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Bird of Paradise (Blu-ray Review)

4 Jun, 2012 By: Mike Clark

Kino Lorber
$24.95 DVD, $29.95 Blu-ray
Not rated.
Stars Joel McCrea, Dolores del Rio.

Back when my 8-year-old burgeoning hormones were already leaning heavily in the direction of Janet Leigh and Universal-International starlet Colleen Miller (she of the rainy-barn scene with Rory Calhoun in 1954’s Four Guns to the Border), my Grandmother Clark informed me that Dolores del Rio was the most beautiful woman in the history of the movies — certainly valuable information to file away for future use.

Well, it’s all subjective, but by the time I got around to seeing the then 61-year-old actress a decade later in John Ford’s Cheyenne Autumn (and this was when most people in their 60s actually looked as if they were in their 60s), you could still conceive of her getting hit on by cheeky musclemen in their 20s. According to IMDb.com, del Rio slept 16 hours a day to maintain her beauty in real life (an approach that has never worked for me), so it’s in keeping with the Bird of Paradise premise that an American pleasure-cruise sailor (Joel McCrea) would become instantly smitten and then fall head over heels from the second he spots her on some primitive island. And this is despite the fact that she can’t speak English (at first), is unaware of radio (McCrea explains it) and that she’s also ignorant of kissing (McCrea explains this, too).

Still, we’re talking about a native chief’s daughter and thus, to a white guy, “taboo” — as she would be to anyone not picked out for her by the local power structure (see also F.W. Murnau’s indisputably great Polynesian career swan song Tabu from the year before, which got rock star David’s pop Floyd Crosby an Oscar for cinematography). And these string-pullers on del Rio’s so-called island paradise play it tough, what with volcano-sacrifice punishment for transgressions against the local law (which they don’t even do in modern-day Texas). Fear-of-volcano is also a major component of 20th Century-Fox’s tonally different (if long ago memory serves) 1951 Technicolor remake of this film, which starred Louis Jourdan, Debra Paget and Jeff Chandler (he as a character not even in this rendering). Possibly due to some rights quagmire involving the original play that spawned both movies — or just as possibly because my memory of the past 20 or so years is foggy — it doesn’t seem to me that the ’51 Paradise gets shown much anymore, even though it definitely touched some hearts during its network airings in the early ‘60s on NBC’s "Saturday Night at the Movies."

Whatever the situation, it does seem that this RKO version of Paradise is the one better known today, and certainly its credits are stellar. Not only was David O. Selznick the producer but King Vidor directed (after several years of having turned out some of MGM’s best pictures). Future Gone With the Wind composer Max Steiner did the music early in his own career, and there was even Busby Berkeley (just before he revolutionized musicals at Warners) as dance director for those scenes in which the populace let it all hang out before sending people off to that hot molten stuff.

This version has some affecting moments whenever the actors don’t open their mouths, including a faux nude swimming sequence with the leads that’s at least in faint hailing distance of the all-time classic erotic dip from 1934’s Tarzan and His Mate (it the only feature film ever directed by famed art director Cedric Gibbons — who, by coincidence, was married in real life at the time to del Rio). McCrea looks very trim here, though he has to wear getting-gamey garb throughout — while his co-star’s “Luana” character (like primitive island dwellers everywhere) has had access to a Lady Schick or whatever it was that women were using in 1932.

Still, the whole concept here is kind of … strange. Not only was a lot of the film shot on Catalina Island after a pricey production trip to Hawaii fell prey to foul weather; it almost seems to be taking place on Catalina (lava tributaries aside), so accessible is the locale to McCrea’s passengers. With one of them played by Lon Chaney Jr. when he was still using his birth name (Creighton), these guys are basically your standard rummies-in-yachting-caps sailing predominantly with a bevy of ice cubes and probably escaping yard work or church attendance their wives have ordered. You never really sensed that they or the audience have voyaged to (as Bing Crosby and Perry Como later scored hits singing about) “far away places with strange-sounding names.” Even Luana isn’t that hard a name to find in a high school yearbook.

The print here, preserved by George Eastman House from the Selznick family collection, looks good for its age — and in some scenes even better than that (though many key passages are set at night). I always think of this film in conjunction with King Kong (which Selznick would soon produce) and The Most Dangerous Game, a kind of rumble-in-the-jungle trio from RKO in the early 1930s. Paradise was a not un-costly endeavor — and, in fact, budgetary overruns eventually put it into the red. It is interesting, then, that Hollywood would elect to remake it roughly 20 years later, though the Technicolor temptation for this kind of yarn was obviously tough to resist.


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