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Saturday, September 29, 2012

South Sea Sinning --- Part One

I find MGM south sea idylls anything but idealized. A look at White Shadows In The South Seas, The Pagan, Untamed, and Never The Twain Shall Meet taught me why they never caught on as an ongoing genre like, say, jungle pics. At least for Metro, it was success in the jungle that spared us further sailings below the equator, a relief in the long run, as ones they took are among harshest and most unpleasant sits of the era. White Shadows In The South Seas indicts Caucasian abuse and exploitation of noble island folk, its onscreen stance an interesting comparison with what director W.S. Van Dyke observed, and wrote about, for a (very private) diary he kept during production from late-1927 to mid-'28. These turned up in an attic trunk generations later and saw publication as W.S. Van Dyke's Journal: White Shadows In The South Seas (1927-28), a backstage wonder you wish existed on more classics made then or ever.

Against lovely scenics (that must have been a lulu on 35mm nitrate) come bleak happenings and a bummer wrap to cause wonder as to how White Shadows managed whopper grosses when new. Metro's crack selling can take credit, and there was novelty of sights (and synchronized sound with native music) not before captured on such lavish and locationed scale. Basis was a novel that Irving Thalberg was said to have liked (the title best of all), a reproach more severe of white trepidations than even the movie he oversaw. Surviving prints don't do White Shadows visual justice, a most critical aspect, as the thing's value rests largely on that. Also, at least on Warner's Archive DVD, there is track spoilage at the beginning ... maybe the discs got immersed in some of that salt water.

Scurrilous Whites Ply Trade Among Exploited Natives

Director W.S. Van Dyke Receives Radio
Instructions from Metro Home Base
The real beneficiary of White Shadow's success was director Van Dyke. He'd begun at assisting, moved up to director, back again, flush here, jobless there ... since Griffith days. Lately Van/Woody (his went-by names) wrangled Tim McCoy series-actioners for Metro. These showed Van could work fast and on hard ground, so off to Tahiti he was dispatched to help credited Robert Flaherty on White Shadows, Flaherty being the name Metro hoped to sell in concert with exotic footage with which he'd been associated (class and mass had liked Nanook Of The North and Moana). Van Dyke got there (ten-day's sail) and found Flaherty helpless to gear up a factory's way, thus a bogged down shoot and conditions more squalid by the hour. If you ever thought how much fun it might have been to work in Golden Age movies, read Woody's account of this trip, then be glad for 2012 comforts of home and a Net to read of his wretched hardship making White Shadows In The South Seas. MGM has taken a few months of my life and put them on a hot griddle and watched them fry, wrote Van.

Van Dyke's was a takeover, not altogether hostile, of White Shadows In The South Seas, and it was here the director's legend was born. He'd be the explorer/adventurer who mastered movies, also a man's man Flaherty wasn't. And Metro stood ready to polish the image. They had resource to put Van Dyke in Africa for Trader Horn, the frozen north for Eskimo, any point of a compass not hitherto photographed. Exciting as Merian Cooper's trips were, he'd not have such machinery to back ships/crews like Van Dyke and Metro blank checks (Trader Horn cost $1.3M). The company liked directors with pioneer spirit. Clarence Brown braved wilds to do The Trail Of '98 around a same time. King Vidor would later carve a Northwest Passage out of backwoods. These were as much manhood rituals as epic movies, and a director's stock went up for his ability to tough them out. W.S. Van Dyke may have been a most noteworthy of these in his day, the public-perceived equal or better to anyone working. There were several books ... one he wrote called Horning Into Africa, published in 1931 ... my copy had been donated by "Col. W.S. Van Dyke" to the Enoch Pratt Library in Baltimore. How many ones did he similarly gift to facilities around the country?

W.S. Van Dyke, at left, Receives Fan Magazine Writers from the States on
White Shadows Location

Had not Van Dyke died early (1943), and comparatively young (53), there'd be at least a biography. For a director so noted in his lifetime, it's remarkable how little is out there today. The long out of print Van Dyke and The Mythical City Hollywood was commissioned by his mother, Laura Winston Van Dyke (the book's copyright is hers), and written by Robert C. Cannon in 1948. There was apparently a reprint in 1977, though I haven't seen copies. Much of White Shadows lore had origin here. Van Dyke represented a vanguard of he-men who drifted into studios from gold fields, railroad camps ... had he once been a "mercenary," with all that loaded term implied? Anyway, there were none tougher, and to publicity's benefit, Van Dyke looked the part. How he wrestled White Shadows In The South Seas to the ground was only a beginning to fame that unfortunately did not outlive him by enough.

Ramon Novarro and Dorothy Janis as South Sea Natives in The Pagan

Van Dyke had sworn he'd never return to the islands. A rousing hit of White Shadows put that vow in abeyance. Might south seas adventure become staple commodity for Metro? Only if it could be done for a price to assure fiscal gain. For an encore they chose The Pagan, with Ramon Novarro to represent island virtues and Donald Crisp white villainy. A happy ending was barely in time to relieve another sour narrative ... rotter Crisp wallops natives with near the sadism he inflicted on Lillian Gish in Broken Blossoms. Van Dyke had learned from the White Shadows trip and filmed with dispatch. Again there was a soundtrack, but no talk. April 1929 release was alongside Metro features with dialogue, though Novarro did vocalize to pleasing effect (enormous song sheet sales), with over half a million in profits a result for The Pagan. Reception to White Shadows In The South Seas and The Pagan pointed to MGM filming further in tropic climes. But could the cycle adjust itself to talking screens?


