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Ramon Novarro is quite charming in the title role of this little-known
All of the other stars also do a superb job: Renee Adoree, Dorothy Janis,
and Donald Crisp. It's amazing to me how natural and contemporary this
seems after 72 years. Novarro is funny, dramatic and quite believable in
the title role.
It just about breaks one's heart to realize that Renee Adoree died at the age of 35, about 3 years after the release of this film. If you enjoy her in this film, be sure to see her performance in "The Big Parade".
Donald Crisp's role harkens back to his character in "Broken Blossoms", and his is the only performance in this film that teeters a little toward the melodramatic side.
Viewers may also be interested to know that Novarro had attempted a legitimate singing career in opera and recitals, and it is his voice you hear in the overdubbed recording.
While this film is a silent with synchronized score, there are two
short scenes where Novarro sings a portion of the theme, "Pagan Love
Song". First, when he is thrown off the boat by Donald Crisp and toward
the climatic end when he lays down, humming the tune, and finds Crisp's
You can hear him tapping the cane against the bamboo hut "live", not added sound. Both of these scenes are in perfect sync (probably Vitaphone--sounds like disc surface noise). You can usually tell the "sound stage sound" as opposed to studio sound added later.
The reason for these two short sequences is probably because the film was filmed "on location" in the Pacific. At that time, location sound recording would have not been practical. The scenes were most likely shot on a sound stage at M-G-M. Many silents were still in production in 1929. Adding sound sequences, or "goat glands", as they were called, was a transitional way of making silents "part-talkies", as referred by Photoplay magazine.
I love this movie! I've seen it about four times, and every time I see it, Ramon Novarro gets cuter and cuter. He portrays the lazy and carefree islander to perfection, and Renee Adoree's performance is as heartbreaking as that in THE BIG PARADE. As a big fan of Donald Crisp, and used to his roles as kindly father figures, the lech he portrays in this film is a bit jarring, but he does an admirable job, considering he was really a big-hearted marshmallow. One of the greatest films in the twilight of the silent era.
In this funny, moving and magnificent film Ramon Novarro again proves that
he was one of the best actors of the silent era. Physically he is more
beautiful than any man has a right to be, but his beauty also comes from
within because he projects a warmth and humanity that few actors can convey.
The film itself is brilliantly directed by W.S. Van Dyke, with a witty and
poignant screenplay. It is also quite subversive as the Christian is
definitely the bad guy, and a life of pagan lust and laziness is held up as
the ideal. And it is all superbly shot in Tahiti.
The three other stars are also fine. Donald Crisp is lecherous and loathsome, Dorothy Janis spectacularly beautiful and delightfully innocent, and Renee Adoree unforgettable as the "whore with a heart of gold". Her unrequited love for Novarro is subtlely conveyed and very moving. But Ramon's joy of life, he is truly gay in the old sense of the word, makes this film live. See it with someone you love.
Okay, they over-use the theme tune, but isn't it gorgeous?
Henry Shoesmith is THE PAGAN, a happy, handsome half-caste, perfectly
attune with his South Seas home. Henry is also the owner of the largest
cocoanut plantation on the island, which arouses the greed of an
unscrupulous white trader with a beautiful native 'ward'...
Ramon Novarro is charming in this, his final silent film. Once again, MGM has their Mexican star playing another in his wide range of ethnic roles. Here he is a Polynesian, but he plays his part so well, and is obviously having such a good time, that he gives one of his most entertaining of performances.
He is served well by his excellent supporting cast. Dorothy Janis is Novarro's beautiful love interest - innocent, vulnerable & passionately in love. Donald Crisp is superb as the villainous white trader, consumed with lust for the girl he calls his 'Christian duty' and embittered with hatred for Novarro. His final fate is most proper & welcome. Renée Adorée scores as the island harlot, a staunch friend to both Novarro & Janis.
Directed by peripatetic W. S. Van Dyke, the location filming in & around Papeete, Tahiti enhances the story greatly.
Coming as it did at the very cusp of the new talkie era, this is essentially a silent film with an effective soundtrack that includes musical interludes & background dialogue. Novarro croons 'Pagan Love Song' (by Nacio Herb Brown & Arthur Freed) to good effect - giving Hollywood one of its first hit tunes - and his fine singing voice would be heard again in forthcoming films.
This short and sweet silent film stars one of the brightest stars of
the era, Ramon Novarro. Novarro's trademark energy is channeled into a
great performance as a half white half native on an island where he is
not accepted by everyone. He is a wealthy man but would rather spend
his time lounging in the sun eating bananas and coconuts than doing
business. He meets a beautiful native girl named Tito (Dorothy Janis),
half white and half native like himself. However, she is restricted by
her benefactor, a hypocrite Christian businessman (Donald Crisp) who
wants to train her to be white. The natives begin to have a love affair
much to the chagrin of the wealthy benefactor and a prostitute (Renée
Adorée) who is in love with Novarro.
