Appellate Judge Amanda DeWees considers herself an articulate woman, but the two words that spring most immediately to mind when she views the young Joel McCrea are "hubba" and "hubba."
Our review of Bird of Paradise (1932) (Blu-ray), published June 19th, 2012, is also available.
Chester: What do they call this place?
For the unpretentious, self-effacing actor he was, Joel McCrea had a remarkably varied career. Before he found his niche in Westerns in the late 1940s, he had done everything from romantic melodrama (1933's Chance at Heaven, with Ginger Rogers) to Hitchcock (Foreign Correspondent, 1940), from straight drama (These Three, 1936) to zany comedy (The Palm Beach Story, 1942). Yet another side of McCrea's career is highlighted in this two-film release from VCI Home Video, which pairs two 1932 films the young McCrea made for RKO and its then executive producer, David O. Selznick. Both films take advantage of the actor's athleticism and all-American persona, as he plays an adventurous outdoor type faced with the challenges of (respectively) an exotic jungle romance and an exotic jungle manhunt.
Facts of the Case
In Bird of Paradise, McCrea plays Johnny, a happy-go-lucky guy out yachting with his friends in the South Seas. When they encounter an exotic isle and its occupants, Johnny falls hard for a beautiful woman (Dolores del Rio) who saves him from drowning. Little does Johnny know that the lovely Luana is the daughter of the tribe's chieftain, and thus taboo. But Luana defies her own father out of love for Johnny, and the two try to find happiness together away from the tribe and from Johnny's friends. But Luana has a date with destiny, for if the local volcano should become irritable, she knows she must offer herself to it as a placating sacrifice.
The Most Dangerous Game pairs McCrea with lovely Fay Wray, who had just finished working on King Kong. Based on the famous short story by Richard Connell, the film relates the story of Bob Rainsford (McCrea), a young big-game hunter whose boat founders near a mysterious island. The only survivor of the shipwreck, Rainsford makes his way onto the island and discovers the stronghold of Count Zaroff (Leslie Banks), a wealthy eccentric and a big-game hunter even more passionate than Rainsford himself. Rainsford also meets beautiful Eve Trowbridge (Wray), another shipwreck victim, who tries to warn him that the count is involved in the disappearance of her friends. But it's not until Eve's brother Martin vanishes that she and Rainsford discover the count's real passion. Although in the past he hunted animals like tigers and elephants, now he likes to hunt the most dangerous game of all: man. And should Rainsford choose not to join him, he will soon become Zaroff's prey.
In the interests of full disclosure, I may as well confess right away that I've always had a crush on Joel McCrea. He's so darn good-looking—Anita Loos, author of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, said that the sight of him on a sunlit beach once made her faint, and I can believe it. But perhaps even more appealing is that McCrea never acts as if he thinks he's good-looking—or even a good actor. In interviews he was always dismissive about his acting ability, and that attitude emerges on screen in a certain straightforward quality: There's no preciousness or self-consciousness in McCrea's onscreen persona. One of his great gifts as an actor is that matter-of-fact attitude, and in both Bird of Paradise and The Most Dangerous Game that quality gives the unlikely plots a much-needed grounding in reality.
The plot of Bird of Paradise is indeed unlikely, not to say flimsy, but as pretty escapism it is quite pleasant. Filmed on location in Hawaii, it offers lots of beautiful scenery and a lushly romantic atmosphere, which reaches its pinnacle in an underwater bathing scene that surely paved the way for the similar sequence in 1934's Tarzan and His Mate. With its pre-Code hints of nudity, this scene is tasteful yet languidly erotic, establishing the flirtation between Johnny and Luana that will blossom into passionate devotion. Heightened by Max Steiner's Hawaiian-style music and the moonlight shining through the water, the underwater ballet of desire is one of the film's standout achievements. The performances of del Rio and McCrea also go far to render this fluffy material watchable. Del Rio is charming as the impetuous, vivacious tribal princess, and she acquits herself well in the dancing sequences (directed by Busby Berkeley). She is also able to carry the melodramatic turns of the plot with conviction. In a scene in which the delirious Johnny, back on the yacht, pleads for water, her bewilderment in trying to find a source of water in the unfamiliar surroundings is truly touching—and her solution is the pinnacle of romance: to suck the juice from an orange and feed it into Johnny's mouth by kissing him.
