Kino Lorber // 1932 // 82 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Daryl Loomis // June 19th, 2012
Even though the meaning of "pre-code" technically refers to any sound picture made before 1934, the marketing of them today always implies salacious promise, no matter how tame the content actually is. Bird of Paradise, though, is a case of pre-code cinema with some honestly racy material. That doesn't necessarily make it classic entertainment, but Delores del Rio makes one hell of a bathing beauty.
On a trip to Polynesia, a yachting team comes toward an island. The natives, a friendly lot, row out to meet them, but a shark suddenly joins them. Lead yachtsman Johnny Baker (Joel McCrea, Sullivan's Travels) tosses in a harpoon to spear it, but catches his foot in the rope and goes under. Brave and beautiful Luana (Del Rio, Madame Du Barry) dives in to rescue him, sparking a love that will not die, even by the wrath of the village king or an angry volcano.
Bird of Paradise is, at its very best, nothing more than a trifle, an entertaining romance with a Tarzan vibe. It features plenty of little moments that make it somewhat memorable, but it's a ham-fisted, casually racist story that reflects the base ignorance in Hollywood about island populations. It isn't mean-spirited at all; they are noble savages speaking cutesy gibberish who live a quaint, simple life. The white man turns their world upside down, gives them magical wonders like record players, and then steals their most eligible bachelorette. All of that comes off as really distasteful today, but there's absolutely no self-awareness and it comes across as hateful so much as innocently stupid.
If viewers can resist the urge to ascribe their modern attitudes to the story, though, there is plenty to like about this island romance. Joel McCrae is really good in the type of role he would go on to make fun of in Sullivan's Travels, an engaging and likable character who, otherwise, could have been completely despicable.
After they fall in love, the character tells his fellow crewmates to leave him on the island where he can stay with Luana. Like countless films that feature white men in native society, Johnny not only appreciates their lifestyle, he does it better. He builds a nice home with Luana, teaching her English (shockingly fast) and civilizing her. It's silly but sweet. McCrae and Del Rio have excellent chemistry together and even though he basically forces himself on her to begin with, the relationship works.
King Vidor wanted to film on location, but finally had to shoot at RKO Studios. It still looks good, though there are moments that are obvious sets. Bird of Paradise also gets credit as one of the first films with a complete accompanying score. It's not as powerful as his later work, but it's a nice piece of tribal-style music.
Of course, any review of this movie would be incomplete without mentioning the real reason that it's remembered: Delores Del Rio skinny dipping. Even pre-code, nudity was rarely seen and the scene was mildly scandalous, but it's surprisingly tasteful and a very pretty piece of underwater photography. It's a beautiful moment in an otherwise fairly artless film. It's not a great film; it's hardly a good one, but it's pretty solid entertainment that warrants a recommendation.
Bird of Paradise has been in the public domain for years, so was subject to a multitude of shoddy releases, but no longer. Kino International has brought this exotic escapade to Blu-ray in a massively improved, but still imperfect edition. The image, mastered from an original print preserved by the George Eastman House, looks so much better than it ever has, but its quality has more to do with the original preservation than any restoration Kino did. Thus, the picture has quite a number of blips and scratches, but the sharpness and contrast is strong overall. Still, its imperfections are a far cry better than how it used to be, so I can only sort of complain. The PCM 2-channel mono mix is fairly noise free with fairly sharp dialog and music, but is otherwise nondescript. There are no extras on the disc.
Bird of Paradise is far from a shining moment in the careers of anybody involved, but it is a trifle that provides genuine enjoyment. There are plenty of little points of cinematic interest and, of course, the racy stuff that drives pre-code sales. If you're a fan of the movie and have an older copy, you owe it to yourself to upgrade to Kino's Blu-ray; if you're unfamiliar with the movie and are interested, it's not a great movie by any means, but it's definitely worth a rental.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Kino Lorber
* Full Frame (1080p)
* PCM 2.0 Mono (English)
Running Time: 82 Minutes
Release Year: 1932
MPAA Rating: Not Rated