Bird of Paradise (1932)
On a tropical island paradise, Joel McCrea, is to meet one of the screen’s greatest beauties, Dolores Del Rio, in a King Vidor directed pre-code effort that features scenes and relationships that would all but disappear post 1934 once new industry standards were set in place by Will Hays. Thankfully this early RKO feature from producer David O’Selznick hasn’t disintegrated with time to be counted among the many that are now lost.
The film opens with McCrea on a schooner with a crew that includes John Halliday, Bert Roach and a young gent scoring his first onscreen billing, Creighton Chaney. The world now knows him best as Lon Chaney Jr. Approaching a tropical island the schooner is met by canoes carrying island natives who have come to accept whatever gifts are available from the visiting boat. Diving tricks by a beautiful Del Rio leads to a mishap where she’ll actually rescue the good looking sailor with a twinkle in his eye from near death at the jaws of a shark. Yes Joel will meet his heroic native girl later that night during the festivities and dance.
He’s to soon learn that she’s the King’s daughter and causes quite a stir when he picks her up in his arms following the dance. It’s back to the boat but like Johnny Weissmuller and Maureen O’Sullivan, the pair are to engage in an erotic swim where Miss Del Rio is clearly wearing nothing but her birthday suit. Then it’s on to the beach and some late night love making.
McCrea has made the decision to follow his heart and remains on the island. The schooner moves on and will stop again to pick him up on it’s return voyage. Joel is to discover that he’s an outsider and not welcome on the island by anyone but lovely Del Rio. It’s during an island ritual that may see harm come to Del Rio that our leading man will have to play hero. He’ll charge through fire to whisk her away in his power motored boat and the pair are off to a neighboring island to find happiness.
That they do but of course it will be short lived though they do squeeze in plenty of lovemaking. It’s during this segment that I really admire how Vidor filmed the passage of time. Unlike a Warner Brothers feature where newspapers and calendars are splashed across the screen, this was done by simply overlapping the cycle of the moon from full down to a sliver in the sky.
With an island volcano near erupting, paradise is about to come to an abrupt halt. The natives have arrived to take Del Rio back and meet her fate. She’s to be sacrificed to the volcano as a peace offering against Joel’s wishes. I’ll stop here as we have plenty of adventure and thrills before the final reel unspools for you to discover on your own.
This black and white feature proves a real feast for the eyes. From stunning Dolores Del Rio and a handsome Joel McCrea to the special effects decorating the screen from an uncredited Harry Redmond Jr. Mr. Redmond would work on a number of well known titles including King Kong, Only Angels Have Wings and The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. And like Bird of Paradise, usually as an uncredited contributor.
What stands out most while watching this is the fact that it’s far more erotic and enticing than what the screen would allow post 1934. Del Rio’s beauty is unquestionable but it’s her lack of clothing that is so obvious from the nude swim scene to the fact that she’s often without a top but rather some strategically placed leis meant to cover her breasts though they are clearly visible from the side. Also, her belly button is on display throughout which is another part of the female anatomy that would all but disappear from screens for the next three decades. An oh so tiny bikini top, swaying hips, sultry dances, men carrying off women to fornicate in the jungle night. While I have no actual knowledge of this, I can’t see how this film would have been re-released post 1934 unless it was gutted and cut down from a running time of 82 minutes to maybe 50. And let’s not forget we have an interracial relationship on screen. Another taboo in the coming years.
It also has the flavor of Kong and why not. RKO would release the 8th Wonder of the World into theaters the following year. The jungle setting, the fact that the studio also had The Most Dangerous Game released in ’32 which also starred McCrea has me wondering if the eventual cowboy icon had been considered for the role essayed by Bruce Cabot in the Kong film?
Then there’s the feeling that we’re watching a Tarzan movie in reverse. Joel represents modern society while Dolores is the jungle dweller who can’t speak English. But like Weissmuller she’ll pick up a few words and speak in sign language and broken English. The best of the sign language comes when she presses a finger to her lips signaling it’s time for another kiss. Something she’s grown rather fond of and Joel of course is only too happy to oblige.
Miss Del Rio was a graduate of silent films and would continue to act up until the late 70’s. Growing up I guess I remember her best as Elvis Presley’s mother in Flaming Star. McCrea was always a favorite in our home due to his long association with the western and as for Creighton Chaney, I’ve always been a fan thanks to the Universal Monster flicks. Eventually I’d come to realize he morphed into a fine character actor when presented with a role worthy of his talents.
A first time viewing for me, Paradise, is an easy title to recommend to those who love films of the pre-code era or for those that are unfamilair with it and might usually turn their nose up at a nearly 90 year old movie. Though I’ve yet to see it, Paradise, was remade in 1951 with Louis Jordan and Debra Paget assuming the lead roles and somehow we get Jeff Chandler shoehorned into the island proceedings.
Thankfully Kino Classics have this one out on DVD which is how I’ve come across it. Give it a look.