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This is a gorgeous film. Scenery of the island of Tahiti was exceptional.
Esther Williams and Howard Keel make a beautiful pair on screen. They seemed
to suit each other. They did appear together again in "Jupiter's Darling".
This was at the peak of their careers. MGM gave them a no nonsense type
story line and interlaced it with some nice songs and one spectacular water
ballet. I am an Esther Williams fan. I love watching this beautiful woman
on screen. And when she's wet, she's fantastic! In the underwater scenes,
with beautiful coral plants and colorful foilage, she seems to be like a
mermaid in her own world. Rita Moreno plays a feature role, in her early
MGM days, complete in sarong and long flowing hair. And look for Ben Gage,
Esther's real life husband at the time, making an exit down the gangplank,
carrying a little girl from the ship that brings Keel to the
A wholesome entertaining film from the MGM Musicals. Charming and fun to watch. You'll find yourself smiling all the way through the film.
When Pagan Love Song came out in 1950 it reflected the changing times
and the fact that the movies were competing with television. Ten years
earlier a film like this would have been done on MGM's backlot. But now
in order to get the audiences to a film about the south seas, you had
to show the real thing.
The film is lovely to look at without the plot getting too much in the way of the lovely Hawaiian scenery which substituted for Tahiti. My guess is that Tahiti probably was still recovering from the effects of World War II otherwise MGM might have shot the film there. In any event having been to Hawaii, I am of the firm opinion, further documented by Pagan Love Song that it is impossible to make an unattractive film in Hawaii.
The plot is real simple, Howard Keel is an American whose heard about the romantic south seas and wants to get away from it all. Esther Williams is a native Tahitian who'd just like to get to see some of the rest of the world. Howard has bought a copra plantation and he settles into the Tahitian ways very fast. Of course seeing Esther in a bathing suit swimming in the lagoon helped a lot.
One thing that should also be remembered is that at the time Pagan Love Song came out, the most popular musical on Broadway was South Pacific. That Rodgers&Hammerstein classic by itself created a market for a film like Pagan Love Song. I only wish the music were up to the standards of that show.
Arthur Freed did double duty in this film, serving as both producer and lyricist. He wrote original songs with Harry Warren, nothing terribly memorable and also it's his song with Nacio Herb Brown that serves as the title of the film. It was one of the earliest hits from the beginning of sound films.
Esther Williams as usual has some lovely water ballets. Of her it can truly be said, her like in Hollywood has not appeared again and is unlikely to.
Pagan Love Song is a pleasant piece of fluff entertainment, easy to look at with a plot not too taxing.
It's safe to say that PAGAN LOVE SONG contains the thinnest wisp of a
plot, even for an ESTHER WILLIAMS movie and barely a hint of conflict
which only separates her briefly from HOWARD KEEL after a stormy
argument over coconuts.
But MGM wisely uses Hawaii to substitute for Tahiti and filmed the whole fluffy romance in gorgeous Technicolor, provided songs for Keel to belt out in his robust baritone manner, and kept things moving nicely for a brief running time of 76 minutes. Result? One of the most attractive looking of all Esther's films, including a couple of dream sequences that have her appearing like a mermaid among the colorful coral reef backgrounds underwater. There's also a dreamy swimming scene set in the clouds, as Keel daydreams about the luscious swimmer.
It's a pity that none of the songs have much distinction and they are dropped into the proceedings with hardly any preparation--in other words, at the drop of a hat someone begins to sing with all the choreography intact. Keel's version of "The House of Singing Bamboo" is the best of the lot. It's only his second film, but he's already the pro when it comes to strutting his stuff for the camera.
He and Esther perform with a naturalness that seems to fit the faux Tahitian settings and seem completely well-matched as a screen couple under Robert Alton's smooth direction.
Summing up: An easy to take minor musical with enough eye candy to keep you pleasantly entertained even though there's almost no attempt at providing any real conflict in the easy-going storyline of a schoolteacher (Keel) who inherits a coconut plantation in Tahiti.
