by Karen Burroughs Hannsberry
If the mention of Joel McCrea’s name gives you visions of him riding across a dusty range or careening about in screwball comedies, you’ll want to see him in Bird of Paradise (1932). Released in the middle of the brief pre-Code era, this million-dollar David O. Selznick-produced feature encompasses several screen genres – romance, adventure, and drama – offering something for everyone.
McCrea plays Johnny Baker, a wealthy young American seaman who makes a jaunt to the South Seas with a group of pals that include Mac (John Halliday), Chester (Skeets Gallagher), Hector (Bert Roach), and Thornton (Creighton Chaney – soon to be known as Lon Chaney, Jr.). The yacht is met by canoes filled with dozens of natives, and when Johnny falls overboard (while apparently trying to lasso a shark), he’s rescued from a certain attack by Luana (Dolores del Rio), who just happens to be the daughter of the island chieftain.
It's a tale as old as time – think West Side Story set in Polynesia: boy meets girl from the other side of the tracks (or the waves, if you will) and boy and girl fall in love, but their taboo romance is fated for tragedy. Between the couple’s watery meet-cute and the inevitable ending, though, there’s enough island flavor to season quite a delectable cinematic feast.
As you can imagine, Johnny and Luana don’t speak the same language, but they manage to communicate quite nicely – they get along so famously, in fact, that Johnny instructs his cronies to leave him on the island and pick him up when they’ve finished their sailing excursion. Johnny’s plan to remain behind meets with some skepticism from his pals, but they don’t know what we know – that Johnny and Luana shared a romantic midnight swim (with Luana sans clothing – this is pre-Code, after all), followed by a playful romp in the jungle and a kissing lesson, where Luana proved herself to be a willing and ready pupil.
The budding relationship between Johnny and Luana unquestionably provides the romantic aspect of the film, but the drama isn’t far behind. Luana, you see, is betrothed to the prince from a neighboring island, and her chieftain father is none too pleased with her sudden infatuation with the tall, pale sailor from across the waters. And in several scenes involving Johnny, the film more than earns its descriptor as an adventure film. In addition to the shark attack in the opening scene, we see him leaping from a cliff into a coconut tree, using a palm frond to slide down a steep embankment (with a squealing pig in his arms, no less), and riding on the back of a huge turtle as if it were a surfboard. We’re even driven to the edge of our collective seats when Johnny struggles to keep his canoe from being drawn into a whirlpool.
There are numerous scenes where verbal exchanges aren’t needed to share the feelings of the characters, like the tribal ceremony before Luana is to be wed to the prince. As Luana performs a ritual dance, a close-up on her face clearly shows her sadness and distress at the pending nuptials. But her demeanor changes when she spies Johnny among the throng; her face radiates with joy and even her movements become more animated. Her groom-to-be thinks that he is the cause of her excitement, and he breaks into a lively dance of his own – so lively, in fact, that he doesn’t see Johnny spirit Luana away. And, later, Johnny and Luana are alone on a secluded island and Johnny tells her that he’ll have to build a house. “A place to sleep,” he explains, closing his eyes and simulating slumber. Luana points to Johnny and herself, then kisses him repeatedly on the lips. “Oh, yes,” Johnny says. “For that, too!”
Filmed on location in Hawaii and expertly directed by King Vidor (his later pictures would include Stella Dallas and Duel in the Sun), the film takes the viewer on an emotional journey, accompanied by a Max Steiner score that makes Bird of Paradise one of the first movies to be supported by music from start to finish. And the sequences involving the native dancing were reportedly choreographed by an uncredited Busby Berkeley. But the main attraction of the film is the luminous Dolores del Rio. Noted for her beauty (playwright George Bernard Shaw once declared that the “two most beautiful things in the world are the Taj Mahal and Dolores del Río”), the Mexico-born actress was considered to the first major Latin American star to achieve crossover success, and one of the most significant actresses in the Golden Age of Mexican Cinema. She’s ideally cast as Luana – it’s not hard to see why Johnny falls for her, why he risks his life to be with her, and why he wants to take her back to his home; her Luana is at once courageous and vulnerable, spirited and gentle, determined, dutiful, and bold. While most of her lines are either spoken in Luana’s “native” language or in broken English, Del Rio clearly benefits from her foundation in silent film, using her striking countenance to reveal her character’s thoughts. She’s unforgettable in the pre-wedding scene where she dances in the middle of a fire-bordered circle, clad only in a grass skirt and a strategically placed double lei. (Again – pre-Code!) And her poignant final scene with Johnny is positively mesmeric – you won’t be able to take your eyes off her.
Bird of Paradise is loosely based on the play of the same name by Richard Walton Tully, which debuted on Broadway in 1912 starring Laurette Taylor and ran for 112 performances. It was also influenced by the 1931 semi-documentary, Tabu: A Story of the South Seas, by Robert Flaherty and F.W. Murnau (his last film before his car crash death at the age of 42). It was remade in 1951 by Twentieth Century Fox, with Debra Paget in the del Rio role.
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Karen Burroughs Hannsberry is the author of two books on film noir, Femme Noir: The Bad Girls of Film and Bad Boys: The Actors of Film Noir. She is also the editor-in-chief of The Dark Pages film noir newsletter, founded in 2004. She can be found on Twitter at @thedarkpages.