Bird Of Paradise

1932, Movie, NR, 80 mins

Review

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A lavish South Seas romance with a thin story line but wonderful graphics is about all RKO could muster when filming Richard Walton Tully's ancient play for the first time. McCrea is a wealthy playboy on a pleasure cruise, his yacht accidentally driven onto a coral reef, which lands him on an exotic Polynesian island where he meets the devastatingly beautiful Del Rio, the reigning princess. They promptly fall in love, but are pulled in different directions by their own kind. McCrea's friends sneer at his aim to marry this foreign woman, describing the rigors of miscegenation, while the natives insist that Del Rio keep herself pure. Under their bizarre superstitions and rites, she must be held aloof, untouched, ready to appease the gods should they become disturbed. What this means becomes gruesomely obvious when the island volcano begins to erupt. It is Del Rio's job to propitiate the volcano god's angry lust as the "bride of Peli" by diving into Peli's lava-belching mouth. Against McCrea's imploring, Del Rio is helplessly drawn to her native tradition and ends her life to save her tribe. The production, shot on location in Hawaii, is lush with shots of coral reefs, sandy beaches, dense jungles, and towering mountains, permeated with half-naked natives performing tribal dances. Del Rio, Mexico's first international film star, displays a scantily clad, almost perfect body. Her limited acting talents and language difficulties were overcome in a role that requires the child-like performance of an innocent native whose sophistication is buried in a foreign character. There is a good and humorous play on Del Rio's language limitations when McCrea attempts to teach her English. The production, which cost a then whopping $1 million, was initially hampered in Hawaii when the "kono wind" appeared and stripped the palm trees. Crew workers had to spend days on end nailing branches back onto the trees before shooting began. But you'd never know this from the beautiful black-and-white results which stunned audiences first seeing the film. (Cinematographer De Vinna had won an Oscar in 1928 for his work in WHITE SHADOWS IN THE SOUTH SEAS.) Unique was Max Steiner's score, rich and bombastic, the first score to run continuously throughout a film. RKO executives thought this might distract audiences, but it proved to enhance a basically weak story. McCrea, of course, is the perfect all-American red-blooded boy, bedazzled with his South Seas lover, hand-picked by Vidor, who had accumulated a number of credits up to that time, including BILLY THE KID and THE CHAMP. The film was shot in record time, twenty-four days, since McCrea and Del Rio had other film commitments waiting, and some makeup scenes were reshot in the studio backlot. Vidor was unhappy with the script at the start, complaining to Selznick, who had just taken over production at RKO, that there was not too much to the story. The producer shrugged and replied in typical fashion: "I don't care what story you use as long as we call it BIRD OF PARADISE and Del Rio jumps into a flaming volcano at the finish." Selznick got what he wanted, as usual. (Remade in 1951 by Fox in color with even less story.) leave a comment

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