The other comment here is that this movie has no plot. Well, there is, but it's a thin one. But, consider the social context of this film, the beginning of the 50s, a time when musicals were king and the world was still optimistic. Things looked good: the horrible WW2 was over and the boys were home; the economy was so-so but people were hopeful: many ex-GIs had returned to school (a social feature which would bear fruits in the coming years); Rosie the Riveter had put up her tools and was now in maternity clothes waiting to socialize her daughters and make them aware that they could earn money just like the men and not have to stand for being deprived of the opportunity to do so; the Korean war was still a year away. Things looked good. So, why not have a bit of Hollywood costume mind pablum about a guy inheriting a small plantation in Tahiti, having a romance with swimarina Esther Williams in dark-skinned make-up and all of that. No plot? Sure, there is. It's just not very tension-fraught. Is that bad? To tell the truth, I don't think folks went to see this film for extensive intellectual challenges. It is full of memorable songs, lovely-to-look-at moments and some nice shots of Tahiti. Rosie and her back-from-the-war GI Joe likely held hands during the colorful dream sequences, unknowing that their daughters and granddaughters would be horrified at the chauvinist late 40s dialogue. I missed this film as a kid and saw it on video a few years ago. I loved Howard Keel and Esther Williams as a kid and would likely have loved it more then. But still, there were moments, e.g., during the confusing (and somewhat confused) dream sequence, when I could smile, losing myself in the same way that thousands who go to Las Vegas and see shows at the club do-- and it only cost me a few dollars! Check it out. I agree. The plot is scarce but, doggone it, it's sure fun to see.
Someone seemed to have forgotten that a film needs a plot when they devised this piece of fluffy entertainment. Still the people are pretty, the setting even more pretty, and the fantasy sequence the prettiest of the lot. The songs are forgettable - but just turn the brain off and enjoy.
Generally considered the worst of the films created by MGM's legendary "Freed Unit," and probably not helped by the ineptitude of its inexperienced and temperamentally unsuited director, Robert Alton, it still boasts the incredible radiance of Esther Williams, and baby, can that gal radiate. Beautiful wet or dry, she's perfect for fluff of this pitch and though disparaged by Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly for her lack of talent (which they encountered in "Take Me Out to the Ball Game," she's still consummately professional. Would you want to see a film this dopey starring a Meryl Streep? I don't think so. Williams projects vitality, sexuality, life-force and intelligence as the Tahitian-American aristocrat mistaken for a local peasant by island newcomer Howard Keel. A better script might have toyed with this classic musical mix-up for its entire length, but this one disposes of it by Minute 25, leaving it nowhere else to go. What follows is beautiful scenery (Maui standing in for Tahiti), some unmemorable songs (mostly by the great Arthur Freed himself), a lot of racial condescension which will set your teeth to grinding, an underused 17-year-old Rita Moreno, plus somebody's idea of "native dancing" with color co-ordinated hula skirts. Keel is sunny. broad-shouldered and shallow, but Esther's buoyancy keeps the thing afloat and watchable. I have to say at one time Keel fantasizes about her, and imagines her in a water ballet. Hmmm, I know if I fantasized about her, it wouldn't be in no stinkin' water ballet!
The most minor of Arthur Freed's minor MGM musicals, and one suspects he took it on because it showcased his (rather pedestrian) lyrics. It's a Tahitian treat, by present-day standards astonishingly racist, with the happy, stupid natives bowing and doing the bidding of Howard Keel, an Ohio teacher who has inherited a dilapidated tropical estate, and Esther Williams, who keeps saying she's through-and-through Tahitian and has dusky makeup to back it up, but comes equipped with a Nebraska accent and seems incapable of playing anything but American. About the most dramatic thing that happens is it rains, and Keel and Williams squabble and make up, while a very young Rita Moreno schemes to get them back together. The two stars look terrific, Keel runs around shirtless most of the time, the Harry Warren melodies are very easy to take, and Esther's one underwater ballet displays Technicolor hues that will probably never be seen again. The storytelling's lazy and condescending, Robert Alton is not a natural-born director, and inconsequential doesn't begin to describe it. For all that, it's fun and tuneful and unpretentious, and you may even enjoy the over-simplistic world view of 1950.
