Bird of Paradise (1932): King Vidor’s Exotic Adventure, Starring Dolores del Río and Joel McCrea

King Vidor directed Bird of Paradise, a pre-Code romantic adventure starring Dolores del Río and Joel McCrea, based on the 1912 play of the same name by Richard Walton Tully.

Bird of Paradise
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Film poster
File:Bird of Paradise (1932).webm

The tale begins with a yacht sailing into an isolated tropical island in the Pacific Ocean, with the natives paddling out to greet it.

A shark sets off a panic with the crew and the natives, and Johnny Baker (Joel McCrea) attempt to catch it with large hook fails.  Native swimmer Luana (Dolores del Río) cuts through the rope with a knife she had earlier been thrown as a trinket, saving his life.

Observing how native men ritually carry off young maidens, Johnny seeks to do the same with Luana, but is stopped and castigated by the chieftain who’s her father. She has been promised by him to a prince on a neighboring island.

During the arranged marriage’s ceremony with a dance sequence, Johnny runs into a circle of fire, and rescues her.

They couple travel to another island, where Johnny builds her a house with a roof of thatched grass. However, their idyll is smashed when the local volcano on her island erupts. She confesses to her lover that she alone can appease the mountain, and her people take her back.

When Johnny goes after her, he is captured, and the natives decide to sacrifice both of them to the volcano. The couple is then rescued by Johnny’s friends and taken aboard the yacht.

However, Luana does not fit into Johnny’s world, and her father demands her return. In the tragic ending, Luana, believing that only she can save her people, “voluntarily” throws herself into the volcano.

King Vidor, under contract to M-G-M, was loaned to RKO producer David Selznick to make the “South Seas” romance. Shot on location in Hawaii, Vidor and writer Wells Root arrived on the island territory and began filming without a completed script.

The native dance sequences were shot in Hollywood and choreographed by an uncredited Busby Berkeley.

Bird of Paradise was one of the first sound film to use a symphonic score from beginning to end, based on experiments by producer Selznick and composer Max Steiner.

Other studios had also experimented with the score, like Alfred Newman for Samuel Goldwyn’s Street Scene. However, it was Steiner who first received credit for a score that was almost entirely through-composed.

Made before the Production Code was enforced, Bird of Paradise created a scandal due to a scene showing Dolores del Río swimming naked.

The film was a box office failure vis-a-vis its budget.

In the early 1930s, Hollywood produced a number of pictures that exploited “exotic” tropical locations, though these regions were fully penetrated by Western culture by the early 20th Century, including Hawaii.

Films of this genre included Murnau’s and Robert Flaherty’s Tabu: A Story of the South Seas (1931), the Tarzan adventure series in 1932, and King Kong in 1933.

Vidor presents this “tragic” romance as a clash between modern “civilization” and a sexual idyll enjoyed by noble-like savages.

The sexual promiscuity and eroticism exhibited in Bird of Paradise is a measure of the as yet unenforced prohibitions of the Breen Office, which explained the nude swimming, lovers hanging from bamboo poles trying to kiss, and Dolores del Rio sucking an orange, and then transferring the juice to McCrea’s fevered mouth.

Though the American and his Hawaiian lover try to transcend the racist and sexual strictures that doom their relationship, Vidor ended the film with what was interpreted as anti-miscegenation message. Selznick opted for a climax, in which the girl jumps into a volcano, making the movie sort of a cautionary tale about the fate of racially mixed couples.

Cast

Dolores del Río as Luana
Joel McCrea as Johnny Baker
John Halliday as Mac
Richard “Skeets” Gallagher as Chester
Bert Roach as Hector
Lon Chaney Jr. as Thornton
Wade Boteler as Skipper Johnson
Reginald Simpson as O’Fallon

Credits:

Directed by King Vidor
Produced by David O. Selznick, King Vidor
Written by Richard Walton Tully (play), Wells Root Wanda Tuchock, Leonard Praskins
Music by Max Steiner
Cinematography Lucien Andriot
Edward Cronjager
Clyde De Vinna
Edited by Archie Marshek

Production and distribution company: RKO Radio Pictures

Release date: August 12, 1932

Running time: 80 minutes

Note:

TCM showed the movie on September 28, 2020