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With: Dolores del Rio, Joel McCrea, John Halliday, Richard 'Skeets' Gallagher, Bert Roach, Lon Chaney Jr., Wade Boteler, Arnold Gray, Reginald Simpson, Napoleon Pukui, Agostino Borgato, Sofia Ortega
Written by: Wells Root, Wanda Tuchock, Leonard Praskins, based on a play by Richard Walton Tully
Directed by: King Vidor
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Running Time: 82
Date: 08/12/1932

Bird of Paradise (1932)

2 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Island Girl

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

During the Great Depression, I would imagine that the idea of "exotic" movies appealed strongly to people. It sounded like a chance to get as far away from everyday life as possible. Around this time, there were many kinds: East of Borneo (1931), Tarzan the Ape Man (1932) and its sequels, Shanghai Express (1932), The Most Dangerous Game (1932), King Kong (1933), etc. These were places where money didn't matter much and man could learn to live in a purer way.

King Vidor, who was already a highly acclaimed filmmaker and a three-time Oscar nominee for Best Director, was readily available for Bird of Paradise, even though it almost seems like a cheesy "B" movie in retrospect. This is not helped by its 80-minute running time or by the fact that it has been available in the public domain.

A young, fresh-faced Joel McCrea, who was a skinny kid of about 26 or 27, stars as Johnny Baker, a sailor who visits a South Seas island and falls for a "native" girl, Luana (Dolores del Rio). He's so smitten that he decides to stay with her. Unfortunately, she's the king's daughter and is forbidden to fraternize with the white visitor. She has two destinies, to be married to someone else, and to be sacrificed when the volcano god becomes angry. So Johnny steals her away to their own little island paradise.

The great Lon Chaney Jr. appears in one of his earliest roles, credited as "Creighton Chaney."

The major problem here is representation. The movie more or less assumes that the white perspective is the correct one. Luana is expected to learn English, though Johnny makes no effort to learn her language. The beliefs of the locals are brushed off as "hooey" and Johnny plans to take Luana back to civilization, where it'll be "great." He never even asks her. The movie becomes even more troublesome when it turns Luana's people into the story's villains, kidnapping and preparing to kill our heroes. Not to mention that Dolores Del Rio, a Mexican-born beauty, is made up in a most Western way.

Del Rio sells the romance aspect with the warm, wide-eyed way she gazes at her man. McCrea, on the other hand, makes it look as if she's just one in a series of girls and he'll get over her in a week or two. Aside from that, Vidor provides some lovely Hawaiian location footage -- including some terrific underwater stuff -- and some nice pre-code skin; for several scenes, Del Rio wears nothing but a skirt and several flower leis around her neck. (There's no actual nudity, but it's clear that there's no cheating going on either.)

It's hard to get excited about this movie overall. Vidor is not as much of a master director as his reputation might suggest. His uneven filmography is full of uneven films, and very few great films (perhaps only one: The Crowd). If Bird of Paradise had used a director that knew how to loosen up but still become involved in the story, it might have had a more sensual, romantic feel in addition to its exoticism.

Kino has rescued this movie from public domain hell, providing the first high-quality DVD and Blu-Ray transfers. The only extras are trailers for other Kino Classics. (Otherwise, you can watch free here.)

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