What a fascinating historical document, a dazzling Technicolor window
into the hearts and desires of the American public, or at least what
MGM was marketing to them in 1950! As long as today's viewer isn't
expecting to see a gripping love story or the conflict that might occur
when two radically different cultures attempt to meld, as long as plot
or logic or suspense don't matter much, this musical document is
amazingly entertaining! And perhaps it's entertainment value evolves
from secondary values such as color and location and decent singing.
It's not Mutiny On The Bounty!
I expect no one ever has watched an Esther Williams film for the intellectual challenge or for cutting edge plot development: first and foremost, we want to see Esther swim, to gloriously navigate the MGM waters as no one else has managed--in over a dozen films, this Million Dollar Mermaid dallied with her suitors, wore bathing suits perfectly, and ultimately proved who was boss in the romantic department, just as she does in this escapist delight. When Howard Keel sails into Tahiti (at the time there were no viable airfields accessible on Tahiti so the studio settled for Hawaii, and it's ravishing!), he mistakes Esther for a native swimmer, treats her with condescension and Esther goes along with the joke until she can turn the tables on him.
In the meantime, Howard learns how to live more gregariously with the local natives, a happy lot who seldom challenge his ways, and who are always happy to run off to a luau or a beach party when there's coconut to be husked. There are a couple of lavish MGM showpieces here, one of them a staged cellophaned hula extravaganza featuring dazzling hula action and a performer who utilizes his body as a percussion instrument: it's a frenzied five minutes!! And wait until you see the mind- boggling Dali-esque underwater fantasy ballet, a trip through a bright coral wonderland peppered with golden flashes from the local fishies!
Had Stanley Donen, director of such gems as Singin' In The Rain and Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, been allowed to direct, this might have been one of Esther's best--but she had suffered under his indifferent attitude toward her talents on Take Me Out To The Ball Game, and she refused to work with him, so the studio provided Robert Alton. Fortunately, we are spared Red Skelton or the other usual guest appearances which hamper the pace, and we are gifted with actual lush photography from the island of what appears to be Kauai for a 50's time warp, a zippy escape from any kind of reality.
"Pagan Love Song" is an enjoyable film. However, I heartily agree with
other reviewers that point out that the film really has little in the
way of plot. Instead, it's just an excuse to feature Esther Williams in
a swimming suit and hear Howard Keel belt out a few tunes. Oddly,
however, quite a few of the songs seem to have little to do with the
thin plot--like they randomly tossed in a few tunes.
The film is set in Tahiti, but I strongly suspect that the thing was filmed in Hawaii, as the extras all seemed to speak English and lacked French Polynesian accents. It begins with Hazard (Howard Keel) arriving on the island to take possession of a plantation. One of the first persons he meets is Mimi (Esther Williams) and he stupidly assumes she cannot speak English and is some simple native--not realizing she's well educated and from an excellent family. Now you KNOW that eventually the two will fall in love and marry but in between is a lot of nonsense--none of which seems particularly important. Additionally, there are the obligatory song and dance numbers. Overall, it's a pretty piece of fluff and no more. A pleasant diversion and no more.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Pleasant and generally interesting escapist fare. Howard Keel's
bachelor character(Hap) decides to ditch his Ohio teaching job when
presented with the fantasy opportunity of making a living in Tahiti,
exporting coconut products. He envisions a laid back life in a tropical
paradise, with native maidens swooning over him, which is what we get
in this film. Esther is the 'pagan' maiden he most connects with. She
is supposed to be half American. Although she looks like an over-tanned
Caucasian, she seems to have absorbed more of the Tahitian half of her
cultural heritage. But, now she is bored with her uncomplicated life
and is looking for an opportunity to move to the USA. Hap just may be
her ticket to this dream, after he too gets bored with the slow pace of
Although Esther is given top billing , this clearly is mainly Howard's film. I love listening to his rich baritone singing voice, and he does not disappoint here, in his second MGM musical. The frequent inclusion of natives(both real and stand ins) in the scenes between the romantic twosomes is a definite plus, along with the gorgeous Hawaiian scenery, as a stand in for Tahiti. In contrast to the pronouncements of some others that the songs are pedestrian, I found them quite adequate for the situations, no doubt aided by Keel's renditions. True, the total score doesn't compare with Keel's previous musical "Anne Get your Gun", nor his subsequent musical "Showboat", but it certainly tops the truly 'pedestrian' songs given him in his second paring with Esther, in "Texas Carnival". Most are love songs or expressions of the joy of their lives, but "Etiquette" is a fun novelty song that gets Howard interacting with his adopted native children. The plot is quite hokey, but who cares. This is a trip to paradise, as most of us imagine it, at least for a while. Yes, "South Pacific" was then the rage on stage, but the film version was far in the future. Thus, this film presumably helped fill the gap between, and was a modest box office success. Plus, this story is much less complicated,if that is what you like. Too bad Howard didn't get to star in that later film, as well.
