Sunday, March 6, 2022

#2,719. Bird of Paradise (1932) - The Men Who Made the Movies

Shortly after seeing King Vidor’s 1932 adventure / romance Bird of Paradise, Orson Welles commented that he thought its star, Dolores Del Rio, represented “the highest erotic ideal”. Ms. Del Rio is positively alluring as Luana, the island girl who falls in love with a sailor, and she is undoubtedly the best thing in what is an otherwise troubling motion picture.

A yacht sailing the Pacific makes its way to a tropical island, where its crew, including sailor Johnny Baker (Joel McCrae), are greeted by the natives. When Johnny is accidentally pulled overboard (by a shark he was trying to reel in), one of the natives, the beautiful Luana (Del Rio), dives in to save him.

Later that night, at a banquet hosted by the natives, Johnny once again meets Luana, and it isn’t long before the two have fallen in love. But Luana has been promised to another man, a prince on a neighboring island. What’s more, a nearby volcano has shown signs of waking up, and if it continues to spew smoke, Luana will be the next sacrifice to appease the volcano God!

Not willing to lose the woman of his dreams, Johnny whisks Luana away to a remote island, where he hopes they will live happily ever after. But should Luana’s people track them down, it could mean death for them both!

Bird of Paradise got into some trouble with censors as well as the Catholic League of Decency, all of whom objected to a nighttime underwater scene in which a nude Luana playfully swims alongside Johnny. While this certainly wasn’t the only pre-code film to feature nudity (The Sign of the Cross and Tarzan and his Mate, among others, also contained brief nude scenes), this sequence is sexy enough to have raised a few eyebrows back in the day. As for Del Rio, she is stunning, and while her character doesn’t speak English (save a few words towards the end, which she picked up from Johnny), She and Johnny have no problem communicating (the scenes when they are alone on their island are the film’s most romantic). Also turning up in a small supporting role, playing one of Johnny’s shipmates, is Lon Chaney Jr., making his screen debut (he was credited as Creighton Chaney).

Unfortunately, Bird of Paradise isn’t exactly kind to its non-white characters; when we first meet the natives, who have rowed out to greet the yacht, Johnny and a few others toss small objects overboard, and laugh a little as their new friends dive in to retrieve them. Even worse than this is the film’s finale, a grim reminder of a time when it was taboo to feature a romantic relationship between a Caucasian and any other race (these last few minutes actually pissed me off).

Bird of Paradise does have its strengths, from the captivating Delores Del Rio to its wonderfully shot underwater scenes (both nude and otherwise). But nowadays its more a relic of a bygone era, when Hollywood - and indeed the world - was belligerently intolerant.
Rating: 5.5 out of 10

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