There was a vogue for South Seas exotica in the late silent and early sound era, films made up of varying degrees of ethnographic revelation, social commentary, and erotic spectacle. Moana (1926), Robert Flaherty’s documentary portrait of life in Samoa, is the first expression of this idealized screen fantasy (every scene was carefully staged for his cameras), and the most spectacular expression comes via King Kong (1933), which exaggerates both the primitive exoticism and the primal fears of savage tribal culture to outrageous extremes. Along the way are films as varied as White Shadows in the South Seas (1928), The Pagan (1929), Tabu (1931), and King Vidor’s Bird of Paradise (1932).
You wouldn’t peg King Vidor, a social realist by nature, as a natural for such a subject, and the director himself dismissed 1932 Bird of Paradise as “a potboiler.” He took the assignment with no script, merely a Hawaii location, a South Seas setting, Dolores Del Rio and Joel McCrea set for the starring roles, and a few directives from producer David O. Selznick, new ensconced as head of production at RKO. “Just give me three wonderful love scenes like you had in The Big Parade and Bardelys the Magnificent. I don’t care what story you use so long as we call it Bird of Paradise and Del Rio jumps into a flaming volcano at the finish,” is how Vidor (writing in his autobiography A Tree is a Tree) recalled Selznick’s request. And that’s what, after weeks of waiting out tropical storms to shoot location footage in Hawaii and completing the production with Catalina doubling Hawaii, he finally delivered. So many of these films revolve around forbidden love, often (though not always) about white male adventurers intoxicated by the primal innocence in a land of plenty and a culture of easy living. And so goes Bird of Paradise, with McCrea as Johnny, the all-American sailor who (with the blessing of his paternal captain) jumps ship to spend time on a tropical island and the chief’s beautiful young daughter Luana (Del Rio), who is betrothed to the prince of another island. But of course.