Marsha Mitchell, a traveling dress model, stops in a southern town to see her sister who has married a Ku Klux Klansman. Marsha sees the KKK commit a murder and helps District Attorney Burt Rainey in bringing the criminals to justice.
A young man falls overboard and is saved by a beautiful Polynesian girl. They fall in love, but their idyll is smashed when the local volcano begins to erupt. The man discovers that the local custom is to sacrifice a young woman to the volcanic gods. They try to escape but realize that "east is east and west is west, and never the twain shall meet." Written by
There was a certain kind of picture in the "pre-code" era, in which the licentiousness of the times would throw up any kind of strange fantasy. In the most significant period of sexual liberation before the 1960s, and still in an era where plucking a bride from a primitive culture did not seem a bit dodgy, a picture like Bird of Paradise could exist. A yarn like this would be the stuff of corny B-flicks a few decades later, but back in 1932 it was acceptable A-feature material.
So what we have here is a rather odd dichotomy. A daft storyline, yet one pulled off with panache. The producer and director is King Vidor, one of the most uniquely talented filmmakers of all time, and what's more he appears to have taken Bird of Paradise very seriously. His camera set-ups give an almost documentary feel to the proceedings. He doesn't force us in with point-of-view shots, or make us coldly objective, but often has us peeping over shoulders or from behind props, like an extra amid the action. This not only gives us the feeling of being there, it is also incredibly vivid and dynamic. He directs with a mixture of realism (most of the extras were genuine Polynesians) and bizarre stylisation, culminating in rituals which become macabre and frenzied riots.
Bird of Paradise also includes a couple of "before they were famous" curios. Those wild tribal dances are choreographed by Busby Berkeley. His stark, abstract formations are already evident, and nicely suit the feel of this picture. Then there is music by Max Steiner, composing what happens to be one of the earliest examples of an orchestral backing score in a talking picture. Steiner's score is a little awkward in its mixing, but melodically it is fine, establishing themes for different characters, setting tones, matching action but never once threatening to upstage the images. Berkeley and Steiner would soon take up residence at Warner Brothers, and the rest would be history. Oh, and there's one more curio, in that you several times clearly hear the Hawaiian word "wiki", nearly seventy years before anyone thought of joining it to "pedia".
The cast of Bird of Paradise are a rather odd bunch, but it doesn't seem to matter. The ship's crew members are filled out with a number of comedy supporting players, like 'Skeets' Gallagher and Bert Roach. They make the onboard scenes a little more interesting, but their appearances are fleeting and their performances muted enough that they never threaten to overbalance the picture or make it too farcical. Lead man Joel McCrea was a competent rather than an exceptional actor, but he has the ideal physique and manner for the character. Importantly he is also a generous player, who never attempts to steal the scene. And finally we have Dolores del Rio, of course looking far more Hispanic than Polynesian, but nevertheless convincing as a native woman, and certainly vivacious.
In spite of, or perhaps because of the talkies being firmly established and no longer stilted, Bird of Paradise seems more than anything like a silent picture. It does not make do without dialogue, but what dialogue there is tends to be superfluous, the images speaking eloquently enough. In other words, you could have released it as a silent, and not needed many title cards. With its mystical, exotic tone we do not really need to hear the actors rabbiting on to retain a sense of naturalism. And yes, it does contain many moments that are somewhat laughable (such as Joel McCrea riding a turtle like it was a surfboard), but thanks to its inventive direction, spot-on casting, and professional production it manages, against all odds, to salvage some dignity.
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