Bird of Paradise (1951)

BIRD OF PARADISE —–1850, the South Pacific. While at college in America, Frenchman ‘Andre Laurence’ (Louis Jourdan) befriended fellow outsider ‘Tenga’ (Jeff Chandler) and joins him for an extended stay on Tenga’s island home in Polynesia. In short order Andre is charmed by the place and its people, and love-struck by Tenga’s beautiful sister ‘Kalua’ (Debra Paget), who is likewise smitten. It doesn’t matter that Andre isn’t a racist scoundrel like the other white men who’ve visited: the baleful ‘Kahuna’ warns the relationship spells tragedy for all unless the islands angered spirits are placated by sacrifice. 

Directed & written by Delmer Daves, the 1951 adventure/melodrama was 66th at the boxoffice that year, with a comfortable gross of $4,700,000. Daves was fresh off directing the hit western Broken Arrow, and brought two of its stars along: Chandler (Oscar-nominated for that one) and Paget had essentially the same duty as before, switching ethnicity and region, Native American in the Southwest to Polynesian in the South Pacific. Eschewing studio backdrops, everyone went to Hawaii for immersive location filming, with Winton Hoch’s Technicolor cinematography providing mood-enhancing views of the Big Island scenery and pulse-enticing captures of 18-year-old ‘native maiden’ Debra Paget. *

Reviewers today take a knee(jerk) and duff this off as a creaky camp artifact, citing the obvious whitewash casting (hold breath while counting trained, available Polynesian box-office draws of the day), and ignoring that the villains in the script are Bad White Guys (of which there were plenty to go round out there/back then/as always), ably represented by Everett Sloane and Jack Elam. Sloane’s caustic, self-justifying swine adds some Conradian flavor, and Elam’s brute is your everyday stupid bigot (he did another, even more vicious baddie that year, in Rawhide). The idea that “civilized” people can’t help but be corrupting to traditional societies at one with nature (and natural impulses) ought to hold some brief, but today’s Hate Yourself impulse is almost as prevalent as calf tattoos and nose rings. 

I can’t speak for what matinee audiences of ’51 thought (let’s assume many were gaga over either Paget or Jourdan & Chandler) but as one of those who as a wee lad saw it a decade later on NBC’s Saturday Night At The Movies, we vouch that, even on a small black & white TV, the images of someone walking barefoot on hot coals and that classic leap-into-lava finale seared a lifelong impression. Moving. Pictures. Go figure.

This was the third version of a culture clash love story first written as a play by Richard Walton Thomas in 1912. The 1932 movie, with barechested Joel McCrea and a barely clad Dolores del Rio, is noted as one of the sexy romps that helped bring down censor wrath and the moralistic Hays Code. While not pre-Code (and not as racy), Daves version is now dumped into the modern pre-p.c. guilt volcano that, like gaseous prude eruptions of yore, insists on protecting us from our inner oaf, even if means making one’s emotion-stirred memories a taboo. Who needs a cruel old kahuna with a bad accent and makeup (Yiddish stage legend Maurice Schwartz) insisting your suicide will appease geology? We’ve come far, indeed, when your very existence is an affront to some punkette who’s never been further into the real world than the next dorm, froth-eager to throw you to the snarks because you were so barbaric as to re-colonize their space with something offensive like “Hi, how’s it going?”

Daves staging does well by the visuals, Jourdan is appealing, Paget winsome, Chandler in the intense-but-fair mode that he’d carry into a decade of enjoyable B-pictures.  Daniele Amfitheatrof did the tailored-to-exotica score, with chorale arrangements overseen by Ken Darby. Unlike the amusingly frenzied booga-booga nonsense designed by Busby Berkeley for the 1932 movie, this time the native dance choreography was handled by Iolani Lauhini, so its lyrical, ritual, invitational swaying gets somewhat closer to the real deal, even if the standards of the era still tamped down the earthier hulas—and poor Chandler is about as hip-movement hep as a sea turtle. ‘The Chief’ is played by Hawaiian singer Prince Lei Lani (real name Edwin Kaumualiiokamokuokalani Rose), a fixture on the island music scene long before Don Ho surfed in. 100 minutes.

 * Writer-director Delmer Daves was often drawn to projects with doomed or at least threatened romance as part of the plot—Love Affair and its remake An Affair To Remember, Broken Arrow, A Summer Place, The Hanging Tree, The Last Wagon, The Battle Of The Villa Fiorita, Jubal, The Red House.


One thought on “Bird of Paradise (1951)

  1. Loved this movie as a kid. When one of the old and very proper Purple Para Port swilling aunts visited one Sunday afternoon she asked how my school results were and if I had any plans for tertiary education. (She was always checking if my widowed father was doing the right thing by his daughters). Very sweetly I told her I intended to sacrifice myself by diving into a volcano just like they did in the movies. Poor thing needed another Port to recover.😊

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