Island in the Sun (1957): Robert (All the King’s Men) Rossen’s Interracial Melodrama, in which Harry Belafonte Almost Kisses Joan Fontaine

Island in the Sun, Robert Rossen’s widescreen version of Alec Waugh’s novel about racial and sexual tensions in the West Indies, was considered to be audacious and controversial at the time due to its handling of the interracial angle, particularly a scene in which Harry Belafonte touches and almost (but not quite) kisses Joan Fontaine.

Our Grade: C+ (** out of *****)

Island in the Sun
Island in the Sun 1957.jpg

Poster by Jock Hinchliffe

This ensemble-driven tale stars James Mason, Joan Fontaine, Dorothy Dandridge, Joan Collins, Michael Rennie, and Harry Belafonte. (Dandridge and Belafonte made three films together).

Seen from today’s perspective, this melodrama suffers from a stiff screenplay and some preposterous dialogue, lacking the kind of emotionalism that marked the best genre efforts of that era, movies directed by Nicholas Ray, Douglas Sirk, and Vincente Minnelli.

The whole movie seems compromised, as if director Rossen, better known for the Oscar-winning drama All the King’s Men (1949) was not sure of his own convictions or how to portray them in an intelligent and engaging way on the big screen.

Set on a fictional West Indian island of Santa Marta, the movie interweaves the stories of a dozen characters, most of them troubled, for one reason or another, and at least three interracial couples.

Maxwell Fleury (James Mason) is a wealthy white plantation owner, who suffers from an inferiority complex  on an number of levels.   He lives with his beautiful wife Sylvia (Patricia Owen), who is jealous of him and his younger sister Jocelyn (Joan Collins).  For his part, Maxwell thinks Hilary Carson (Michael Rennie) is having an affair with his wife. Colonel Whittingham, the head of police, who investigates a murder that we viewers are privy to.  Meanwhile, Jocelyn is courted by Evan Templeton (Stephen Boyd), a WWII hero who’s the son of the island’s Governor, Lord Templeton.

To prove his worth, Maxwell stirs up matters in the upcoming elections, by opposing David Boyeur (Harry Belafonte), a young black man representing the common people and is seen as threat to the dominant white elite.  The local union leader is the closest that the film comes to having a positive, populist hero. Jocelyn worries about the effects that his campaign might have on her engagement to Evan, a fake.

Mavis Norman (Joan Fontaine), an older white British femme, who shows romantic in David, but other than chat neither is courageous enough to make a move or say something personal. Interestingly, unlike Sirk’s All That Heavens Allows, the age difference between Mavis and Davis doesn’t pose as much a problem as their race and social class differences.

The other interracial romance is between Margot Seaton (a stunning Dorothy Dandridge, in yellow, red, and orange dresses), a black drugstore clerk, and Denis Archer, who’s aide to the Governor.

The most preposterous scenes, even by standards of 1950s melodrama involve an older white couple, Julian Fleury and his wife (Diana Wynyard), who are both hiding secrets from their children about the race of their ancestors. The revelations are so outrageous that the only way to react to them is as high-camp, even if most are delivered in a straight, decidedly not juicy manner.

Of the three intersecting romances, the least interesting, dramatically, is the one between Stephen Boyd, as an Oxford-bound war hero, and Joan Collins, though it’s not their fault.

The film is nicely shot in the colorful sites of Barbados and Grenada, standing in for the story’s islands.

Despite its honorable intentions, Island in the Sun comes across as borderline racist, in the way that it treats the locals, as background material, part of the scenery.  They are always seen in groups, working diligently on the fields, and loyally serving their white masters, with a smile on their faces. (“The lunch is ready, madam”)

Harry Belafonte delivers the nice calypso song, which became a classic tune, and stayed on the charts independently of the picture.

It’s fair to say that there is not a single good performance in a picture that might have too many characters for its own good.

Dorothy Dandridge, making sort of a “comeback,” is totally wasted in a small, thankless part, even though she receives third billing. After becoming the first black woman to be nominated for the Best Actress Oscar,  for Carmen Jones, in 1954, Dandridge did not work for three years.  Some say it’s due to the bad advice she got from her lover at the time, director Otto Preminger, who had cast her in Carmen Jones.

James Mason, stuck with a poorly-written part as the insanely jealous husband, ,ight have given one of the few weak performances in an otherwise long and very impressive career.  Early on, suspecting that his wife is having an affair, he tears up her dress before forcing himself on her.

A box-office hit, Island in the Sun, released on June 13, was 1957’s sixth top-grossing film, generating more than $10 million in tickets sale.

Credits:

Directed by Robert Rossen
Produced by Darryl F. Zanuck
Written by Alfred Hayes, based on Island in the Sun by Alec Waugh
Music by Malcolm Arnold
Cinematography Freddie Young
Edited by Reginald Beck

Production company: Darryl F. Zanuck Productions

Distributed by 20th Century Fox

Release date: June 12, 1957

Running time: 119 mins
Budget $2,250,000
Box office $5 million (rentals)

Cast

James Mason as Maxwell Fleury, the family’s son
Harry Belafonte as David Boyeur, a black politician
Joan Fontaine as Mavis Norman, an upper class white woman
Joan Collins as Jocelyn Fleury, the alluring sister of Maxwell
Dorothy Dandridge as Margot Seaton, the beautiful Indian drug store clerk
Michael Rennie as Hilary Carson, a retired war hero
Patricia Owens as Sylvia Fleury, Maxwell’s wife
John Justin as Denis Archer, the governor’s aide
Stephen Boyd as Euan Templeton, the governor’s young son
Diana Wynyard as Mrs. Fleury, the mother of Maxwell and Jocelyn
Basil Sydney as Julian Fleury, the husband of Mrs. Fleury and father of Maxwell and Jocelyn
John Williams as Colonel Whittingham, the head of police
Ronald Squire as Governor Templeton, the governor of the island, and Euan’s father.
Hartley Power as Bradshaw, an American journalist visiting Santa Marta.