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Island in the Sun
Cinema Classics Collection

Island in the Sun
1957 / Color / 2:35 Enhanced 16:9 / 119 min. / Street Date January 10, 2006 / 19.98
Starring James Mason, Joan Fontaine, Dorothy Dandridge, Joan Collins, Michael Rennie, Harry Belafonte, Diana Wynyard, John Williams, Stephen Boyd, Patricia Owens, John Justin
Cinematography Freddie Young
Production Designer John DeCuir
Film Editor Reginald Beck
Original Music Malcolm Arnold
Written by Alfred Hayes from a novel by Alec Waugh
Produced by Darryl F. Zanuck
Directed by Robert Rossen

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Island in the Sun is producer Darryl Zanuck's first production as an independent after his 1956 exit from the top roost at 20th Fox; it can boast lavish tropical locations graced with an enviable all-star cast. Unfortunately, its progressive ideas about race relations were compromised by the still-fierce realities of Hollywood production, which followed a conservative line as regards to 'mixing the races.' The movie is an elaborate soap opera around the idea of mixed blood on a Caribbean island, one that might have been the setting for the revolutionary Burn! 140 years earlier. But an air of timidity keeps the picture from making any but the most bland statement on the subject.

Fox's disc is the first Savant has received in their new 'Cinema Classics' line, that follows the good lead of Warners by using original Ad art on the covers. I'm not sure if the previous 'Studio Classics' line will continue.


The West Indies Island Santa Marta is holding elections soon, and the wealthy white minority fears the influence of the popular labor leader David Boyeur (Harry Belafonte). He brings his date Margo Seaton (Dorothy Dandridge) to Governor Templeton's garden party, where she meets the Governor's handsome aide de camp, David Archer (John Justin of The Thief of Bagdad). Their interracial romance is both healthy and sane, but three other relationships aren't as lucky. Templeton's handsome son Euan (Stephen Boyd) strikes up a summer romance with Jocelyn Fleury (Joan Collins), while Jocelyn's sister-in-law Mavis Norman (Joan Fontaine) is drawn to David Boyeur. The wealthy Maxwell Fleury (James Mason) is murderously jealous of his wife (Patricia Owens) and suspects that she's having an affair with a retired officer, Hilary Carson (Michael Rennie).

Island in the Sun made a bundle in 1957 even though it got a hostile reception in the South. That's after everything directly challenging was taken out. The obvious thrill being peddled is interracial romance, a theme that Hollywood was at the time courting, if only because it was a new angle to be exploited. Both Sayonara and South Pacific tried their best to bring interracial themes to the movies, which always lagged behind books and stage works in the realm of challenging ideas. Both of those films treated the concept of miscegenation as a serious problem, even the idea that one's fiancé might have previously been married to, and had children by, a person 'of color.'

For 'shocking' content Island in the Sun relies on the same tricks any oversexed soap offer might tap, mainly fades to black that imply sex scenes. But as is frequently noted, one mixed couple (Dandridge and Justin) are shown hugging but never kissing, while the 'torrid' romance between Belafonte and Joan Fontaine can't even be expressed by bodily contact - the racial standards of the day decreed that a white man being with a dark woman was marginally acceptable, but a black man attracted to a white woman was beyond the pale. Fontaine and Belafonte take some excursions around the island and brood over the impractical aspects of their pairing. She sends longing looks in his direction but the situation just feeds his hostility - the way he rips a 'mammy' mask from her face shows that he's as uncomfortable as is the neurotic James Mason character.

Equally murky racial/political currents flow around the Fleury family. James Mason seems to live in fear of emasculation as Belafonte threatens to use the election process to effect a bloodless revolution, a shift of power to the island's poor. In addition to that, Mason is convinced his place in his wife's bed is being taken by the more masculine Michael Rennie. Both Mason and his sister Joan Collins are floored by the revelation that there's black blood in their background as well - Mason's grandmother was part black. He freaks out, thinking that this gives him some kind of inner track to the island's black vote. It also provides the unfortunate trigger for violence when Michael Rennie talks about there being 'a tarbrush across his face.'

