Bird of Paradise (1932)
Director: King Vidor
Cast: Dolores del Rio, Joel McCrea, John Halliday
Synopsis: A native girl falls for a visitor to her island, but she’s chosen to be sacrificed to the volcano god.
If I had to be trapped on a secluded South Sea island, I can’t think of many cuties I’d rather be trapped with than the 27-year-old Dolores del Rio — especially if she spends most of her time frolicking topless apart from a floral lei that has been strategically taped to her breasts, as she does in King Vidor’s Bird of Paradise. It’s a pre-Code escapist fantasy, designed to distract depression-era audiences from the sometimes harsh reality of their lives, and there’s little doubt that it would have succeeded admirably in its objective back in 1932.
An athletic young Joel McCrea (Gunsight Ridge, The Most Dangerous Game) plays Johnny Baker, a crewman aboard a yacht that, as the film opens, is negotiating treacherous waters on its approach to a remote South Seas island. The friendly natives sail out to greet the yacht once it has successfully passed the coral rocks that encircle the island, and those aboard the yacht cement their friendship by throwing trinkets to them. However, in the distance, high atop the island, smoke rises lazily from a volcano, foreshadowing the troubles that lie ahead. Because, let’s face it: any movie which features a volcano so early on — even if it is in the background — is issuing a warning to its audience that she’s going to blow her top sometime before the end credits roll.
Things turn potentially ugly earlier than expected, though, when a hungry shark intrudes on the welcome party. The islanders head back to safety, but Johnny gets tangled up in a rope and falls overboard. It looks as if he’s shark food until a shapely young native girl (del Rio) cuts the rope that binds Johnny, setting him free and saving his life.
Later that night, she swims naked to the yacht to entice Johnny back into the water. Naturally, Johnny doesn’t need much persuading and follows her back to shore, where he teaches the girl — whose name we later learn is Luana — how to kiss. In fact, he pretty much forces herself upon her, but after some token resistance Luana proves to be an enthusiastic pupil. The following day, Johnny understandably instructs his crewmates to go on without him and to pick him up on their way back, and prepares himself for a fortnight of sun, sea and sex. However, it turns out that not only is Luana the daughter of the Island’s ruler, and betrothed to royalty from another island, but she’s also expected to throw herself into that simmering volcano if it should ever start boiling over in order to appease the native’s angry Gods.
Luana’s dad is none too pleased about his daughter carrying on with a white man, but his efforts to break them up serve only to make the couple more determined to see one another, and they flee to a neighbouring island where all that semi-naked frolicking takes place. Exactly why Luana’s people never bother coming after them until the volcano starts playing up is never made clear, but it allows Vidor to establish the growing depth of the young lovers’ feelings for one another, even though Johnny’s presumption that he will take Luana back to civilisation — or the fact that he would even want to, rather than remaining on this island paradise — grates a little. Although the pace drops during this interlude, Vidor ensures our attention is retained by having the lissome del Rio skipping around in that lei, teasing us with the notion of how nice it would be to be on that island with her…
But watching some young guy who’s fitter and better looking than you enjoying the kind of carefree existence of which you dream can quickly wear pretty thin, so Bird of Paradise returns to its storyline when that volcano in the distance finally starts belching ash into the sky and the natives decide it’s time to retrieve their nubile peace offering to the Gods. Johnny tries to give chase after they snatch her, but in addition to an erupting volcano, he has to contend with an earthquake and a whirlpool.
You won’t find much psychological depth to the characters in Bird of Paradise. It’s an old-fashioned romantic adventure made at a time when audiences were less demanding and filmmakers not so ambitious. But then it’s the film’s simplicity that makes it so engaging, thanks to some appealing performances from a couple of leads at the height of their physical beauty, assured direction from King Vidor, and the use of authentic Hawaiian locations (although bad weather apparently forced the shoot to return to the RKO studios before location work was complete). And as Bird of Paradise is a pre-Code movie, it contains a more adult attitude towards sexual attraction than it would have been allowed a few years later. It also has the kind of unusually downbeat, poignant ending that would have been considered unthinkable within a couple of years.
(Reviewed 25th January 2014)