As a silent made after the talkies swept entertainment, this film features a recorded soundtrack with sung music and sound effects. Sometimes the lips do not match the recording, but the track works quite well with illustrating the story.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
It's just as well The Pagan was shot as a silent, because it it had been a talkie, the camera would have been nailed down, the sound hissy and distracting, and the melodramatic excess of the plot overemphasized. As it stands, this is a wonderful and beautifully made film that highlights the great artistry developed by Hollywood during the 1920s. Though Ramon Navarro was a physically absurd casting choice as the half-caste Henry Shoesmith, he is never less than enchanting in the role, and it's a great pity that he was unable to make the transition to sound. Dorothy Janis, who apparently only made a handful of films in her brief career, is stunningly beautiful and effective as the pagan girl Shoesmith wishes to wed, and Donald Crisp is first rate as Slater, the cad who disguises his lust as an act of Christian charity. Shot to great effect by Clyde de Vinna on location in the South Seas, The Pagan is satisfying on every level, and comes strongly recommended to those who think they don't like silent film.
Slacker Henry Shoesmith (Ramon Novarro), the product of a white father
and native mother has inherited a business he couldn't care less about.
He'd rather pass his days taking in the beauty he was surrounded by on
his South Sea island. When devious capitalist Roger Slater (Donald
Crisp) shows up with his beautiful charge in tow to exploit the island
Shoesmith's world is thrown into turmoil. With all his attention on
Tito he ignores his business and Slater uses the opportunity to ruin
him. Forever the romantic, Henry's is more concerned with the pursuit
of Tito allowing him to become vulnerable to the iniquitous Slater
whose designs of Christian salvation for Tito have given way to carnal
This silent made after the advent of sound film clumsily adds some out of sync singing (the immortal Pagan Love Song) to remain au courant but it is a catchy tune and not much of a distraction from the beautiful Tahitian landscape in which the naive lovers reside.
Novarro's disposition of child like innocence and laid back style fronted by his killer looks and smile charm you into his corner from beginning to end. A handsome Harpo, he is more sweet than seductive, displaying a talent for slapstick that makes him impossible to dislike. Dislike is all one can feel for the greedy, vengeful and hypocritical Slater. Crisp picks up where he left off as a racist lout in Broken Blossoms turning on a dime to gain and maim when needed. Bedecked in a white suit, earring and snarling most of the time Crisp's effective silent heavies totally belies the wise patient grandfatherly parts that would mark his sound period. Loudly attired Renee Adoree as a prostitute with principles has some fine scenes and serves as an ironic counterpoint to the hypocritical but respectable Slater.
With the vile Slater as a punching bag The Pagan reveals some ugly truths about western society but Novarro's irrepressible boyish charm keeps it upbeat most of the way. I would also add the warning that for a 48 hour period and perhaps longer you will not be able to get The Pagan Love Song melody out of your mind.
Woody Van Dyke captained an entire MGM crew for a location shooting in
Tahiti for The Pagan where Ramon Novarro made his sound debut. This
film was done like Warner Brothers The Jazz Singer where it was silent
except for Al Jolson's musical numbers and some introductory dialog to
one of them.
Novarro looked properly exotic and did exhibit a pleasant singing voice when he sang one of the first songs ever written expressly for the screen, Nacio Herb Brown's and Arthur Freed's The Pagan Love Song which was a big hit in 1929. Novarro sang in a few of his sound films after The Pagan.
Ramon plays a half Caucasian, half Tahitian lad who owns some land and a store courtesy of his white father, but prefers the lazy life the natives enjoy. Donald Crisp is a white trader with young native ward Dorothy Janis. Novarro and she are attracted to each other, but Crisp wants her brought up as a proper Christian and doesn't want her associating with her own kind. Actually he's got quite the yen himself for her.
At the same time The Pagan was being filmed Rain was on stage in the legitimate theater. The influence that W. Somerset Maugham's classic about the South Seas and particularly that of the character of Reverend Davidson on Crisp's screen persona is unmistakable.
Woody Van Dyke did a fine job of direction with his cast which also included Renee Adoree. He would soon be going to Africa for a trouble plagued shoot in Trader Horn, probably on the success he had bringing in this film shot in faraway places.
The Pagan holds up well and it's a piece of screen history besides.
Although MGM was probably the biggest and most prestigious studio in
Hollywood, it was slower transitioning to sound than most of the other
studios. This is because the studio chief, Louis B. Meyer, thought that
sound was a passing fad and discouraged his filmmakers from using
sound. However, eventually MGM got on the bandwagon. So, while other
American film companies were making talking pictures in 1929, MGM was
still making silents--albeit one with SHORT songs included along with
the musical track throughout the film. This is the case with "The
Pagan"--a decent silent with a few sound additions. Part of the reason
for not using more sound was not just because of Meyer but because of
the practicalities of filming in Tahiti. It wasn't like boom mikes and
the like were readily available there!
"The Pagan" is a film with a very, very simple plot. In fact, the star of the film seems to be the locale--it certainly is not the rather scant plot. The movie is about a local man (Ramon Novarro) and his love for the ward of a nasty, nasty man (Donald Crisp). The problem is that the nasty guy HATES natives--and this is odd since he is a 'half-breed' as the film calls him. He also hates Novarro's character because of the ward--a native that BOTH men want. What will happen? See the film.
Overall, this is an incredibly beautiful and dated film. Terms like 'half-breed', 'half-caste' and 'pagan' aren't exactly nice when used today--and show a certain patronizing view of natives. Still, if you can look past this and the story (highly reminiscent of "Rain"), then it's worth seeing.
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