ISLAND IN THE SUN, with its tantalizing interracial romance, timely politics and a handy murder subplot in an exotic Caribbean location came tailor-made for producer Darryl F. Zanuck. Always keen for a property that would grab the publics attention and pocketbooks, he bought the rights to Alec Waugh’s novel before it was published. By the time Zanuck’s $2,250,000 production reached theaters in the summer of 1957, Waugh’s 792-page opus sold 900,000 copies, and “Calypso”, co-star Harry Belafonte’s album from the previous year, had become the first million-seller LP. Though ice-blooded critics sniffed, heat-seeking audiences primed for passion and palm trees spent $14,300,000 on two-hour Saturday night vacations, making it the year’s 7th most popular popcorn destination.
The restive mid-1950s sees the Caribbean island of ‘Santa Marta’ still under British colonial rule island, but the majority black population welcome charismatic ‘David Boyeur’ (Belafonte) as a champion of independence. He not only boldly challenges plantation heir ‘Maxwell Fleury’ (James Mason), running for the legislature, but courts ‘Mavis Norman’ (Joan Fontaine), who returns his interest. Boyeur’s friend ‘Margot Seaton’ (Dorothy Dandridge) is meanwhile involved with ‘Denis Archer’ (John Justin), a white government officer. The two interracial pairings are in addition to Fleury’s younger sister ‘Jocelyn’ (Joan Collins) being wooed by visiting war hero ‘Euan Templeton’ (Stephen Boyd), and Fleury’s raw jealousy over his wife ‘Sylvia’ (Patricia Owens) and her relationship with ‘Hilary Carson’ (Michael Rennie). Temptation’s in the breeze (sugar in the cane?) and the guard is due for change.
Beautiful to look at, with alluring location scenery and attractive stars, the end result is dramatically underwhelming, since the script by Alfred Hayes is both force-fed (trying to fit nearly 800 pages worth of book into two hours on screen) and under-nourished, since the then-daring race-mixing elements were so tamed down that they barely register. Robert Rossen’s bland direction and the editing further sap steam long before anything (or anyone) heats up, with Dandridge (wow) and Justin (yawn) allowed a pitiful hug, while Fontaine and Belafonte get to look at each other, take walks and share a coconut. Even the “safe” sex between Collins and Boyd is neutered.
Mason gets to handle the anguish & anger stuff, Dandridge and Collins are sexy (as far as the film will allow–Dandridge gets to do a cool limbo), Rennie has little to do. Fontaine’s part is blandly handled, Boyd doesn’t seem to know how to project convincingly with Collins, and Belafonte is ill-at-ease. He gets to open the movie with a characteristically warm rendition of the lovely title ballad, but his acting performance of the supposedly vital champion/threat of the piece is regrettably one-note, mainly consisting of glaring. Best work in the group is done in a supporting role by John Williams as a police inspector: he gets the best dialogue as well. *
Malcolm Arnold’s score is not bad, but the ace card is Freddie Young’s cinematography, with the beguiling beaches, harbors, hills and markets of fictitious Santa Marta provided by location work in Barbados, Grenada, Trinidad and Tobago. The sets are well-appointed, with the Fleury mansion (a real plantation pad on Barbados) getting due attention. Mason gets to tool around in a killer white Jaguar XK120 convertible roadster.
The movie is entertaining, if anemic, but even with punches pulled, the very idea of races mixing drew expected backlash. Many theaters refused to book it, and Memphis banned it as “too frank a depiction of miscegenation, offensive to moral standards, and no good for either white or Negro.” Fontaine was deluged with hate mail that she passed on to the FBI (since it was run by J.Edgar Hoover, it’s doubtful they bothered to follow up).
With Diana Wynyard, Basil Sydney and Ronald Squire. 119 minutes.
* Belafonte co-wrote the idyllic title tune with Irving Burgie, who composed many songs for him, including “Jamaica Farewell”. Belafonte and Dandridge had previously shared screen time in his feature debut Bright Road (1953) and Carmen Jones (1954), where she became the first African-American actress nominated for a Best Actress Oscar.
For James Mason, his jealous fool in Island In The Sun marked the cessation of a long run of playing (always expertly) mostly bad or at least neurotic fellows. Working backwards, you find him either upset or upsetting in Bigger Than Life, A Star Is Born, 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea, Prince Valiant, Julius Caesar, The Desert Rats, Botany Bay, The Prisoner Of Zenda, 5 Fingers, The Desert Fox, Pandora And The Flying Dutchman, Odd Man Out, The Seventh Veil…..ye gads, give the chap a break!
Canadian actress Patricia Owens, 31 at the time, had been acting since 1950, but this was her first American film. It was a breakout year for her, co-starring in another of 57’s biggest hits, Sayonara, as well as the suburban couples drama No Down Payment. Next year she’d find immortal magnified fame, screaming at The Fly.