Of course, there is some hip-swinging dancing, by both sexes, mostly during a festival, and mostly somewhere between the languid Hawaiian style and the frenetic traditional Tahitian style, as seen in "The Bounty", for example. Perhaps more impressive is Freddie Letuli's knife-juggling and twirling act. Although billed as the fire knife dancer, no flames were included here. A native Samoan, Freddie organized shows of Polynesian dancing, along with his act. Although not specified, the main dance scenes may have included his dancers. A few years before, he got the idea of adding flames to the ends of a twirling baton(not knife), and created a sensation.
A young Rita Moreno provides a much more authentic-appearing Tahitian(although actually of Puerto Rican heritage)than Esther. If I were Hap, I would have set my sights on her. Rita usually played subsidiary ethnic women, and still performs today, 65 years later! Her roles in "The King and I" and "West Side Story" are perhaps the best remembered. Unfortunately, her one song in this film was cut.
MGM signed Howard as their answer to Warner Brother's Gordon MacRae. In fact, Howard had already done, on stage, Gordon's later two most famous film roles, in "Carousel" and "Oklahoma", before scoring a big success in his first MGM musical "Anne Get your Gun", released earlier in '50. The present film was obviously a lower budget offering, without clear cut hit songs intended. Of course, he would go on to star in a string of popular musicals, with various top bona fide singing actresses as his leading lady. These include: "Showboat", "Calamity Jane"(my favorite), Kiss Me Kate" and "Seven Brides for Seven Brothers"(his favorite). He would again costar with Esther the following year in the musical comedy "Texas Carnival", but they had to share the spotlight with Red Skelton, Anne Miller , and Keenan Wynn. Their final film as the costars was, the quite different, "Jupiter's Delight".
This film is essentially a color remake of the very early talky(1929) "The Pagan", with a rather similar screen play, and which was actually largely filmed in Tahiti. The title and theme song of the present film are derived from the theme song for that film, composed by the productive team of Nacio Herb Brown and Arthur Freed, who also came out with the famous "Singing in the Rain" that year. However, "The Pagan", was not otherwise a musical, whereas the present film is a light musical. The other tunes were newly composed by veteran tunesmith Harry Warren, with Arthur Freed again doing the lyrics. Warren composed most of the songs for a number of MGM musicals in the late '40s and early '50s, after having done the same at Fox studios during their string of musical hits during the early '40s.
Incidentally, the word 'pagan' here obvious connotes an exotic primitive culture and mindset, rather than a strict religious meaning. In fact, it is derived from the Latin 'paganus', meaning rustic or primitive people. Christianity first took hold mostly in the larger cities of the late Roman Empire. Thus, the generally more recalcitrant empire paganus population was,for a time, symbolic of the old non-Christian beliefs and practices.
Currently available as part of the expensive Esther Williams Collection 2 DVD set
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