as Lon Chaney, Jr., and would have a long and successful career as a character actor, and as a star of horror films.
There was some urgency about starting production on Bird of Paradise because del Rio's contract stipulated that filming must begin by late January. So Vidor and screenwriter Wells Root left for Hawaii to scout locations without a finished script. As they toured the islands and explored local customs, they came up with additional story and characters. By the time cast and crew arrived, they had cobbled together some semblance of a screenplay, which included a shark attack, McCrea riding a sea turtle, del Rio dancing a topless hula in a ring of fire, and of course, a raging volcano. Vidor later called the film a "potboiler."
Vidor had hoped to work with a small crew and shoot verite style, as he had on Hallelujah!, but that was not Selznick's way. In his autobiography, A Tree Is a Tree (1953), Vidor lamented the damage to the landscape inflicted by the studio's trucks, equipment and crews. That wasn't the only problem he encountered. Weeks of bad weather left him with very little usable footage and crews waiting idly for a break in the storms. There were compensations. While in Hawaii Vidor, whose marriage to actress Eleanor Boardman was rocky, fell in love with the script girl, Elizabeth Hill. They would marry later that year after his divorce from Boardman. Finally, Vidor and his crew gave up and went back to California, completing their location work on Catalina Island, and in a native village set that had been built at the studio in their absence (it was also used the following year for King Kong, 1933).
Max Steiner's lush score for Bird of Paradise used traditional Hawaiian melodies mixed with original music, and the instrumentation included vibraphone, marimbas, ukuleles, and steel guitar. That kind of pastiche Polynesian score would become a cliché in movies about the South Seas, but was first used in Bird of Paradise, its rhythms heightening the film's eroticism. Because it was the era when the Production Code was not being enforced, Vidor was able to include a swimming scene in which del Rio is apparently nude, and McCrea nearly so. For del Rio's sensuous dance, her costume consists of a grass skirt, and flower leis strategically glued to her naked breasts. Choreographing the dances was Busby Berkeley, who was not yet the acclaimed director of Warner Bros. musical extravaganzas. Selznick had seen and liked the dances Berkeley had created for Goldwyn musicals such as Whoopee! (1930) and Palmy Days (1931), and hired him for Bird of Paradise.
All the delays and extravagances sent Bird of Paradise far over budget. It had been budgeted at $450,000 and ended up costing at least $725,000. Though the film performed well at the box office, it did not make back its cost. Plans to re-team McCrea and Del Rio in a film version of W. H Hudson's novel, Green Mansions, which had a theme similar to Bird of Paradise about a white man falling in love with a "savage", were scrapped. A 1959 film version of Green Mansions starring Audrey Hepburn and Anthony Perkins was not a success either.
Bird of Paradise inspired a number of similar white man-native girl romances from the 1930s to the 1950s. It was remade in 1951, with Louis Jourdan and Debra Paget in the leading roles, but that was a different time, and a much different film. There was little of the eroticism that made the 1932 version so memorable. In his 1992 biography of Selznick, Showman, David Thomson acknowledges that the 1932 Bird of Paradise is racist and often ludicrous. "This film is hokum," he writes. "But the love scenes are beguiling; Del Rio's laugh, her winged eyelashes, the peril with which flowers cling to her breasts, and the suggestiveness of the dialogue are still arousing." Clearly, Selznick got the "three wonderful love scenes" that he wanted.
Producer-Director: King Vidor
Executive Producer: David O. Selznick
Screenplay: Leonard Praskins, Wells Root, Wanda Tuchock
Based on the play by Richard Walton Tully
Cinematography: Lucien Andriot, Edward Cronjager, Clyde De Vinna
Editor: Archie F. Marshek
Art Direction: Carroll Clark
Music: Max Steiner
Choreography: Busby Berkeley (uncredited) Cast: Joel McCrea (Johnny Baker), Dolores del Rio (Luana), John Halliday (Mac), Richard "Skeets" Gallagher (Chester), Bert Roach (Hector), Creighton Chaney [Lon Chaney, Jr.] (Thornton), Napoleon Pukui (The King).
by Margarita Landazuri
Bird of Paradise (1932)
Onscreen credits call the film "King Vidor's Production," but Vidor is not given a separate directorial credit. Hollywood Reporter reported that RKO purchased the Tully play for $375,000. RKO borrowed King Vidor from M-G-M for the production. An early pre-production news item in Film Daily announced Herbert Brenon as the assigned director. According to modern sources, M-G-M head Louis B. Mayer was persuaded to lend Vidor to RKO at the special request of his son-in-law, David Selznick. A May 1931 Film Daily news item announced that Bird of Paradise was to be shot in the "recently improved Technicolor process." This plan was apparently abandoned, however. According to studio production files, some of the exteriors of the film were shot on the Hawaiian Islands. Location shooting, which was plagued by a drenching, windy "Kona storm," began on February 7, 1932 and was completed on March 8, 1932. The weather was so stormy and unpredictable that much of the script was abandoned or rewritten to accommodate the changing shooting conditions. Production supervisor John E. Burch complained in Western Union telegrams and letters to RKO executive Val Paul that none of the Hawaiian locations were "primitive" enough for the story's demands and had to be altered or built upon to satisfy Vidor. In his autobiography, Vidor confirms his dissatisfaction with the Hawaiian settings and the chaotic scriptwriting process. In a modern interview, Vidor describes how he and his cinematographer filmed the underwater love scenes: "I had an idea to try to make a back light out of the bubbles. I had a boat then, and we could fish at night, and I had seen the phosphorescent light that some fish have. I thought if we could have a back light in a similar way, we could have a great love scene under the water." Vidor adds that, despite his efforts, he was "a little disappointed" with the scenes. According to a February 1932 Film Daily news item, Busby Berkeley was hired by RKO to "put a chorus through its paces" during the production. In the modern interview, Vidor confirms that Berkeley choreographed the village dance scene.
According to files in the MPAA/PCA Collection at the AMPAS Library, Jason S. Joy, Director of the Studio Relations Office of the AMPPA, suggested in a January 16, 1932 letter to Selznick that certain lines and shots be eliminated or altered, including a shot showing a baby feeding at her mother's breast and shots depicting the sacrifice of a chicken. Although various state censorship boards objected to some of the dancing scenes, only British Columbia objected to the closeups of Dolores Del Rio swimming half-naked underwater. Pennsylvania censors objected to a scene in which a "small boy, with Johnny's shirt on standing with back to camera, when you see a shadow of his sex on the shirt." Modern sources and Vidor's autobiography mention that other scenes were shot on Santa Catalina Island, at the RKO-Pathé lot in Culver City, where a "native" village was built, and at a water tank at the First National lot in Burbank. According to Hollywood Reporter, the film's much publicized production problems and its $1,000,000 budget made it the "brunt of more gags than anything that has ever happened around the town since Cecil B. DeMille was in production with the King of Kings ." A modern source, which lists the film's budget as $752,000, claims that Max Steiner spent $20,000 to purchase marimbas, ukeleles, steel guitars and vibraphones for the production. Bird of Paradise was remade with Louis Jordan and Debra Paget in 1951 by Twentieth Century-Fox.