Bird of Paradise (1932)
Here is pretty much every cliché of South Sea fantasy films.
Found this movie in a very murky old black and white print on YouTube in October 2012. Set in 1932, a group of wealthy yachtsmen arrive at a beautiful Polynesian island and set about throwing trinkets to the natives who dive from their outriggers. A shark appears and a handsome guy named Johnny (Joel McrCrea) gets tangled in a rope and dragged into the water. A lovely Polynesian maiden saves him. Later, he spots her over the side of the boat swimming nude in imitation of a bird of paradise. He dives in and joins the dance, then follows her to the beach forcing a kiss on her. She resists at first but discovers the pleasures of a kiss. At the luau that evening, she dances for him and he learns that her name is Luana (Delores del Rio).
Learning from what the other young people are doing, he picks her up and tries to carry her into the forest. They are stopped in their tracks. She is the chief’s daughter and she is tabu, as she has been promised in marriage to a prince on a neighboring island. Later they try another tryst but they are apprehended by angry warriors. Johnny is kept away from Luana as preparations are made for her wedding. He rescues her from a ring of fire during the ceremony and carries her off to a nearby island where they can dwell unmolested in an Arcadian idyll, for a brief time.
When the volcano on her home island begins to erupt, Luana knows it is her fate to appease the god Pele and be sacrificed in the fiery caldera. Men from her village come and take her away. Johnny has been fishing for turtles and comes back to find her missing. He jumps in a canoe and paddles furiously after her, getting caught in a whirlpool. His rescue attempt is thwarted when he is wounded with a spear and captured. Johnny and Luana are tied to racks and prepare to face death. Luana pleads to Pele, but Johnny instructs her that Pele is not a god. There is only One God, he says, and begins to recite the Lord’s Prayer. They are carried up the side of the volcano but the procession is disrupted when crew-members from the yacht open fire on the leaders. The two lovers are rescued and taken to the boat.
While Johnny lies recovering from his wound the crew discusses their future. The prevailing feeling is that Johnny cannot bring a native woman home to his prominent family. “East is east and west is west, and never the twain shall meet.” The chief appears at the side of the boat and demands the return of Luana. He says the volcano curse is on Johnny and if Luana does not return he will die. She gets into the outrigger to be delivered to her fate. Dressed in ceremonial robes, she walks alone to the edge of the volcano. The End. This film did poorly at the box office, though it was aided by scandal over the nude swimming.
Mr. Robinson Crusoe (1932)
Douglas Fairbanks stars in this fanciful concoction. An opening legend declares:
From the time Adam and Eve were banished from the Garden of Eden, man has vainly sought to find solace, comfort and earthly pleasures in an artificial world of his own creation. Down through the ages has come that eternal heritage – the urge in every man to turn his back on so-called civilization, to get back to nature and revel in the glories and freedom of a primitive paradise.
A small group of wealthy men are sailing on a yacht in the South Seas when Fairbanks impetuously announces his urge to jump ship and make his own paradise on a deserted island. His companions turn it into a bet and Fairbanks leaps over the side to swim for shore. A faithful dog named Rooney follows him. The ebullient castaway uses his Boy Scout knowledge to set about building his domain. After a month or two, he has created an elaborate complex, which he has named Park Avenue and 52nd St. It is done in the style of Swiss Family Robinson, which he acknowledges.
On a neighboring island, there is a Polynesian tribal drama in progress. A young girl (Maria Alba) is being forced into a marriage she does not want. The wedding festivity consists of vigorous Tahitian dancing. The girl upsets the ceremony and runs into the forest. Outwitting her pursuers, she finds an outrigger on the beach and paddles out to sea. Meanwhile, Fairbanks has found an intruder on his island and decides he has found his man Friday. During all of this, the fugitive girl arrives and gets caught in one of Fairbanks’ animal traps. While he is rescuing her, Friday escapes and paddles away in the girl’s outrigger. The new couple spend time listening to a radio Fairbanks has improvised from tubes Friday was wearing as a necklace (he had killed a radio operator). When Fairbanks puts the girl to bed, she pulls him in beside her but he jumps up chortling like a gentleman. The idyll continues in the morning. He has named the girl Saturday.
His yachting companions return from hunting tigers in Sumatra and hire a group of men from the girl’s village to masquerade as cannibals and scare Fairbanks into losing the bet. When they see him with the girl, they forget the masquerade and attempt to roast their victim for real. Saturday engineers a rescue and the yachting companions arrive to find the two toasting their good fortune. Just as Fairbanks is about to collect on his bet, Friday arrives with a hostile army. There is a wild chase as hundreds of canoes and men with spears swarm the island. While the other white men row to the yacht, Fairbanks uses his mechanical devices to escape. At sea, they find Saturday as a stowaway. They take her back to New York where she becomes the toast of Times Square as a grass skirt dancer. Found on YouTube.
The Blue Lagoon (1949 / 1980 / 1991)
The first talking version of this island fantasy was a color film from 1949, starring Gene Simmons. It was British, and therefore more tasteful and less erotic than editions that would follow. The American version that appeared in 1980 illustrates my point. This could have been a classic of the Island Eden genre if it had been handled only a little differently. Based on the 1908 novel by prolific author Henry De Vere Stacpoole, this was material that would be difficult to mishandle.
Two comely young people marooned on a deserted South Sea island discovering sexuality in themselves and each other – what could go wrong? Well, the most obvious problem is the acting level. Fourteen-year-old Brooke Shields is mature beyond her years and does quite well, but her co-star, Christopher Atkins, seems limited to the adolescent spectrum of petulance to boyish dreaminess. This is a beautiful film to look at, with some fine nature photography of birds, lizards, and sealife, but for the most part it would be best viewed with the sound turned off. Fear enters their idyllic world when Atkins witnesses a cannibalistic ritual on the other side of the island (symbolically the other side of Civilization), but nothing comes of it. In this same moment, Brooke gives birth to a baby, though her pregnancy has been a complete mystery to her. They are rescued in the end, just when it seems they might perish. Found on YouTube. There is a 1991 update, equally unsatisfying.