Bird Of Paradise Flies Home --- Part One
South Seas as subject has always been a grabber for me, as witness previous Mr. Robinson Crusoe and mentions elsewhere. Unexpected though, is sour depiction of encroaching whites in late silents White Shadows In The South Seas and The Pagan. These are less exotic romance you'd figure on than broadsides aimed at pillaging civilization and its importation of ruin to native cultures. One could mistake them for stuff being made now. Old-style romanticist David Selznick wanted to invoke tropic breezes minus the guilt. His Bird Of Paradise would place ticket-buyers in a rider's seat with bronzed Joel McCrea and nude bathing Dolores Del Rio ... never mind blather of our having raped their utopia. Toward that goal he'd need a director versed at locations with an artist's skill for romance a paying crowd might try at home. These had been King Vidor's proven quantity in times past, among other skills putting him at crest of an industry's pyramid. Selznick went to effort getting Vidor, having either borrowed the helmsman from Metro or catching him between contract commitments, depending on one's pick of the historical record. Bird Of Paradise was pastry likelier to stale with talent less than Vidor's in charge, melodrama regarded as all too common then. Selznick knew poor execution of same was like punching holes in a life raft. Without a Vidor, Bird Of Paradise was program filler staying no more than a week in any town. Capable enough direction, however, could make the difference between re-fried beans and something like artistry.
Selznick made clear he wanted three great love scenes for Bird Of Paradise, plus a finish where Dolores Del Rio jumps into a volcano. That story's been told as humorous example of producer shortcut to essence of Hollywood formula, but it says to me that Selznick understood what was most useful of a barest bone property, knowing Vidor would deliver on that plus distinction KV brought to whatever project engaged him (Vidor did want to make Bird Of Paradise, confident he could ennoble its familiar set-up). Selznick had been around long enough to realize his public would come out for this kind of material done right (and who's to say they wouldn't today?). Vidor sailed to Hawaii locations without any sort of script, as he'd recall later. How many filmmakers could Selznick or anyone trust so completely? DOS looked to KV for clinches of offbeat and memorable type Vidor had staged for The Big Parade, which to that point was absolute definition of smash boxoffice combined with graceful story-telling. Betting RKO's farm with Vidor amounted to gilt-edged security ... even if Bird Of Paradise failed, no one could blame Selznick for having made this pick.
Why take up Bird Of Paradise here? Until recently, it seemed lost to worthwhile presentation. There really wasn't a DVD worth looking at, the film having plunged down a public domain well years ago. I saw Bird Of Paradise first on a UHF channel out of Ring Of Hell # 8 or 9, take your pick of these broadcasters who'd play anything long as labels read free or close to that. Then there were 16mm prints, bleached bones all but for one surreptitiously derived from what was said to be Selznick's own 35mm nitrate. Just now, Bird Of Paradise is streaming on Netflix in what's unexpectedly a best rendering yet. Did presumed owner 20th Fox (having bought the property for a 1950 remake) supply raw material for this? Whatever ... suffice we're at last privy to a show where visuals matter most and lacking them amounts to difference between forgotten status and kudos fairly earned by some of Vidor's (and Selznick's) most enjoyable work.
Watching Bird Of Paradise (no, let's say finally really seeing it) made me curious as to what was shot where. Turns out the Hawaii expedition was a bust. Too few temperate days and much rain (worst storm of the century, Vidor would say ... why is it location crews always encounter the worst storms of centuries?). Also there was excess of trucks with their bulky (and balking) equipment. Some of what ended up in Bird Of Paradise was the McCoy, however. Enough was got in Hawaii to insure that. The rest was combed out of Catalina beaches and closer to home elsewheres (including a borrowed Warners studio tank for Del Rio's naked swim --- bet a lot of staff worked off-clocks that day). Native dances were supervised by Busby Berkeley, just pre-WB triumphs, but known already for Goldwyn set-pieces. Were far-away islands ever like this? Ones movie folk visited were said to be ordeal on a griddle. Those back from so-called paradise where White Shadows In The South Seas was shot swore they'd not go back. Had they been spoiled (and misled) by amenities of Catalina with its hotels, night-clubbing, and yacht parties, imagining the real thing was just more of a luxurious same, only with native girls waiting to be taught how to kiss?