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.