Although it comes from the novel, the mixed-blood 'curse' of the Fleurys is still handled like a dodge to avoid conservative scorn. (spoiler) Joan Collins' engagement to Stephen Boyd is threatened by her 'tainted' heritage, but at the last minute it's revealed that due to an indiscretion of her mother, she's all white after all. False alarm, folks.

Black actors had few decent film opportunities, and when they expressed bitterness at their plight (as did Lena Horne and Belafonte) they were often labeled ingrates by the press. Belafonte's central role in Island in the Sun is sidelined by star attention to James Mason's relatively tame "Crime and Punishment" subplot; Harry spends most of his time being angry or walking alone, an image that seems to say there's something wrong about a black man taking a political leadership position - he's one thinking man among a mob of faceless 'natives.' To take full advantage of Belafonte's leading position in the then- popular wave of Calypso music, Island in the Sun has him break character to belt out a lusty Calypso song to some returning fishermen. No wonder he had contempt for Hollywood, to the point that he founded his own HarBel production company to make the genre/message pictures The World, the Flesh and the Devil and Odds Against Tomorrow.

Island in the Sun is enjoyable just to watch its talented cast. We get late-career appearances by Diana Wynyard (Rasputin and the Empress) and Hartley Power (Dead of Night). Michael Rennie (The Day the Earth Stood Still) has an uncharacteristically 'loose' drunk scene. John Williams is so well known playing shrewd detectives in Alfred Hitchcock films (Dial "M" for Murder) that we can guess he'll ferret out the real murderer. Stephen Boyd (The Man Who Never Was) adds another strong rung to his climb to middling-success stardom. Joan Collins plays against her fleshpot persona (one of her off-color nicknames was "The British Open") but mainly has us wondering why the film shrinks from showing her and Boyd in romantic clinches - they barely have one heavy-duty on-screen kiss. Perhaps even the question of her racial heritage made Zanuck run for cover - he wanted the publicity of hot-button content but knew he couldn't show any. Patricia Owens is sort of a red herring in that she acts vaguely guilty of adultery to keep a major subplot in motion. Finally, the most interesting actor in the film, Dorothy Dandridge, practically has to behave like a girl scout. The overall impression of Island in the Sun is of a daring rose bush with its flowers covered and its thorns clipped off.

Robert Rossen's direction is serviceable but the biggest influence on the film seems to be cameraman F.A. "Freddie" Young, who would proceed to fame on David Lean's trio of blockbusters starting with Lawrence of Arabia. Young does marvels with the obvious travelogue-oriented footage, effortlessly mixing locations on Barbados with sets back in England. Many difficult lighting situations look natural, and he throws a startling, garish green light on a dead body to put an exclamation point at the end of the murder scene.

Fox's 'Cinema Classics Collection' DVD of Island in the Sun is a stunning transfer of a film that often turned up pan-scanned and grainy-green on old TV broadcasts. It's enhanced and comes with four channels of stereo (presumably the original mix) that make Belafonte's radio hit title tune sound terrific.

Film writer John Stanley brings the experience of a show biz journalistic career to his fact-filled commentary, which makes only a few insignificant errors (short-shorts didn't appear until the 70s?) and steers away from all but a few comments about the film's glaring racial-political context. We learn little about how Island in the Sun's potentially groundbreaking story was shoehorned into a form acceptable to 'general audiences' of 1957.

The better extra is a Biography hour on Dorothy Dandridge that's both insightful and informative. There's also a surprisingly undramatic original trailer in which Darryl Zanuck personally introduces his first independent production. The sexy original poster art on Fox's attractive packaging closely resembles hot-cha imagery from nudist pictures of the time; I wonder if there were newspapers that didn't want to run it!

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Island in the Sun rates:
Movie: Very Good
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: Commentary, Biography docu on Dorothy Dandridge, trailer
Packaging: Keep case in card sleeve.
Reviewed: January 6, 2006

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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