Ultimately, Bird of Paradise is a picturesque if forgettable film. There's a pleasantly Tarzan-y atmosphere to the scenes in which Johnny and Luana create a private jungle paradise (McCrea even uses vines as a method of transportation at one point). The film also supplements its appeal by offering lots of pulchritude for both male and female viewers: the oft-shirtless McCrea and the scantily clad del Rio, whose flower leis nevertheless defy gravity by clinging to her breasts at all times. If it's impossible to take seriously, it's still a pleasant way to while away an evening, and as a warmup for the superior The Most Dangerous Game it is well chosen. It's interesting that both films start with McCrea on a boat, sailing into unknown waters. The two films could even be taken as offering an either-or scenario: Will our hero find romance, or danger? Since this is Hollywood, though, they usually come hand in hand.
As always when a film adds a love interest to a story set in a formerly all-male milieu, I approached The Most Dangerous Game with some trepidation. The short story is such a perfect example of its kind that I was concerned the film would water it down too much by lengthening it and adding the romantic plot. I was very happy to be proven wrong: The addition of Eve is a masterstroke. Her presence offers a natural way of presenting exposition, since she can impart dire information about Zaroff's tendencies, and her disclosures enhance the tension and suspense. Moreover, her existence in the story ratchets up the stakes another notch: Not only will Rainsford's life be at risk when he is hunted by Zaroff across the island, but Eve's virtue as well, since Zaroff declares that she will be the victor's prize: "Only after the kill does man know the true ecstasy of love!" he leers. The prospect that awaits Eve if Rainsford should fail to outwit Zaroff is prefigured by the fortress's sadistically erotic decor: Both the metal door knocker and an enormous tapestry depict a bestial male carrying an unconscious, bare-breasted woman in his arms. (Since these details aren't in the original short story, I wonder if this is an instance of the production's having been influenced by the omnipresent King Kong. The Most Dangerous Game was actually filmed on many of the King Kong sets while the animation for the great ape was being completed, and fans of King Kong may find it an enjoyable diversion to try to spot the recycling.)
The film's short running time doubtless contributes to its effectiveness: It keeps the story moving along at a good pace and ensures that the suspense doesn't flag. Even though the screenplay adds a good deal to the story on which it is based, including a philosophical angle that shows McCrea's character coming to look at the hunting he has done in a new light, it doesn't feel padded. The only weak addition is that of Eve's tippling brother, Martin, whose presence is probably intended as comic relief, but whom I found annoying. Aside from this character, the film's only stumbling block is its villain. As portrayed by Leslie Banks, the count is very theatrical; although most of the acting in the film has a somewhat theatrical tendency, Banks takes this to an extreme, rolling around his Russian-accented words as if they taste like caviar. Although he definitely convinces us he's mad—those wild eyes!—he's not as threatening and imposing a figure as he should be. (That function is partly filled by his hulking and silent Cossack servant/thug.) Perhaps the director should have hired someone more physically imposing to hold his own against McCrea's 6'3" height. For whatever reason, Zaroff isn't as effective a villain as he should be, which somewhat weakens this otherwise strong suspense film; the solid performances by Wray and McCrea, however, do much to strengthen it.
Audiovisual quality, as in other VCI releases I've seen, is adequate at best. The high-contrast transfers offer rich black and bright whites, but both tones are bereft of detail, leading to blank areas of the picture. In general the image tends toward haziness, and there is a great deal of speckling and age-related wear. The level of hiss and crackling in the audio is not overpowering, but, as with the visual transfer, audio in both films is fuzzy and indistinct. The extras contain a pleasant surprise, however: the 1932 Betty Boop cartoon "Betty Boop's Bamboo Isle," which is presented in a pretty good transfer and plays out a plot very much like that of Bird of Paradise with Betty, of course, as the dark-eyed island cutie. The other extra, a trailer for King Kong, is touted as being the original theatrical trailer, but it indicates in the final frames that it's a re-release trailer. The inaccuracy of the packaging extends to giving false dates for both films.
Fans of Joel McCrea and either (or both) of his leading ladies in these films will have good reason to add this disc to their collections; even though the quality of presentation isn't what one would wish, the films are enjoyable. Likewise, those who are fond of King Kong and early adventure films of that ilk will probably greatly enjoy this version of The Most Dangerous Game, which has been filmed several times since. This double feature is also a good look at David O. Selznick's early work before he left RKO. Most important, though, is that it's entertaining.
Mr. McCrea is free to go. Before he does, though, would he mind taking off his shirt just one more time?
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Scales of Justice, Bird Of Paradise
Perp Profile, Bird Of Paradise
Studio: VCI Home Video
Distinguishing Marks, Bird Of Paradise
Scales of Justice, The Most Dangerous Game
Perp Profile, The Most Dangerous Game
Studio: VCI Home Video
Distinguishing Marks, The Most Dangerous Game
• "Betty Boop's Bamboo Isle" Animated Short
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