Film Score: Max Steiner Cinematography: Edward Cronjager
Starring: Dolores del Rio, Joel McCrea, John Halliday and Lon Chaney Jr.
Bird of Paradise has the distinction of being one of Lon Chaney Jr.’s first films. Okay, that’s not much of a distinction considering he appears only briefly, but it’s something to Chaney fans. Also, the film was part of an unofficial series that RKO made in the early thirties that featured jungle themes, including The Most Dangerous Game, which also starred Joel McCrea, and King Kong, which even reused some of the village sets. This film emphases the jungle as paradise rather than horror, though the final scenes are somewhat grim. The great King Vidor is at the helm, having just finished work on his classic film, Street Scene, for Sam Goldwyn, and the film was produced by David O. Selznick during his brief tenure at RKO. Like most of the films he made later under his own name, this one eventually slipped into public domain. Fortunately, a beautiful print was found and is now held at the George Eastman House. Kino has released this print and it is the only one worth watching.
The story is simple enough. A group of pleasure sailors are touring the South Seas islands. On one stop Joel McCrea sees a beautiful native woman, Dolores del Rio, and falls in love. After the natives feast and dance one night, all of the women are taken away individually by the men of the island, the purpose being obvious. When del Rio ends her dance in front of McCrea he picks her up but the chief raises a fuss. It turns out she’s his daughter and only fit for an island prince. But that night she comes swimming out to the yacht and McCrea joins her in the water. After teaching her how to kiss, he decides to stay on the island until his friends pick him up on their way back. The following night the whole village goes fishing while del Rio takes McCrea into the jungle to confess her love for him, even though she speaks no English. The only problem is she’s been promised to a prince from another island in an arranged marriage and McCrea’s presence has threatened to disrupt the chief’s plans, something he’s not about to let happen. And there’s even more trouble ahead for McCrea when the volcano begins to erupt.
Though the story is fairly pedestrian, this really is a wonderful little picture. McCrea does a terrific job as the white man who has “gone native.” At first he wants to take del Rio back to civilization with him, but it's not until the end of the film that we learn why, that his intention had simply been to use her as a dalliance. By the climax, however, he realizes that what he feels for her is love. But the real star of the film is del Rio, who is captivating onscreen, and her performance in every aspect is wholly believable and sympathetic. The film is beautifully shot and the lighting is perfect. In many ways this prefigures other films that have similar themes, from Mutiny on the Bounty to Son of Fury to the 1949 version of The Blue Lagoon. As with many of the films during that period, the superb black and white images do nothing to diminish the beauty of the backgrounds, and the effect is enhanced even more by the music.
RKO was incredibly fortunate in the early thirties to have Max Steiner at the studio, and this film benefits tremendously from Steiner’s film score. Most studios didn’t have the talent or the inclination to write scores for films this early on and in comparison they are sorely missed. But the main thing the film has going for it is the presence of Dolores del Rio. Unlike Son of Fury, which tries to pass off Gene Tierney as a native woman, del Rio’s Hispanic background makes her much more believable in the role. The dance sequences are extremely good, again, with the addition of Steiner’s music. There is also a fascinating nude underwater swimming sequence that appeared two years before the more famous scene in MGM’s Tarzan and his Mate and makes this easily identifiable as a pre-code gem. Unfortunately the film lost a ton of money, close to a quarter of a million dollars, and so plans for a sequel were scrapped before they could really begin. Though many might dismiss the film for its overly-sentimental story, Bird of Paradise is a wonderful picture and comes highly recommended.