King Vidor's 1932 tropical fantasy Bird of Paradise is the very definition of a cinematic relic. You might even call it an antique. The slender picture hasn't so much aged poorly as it has simply lost its zing to the passage of time. For a movie that, to 21st-Century eyes, could look racist and politically incorrect, it actually comes off as bizarrely innocent in the way it revels in the clichés of island life.
The straightest of straight men Joel McCrea (Sullivan' Travels) stars as Johnny, the youngest member of a boat crew full of erudite drunks. When the vessel docks at a faraway island, the crew spends time with the natives, eating their food and indulging in their cultural rituals. This is not a difficult task when it means watching a sexy Dolores del Rio (Journey Into Fear, Cheyenne Autumn) dance half-naked to tribal drums. Johnny falls for Luana, even though she is promised to the island prince. He stays behind when his shipmates leave and teaches her how to kiss (while also introducing her to rape role playing, creepily enough). The pair set up a private oasis on the other side of the island, but when the volcano demands a sacrifice, Luana decides to do her duty and return to the village. Johnny, of course, will try to stop her.
That's about the long and short of it. Bird of Paradise is a pretty slim production, moving quickly over some rather familiar territory. Vidor (Duel in the Sun) makes pretty good use of his backlot sets, and even pulls off some spectacular special effects. The underwater photography can be quite beautiful, including sequences with real sharks and a giant turtle. When Johnny is rushing to save Luana's life, he encounters all kinds of dangers, including a scary-looking whirlpool. And, of course, there are del Rio's dangerously skimpy outfits. As a movie that is basically designed to sell sex and adventure, Bird of Paradise certainly challenged the social mores of its time. Watch it from that vantage point, and it's a decent B-picture with a well-constructed plot and some good performances (the other sailors are hilarious).
As anything other than a curious time capsule, however, Bird of Paradise is supremely average.
NOTE: For a kinder, more effusive review of Bird of Paradise, I direct you to Christopher McQuain's write-up of the Blu-Ray release.
Kino resurrects Bird of Paradise as part of their deal with the David O'Selznick estate. Working with materials supplied by the producer's family, they've managed to port over a decent looking black-and-white picture--albeit an inconsistent one. Some scenes look crystal clear, others have lots of scratches and dirt. The blacks are solid, and night scenes look fantastic. The dark skies are completely dark, with no blocking or inky haze. Other levels of light and grey also look really good. In truth, despite the flickers and the spots, for a movie as old as Bird of Paradise, it's been preserved very well.
The original soundtrack is mixed here in 2.0 mono. The overall sound of the audio is kind of tinny with a persistent, though minor, level of distortion. It's hard to tell if this is the fault of the DVD production or just a byproduct of sound recorded 80 years ago. Either way, it's too bad there wasn't something that couldn't be done to smooth the audio out a little more, since Bird of Paradise has the historical distinction of being the first feature-length film with a full symphonic score.
Trailers for the original A Star is Born, Nothing Sacred, and Pandora and the Flying Dutchman.
Rent It. I didn't love it or hate it. Bird of Paradise is a product of its time (as opposed to being timeless), and though much of King Vidor's island romance seems passé now, the movie still works as an action/adventure love story if you can get in the right mindset and look past its stereotypes and naiveté. The positives: the romance has its sweet moments, the action is invigorated by some impressive early special effects, and Dolores del Rio is super hot. The negatives: the characters are cardboard and the story totally predictable. Bird of Paradise is historically significant, but not particularly vital.
Jamie S. Rich is a novelist and comic book writer. He is best known for his collaborations with Joëlle Jones, including the hardboiled crime comic book You Have Killed Me, the challenging romance 12 Reasons Why I Love Her, and the 2007 prose novel Have You Seen the Horizon Lately?, for which Jones did the cover. All three were published by Oni Press. His most recent project is the comedy series Spell Checkers, again with Jones and artist Nicolas Hitori de. Follow Rich's blog at Confessions123.com.