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi, John..

Thank you for your most informative blog. I never miss an entry. FYI...there are several available first edition copies of the book, "Van Dyke and The Mythical City Hollywood" on the net for sale. I even found one with an inscription from the author to Howard Smit (make up artist: THE BIRDS etc.). At only $35 I thought you might be interested. Let me know and I'll provide a link. (note: I am not the seller) Franco

11:11 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Dan Mercer speaks to W.S. Van Dyke, Robert Flaherty, and "White Shadows In The South Seas." (Part One):

I agree with you that W. S. Van Dyke was a much better director than his nickname, “One-Take Woody,” would suggest. He was quick and efficient and produced many profitable entertainments, such as The Thin Man, Manhattan Melodrama, and San Francisco, but he also brought a lyrical grace to a wide variety of films, from White Shadows in the South Seas to Marie Antoinette, the latter an elaborate costume film which would have been an elephantine bore in the hands of nearly anyone else.

Robert Flaherty is another matter entirely. A prospector and agent for the Hudson’s Bay Company, he got into film making as a way of passing time during the long wait for a ship to come in. Eventually he turned his north country experiences into the strange and exotic Nanook of the North, about an Eskimo family’s struggle to live. It became a freak hit, and Flaherty was given backing to make what was in effect a Southern Hemisphere sequel, Moana of the South Seas. This didn’t do as well at the box office, but was well enough received by the critics to give him the reputation of being a poet of the primitive.

According to Arthur Calder-Marshall in his biography of Flaherty, The Innocent Eye, Howard Dietz of M-G-M contacted him in the summer of 1927 to ask if he’d like to work on a film of Frederick O’Brien’s White Shadows in the South Seas. When he agreed, Dietz passed him on to Irving Thalberg, the young genius in charge of studio production. Thalberg then asked if he would co-direct the picture with Van Dyke, who was then known for turning out Westerns. The idea was that he would direct the film with Van Dyke in support. Flaherty was agreeable to that as well, but when he arrived in Hollywood, he and Laurence Stallings, the author of What Price Glory? who was engaged to work on the screenplay, tried to talk Thalberg into filming Herman Melville’s Typee instead. They thought that that would be more suitable for a film, as the O’Brien book was no more than a travelogue with an intriguing title. When they found out that Thalberg had bought the rights to the book just for the title, Stallings quit the job.

Flaherty was apparently brought into the project to provide native color. What this meant to Hunt Stromberg, the producer assigned to White Shadows, was something else. After Flaherty had given a showing of Moana, Stromberg turned to his yes-men in the theater and exclaimed, “Boys, I’ve got a great idea. Let’s fill the screen with tits!”

6:14 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Part Two of Dan Mercer's thoughts on Van Dyke, Flaherty, and "White Shadows."

By studio standards, Flaherty was not a film marker. He never went into a project with a set script but only the general idea of the story he wanted to tell. He immersed himself in the people and their setting, and only then found what he wanted to say. Almost always it was different from what had sparked his imagination in the first place. As his editor on the much later Louisiana Story, Helen van Dongen, observed, he seemed to fumble forward into any new artistic creation, like a half-blind man, relying upon a guide-dog, whom nevertheless he kept calling to heel.

He could no more work with Van Dyke on this film than he was able to later with F. W. Murnau on Tabu or Alexander Korda on Elephant Boy. He has a reputation in some circles as being a documentarian. He was not that. Nanook hunted and lived in ways that had been abandoned by his people a generation before. Moana gave no suggestion that the paradise of the South Seas was already being despoiled. Flaherty was like the photographer Edward Curtis, who photographed the Plains Indians towards the end of the nineteenth century, trying to capture the essence of lives and peoples that were passing away. It was essentially a nostolgic, even romantic endeavor, but it was not amenable to the more conventional story-telling methods the studios understood.

When a full-scale company reached the Tahiti location, Flaherty realized that any naturalness on the part of the natives would be ruined by such a crowd. Early on in the shooting, with the Polyneasians singing Polyneasian songs, he came upon some cameramen and technicians sitting on the sand, listening to a portable radio broadcasting Abe Lyman and his band from the Hollywood Coconut Grove. Shortly afterwards, he resigned from the picture.

Nevertheless, White Shadows in the South Seas is a marvelous film on a tragic theme. The photography is sumptuous and Van Dyke, even then a master of montage, plays the scenes and settings like visual music. The story would be familiar to an audience which had already seen The Vanishing American, about the destruction of a native culture by forces beyond their control, brought to them by the white man. The dominance of America and the European nations then was such that they could afford the luxury of such an apology. In its sinceriety and the skill of its treatment, it was not, after all, a disservice to Flaherty’s participation.

As for Flaherty himself, he only completed six films altogether before he died in 1951, at the age of 67. It was something brought to G. W. Pabst’s attention, when he was complaining that if he had lowered his standards, he could have made more than twenty films. Yes, Flaherty had only made six films in thirty years, he said, “Yet what films!”


6:15 PM  
Anonymous Kevin K. said...

Another movie I watched only once years ago. While I remember little of it, it was the sadness of the story that got to me -- a sadness you rarely, if ever, feel in studio movies today.

1:06 PM  

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