Do you have any SPF-15? Appellate Judge Dan Mancini burns easily.
This is my island in the sun, where my people have toiled since time begun.
Producer Daryl F. Zanuck (All About Eve) brings us a lavish soap opera set in the Caribbean and peppered with sex, a little politics, sex, a casual examination of colonialism and racial tension, and sex.
Facts of the Case
It's 1957 on Santa Marta, a British colony in the Caribbean. A black union official named David Boyeur (Harry Belafonte, Carmen Jones) is agitating for racial equality. The politically ambitious Boyeur's election to the parliament appears certain. His opponent is Maxwell Fleury (James Mason, Lolita ), whose family owns the Belfontaine plantation on which Boyeur's ancestors were slaves.
Meanwhile, romantic entanglements abound. Fleury has fits of jealousy over the possibility that his wife, Sylvia (Patricia Owens, The Fly ), is having an affair with a traveler and adventurer named Hilary Carson (Michael Rennie, The Day the Earth Stood Still). Fleury's sister Jocelyn (Joan Collins, Dynasty) pursues a handsome British lord (Stephen Boyd, Ben-Hur ). Their marriage would lend power and prestige to the Fleury family. One of the island's white socialites, Mavis Norman (Joan Fontaine, Rebecca), takes up an affair with Boyeur. And the assistant to the island's governor falls madly in love with Margot Seaton (Dorothy Dandridge, Porgy and Bess), a black dime store clerk and friend of Boyeur.
This tangle of clandestine romances works fortuitously to reveal a lurid secret about the Fleury family's past that puts Maxwell's viability as a political candidate in jeopardy, and potentially torpedoes Jocelyn's aspirations to marry into the British aristocracy. The revelation, however, becomes a minor problem when Maxwell's jealousy over the thought of being cuckolded by Hilary Carson gets the better of him.
Nothing would please me more than to report that Island in the Sun is a crackling tale about the convergence of the political and the personal. I wish I could tell you the entropy of Maxwell Fleury's privileged but meaningless existence is a vivid symbol of waning British colonial rule, and that David Boyeur's romance with Mavis Norman points toward the waxing powers of Santa Marta's oppressed indigenous peoples. To do so, though, would require a fib. The political tension on Santa Marta is fascinating, but in the end it's not much more than a backdrop for the (chaste) sexual escapades of the film's cast of beautiful people. Politics are introduced, then pushed quickly into the background as the picture blossoms into pure melodrama—Peyton Place by way of Mandingo.
The picture's aim at any sort of intelligent, forward-thinking racial consciousness sails woefully wide of its mark. In trying to challenge the social norms of 1957 without causing too great an offense to the sensibilities of the majority of its audience, Island in the Sun comes off, in retrospect, as quaint at best. At worst, its coy handling of interracial romance is almost offensive to modern sensibilities. There is such a calculated absence of onscreen romance between the races one wonders why Zanuck chose to broach the topic in the first place. A viewer of today who isn't watching closely might, for instance, miss the fact that Boyeur and Mavis Norman are sexually involved because the two rarely come within arms' length of each other. The romance between Margot Seaton and the governor's aide fares slightly better in that the two actually make physical contact, though only barely. The movie's ultra-brief moments of racial prescience are rooted in the probably true-to-life rage boiling just beneath the surface of Harry Belafonte's entire performance. He stumbles through the picture's more lame-brained and overwrought stretches of dialogue, and Joan Fontaine flounders trying to manage her own dialogue against his woodenness, but Belafonte's screen presence is magnetic. He steals the show from whoever he shares the screen with, be it Mason, Dandridge, or Fontaine.
Despite Belafonte's charisma, the real star of the picture is Santa Marta itself. The film's scope photography and rod- and cone-sizzling Technicolor make the most of the island's unspoiled foliage, ocean vistas, and colonial architecture. As with most Technicolor films of the fifties, time has been kind to Island in the Sun. The spectacular DVD presentation displays a minimum of print or digital problems.
If there's a downside to Santa Marta's starring role, it is that director Robert Rossen (The Hustler) allows the island's unspoiled splendor to bog down the narrative pacing. At times, the picture feels more like a travelogue than a soap opera. The camera sits idly by as we watch locals fish (a distended scene that's saved by the outbreak of "Lead Man Holler," a musical number with Belafonte in the lead). An extended sequence set in a street carnival is vibrantly aflood with calypso music, but subjects us to an inappropriately long scene of a woman doing the limbo. Perhaps audiences in 1957 were swept away in the exoticism, but it's downright dull today.
The DVD's Dolby Digital 4.0 reproduction of the film's original stereo surround audio track is clean and in perfect keeping with its sweeping cinematography and epic flavor.
Part of Fox's Cinema Classics line, Island in the Sun is housed in a keepcase that, in turn, is housed in an attractive slipcase made of heavyweight paper. It's pretty packaging for a single-disc release. In addition to the feature, the disc contains an informative audio commentary by writer John Stanley, a 44-minute A&E Biography segment on the troubled life of Dorothy Dandridge, and a theatrical trailer for the picture.
Island in the Sun isn't an important film. Its timid critique of European colonial racism only underscores that point. Apropos of its title, it is a vacation from reality—a pretty, substanceless entertainment that is a mild pleasure for the eyes and requires no intellectual heavy lifting. If your tastes run toward cornball melodramas from Hollywood's studio era, or you can't get enough of island sight-seeing, you'll love it.
Island in the Sun is innocuous, but not guilty.
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Scales of Justice
• Audio Commentary by Film Writer and Historian John Stanley
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