This movie reminded me of something I'd almost forgotten: how much of a complete sucker I am for a romantic South Seas Island story. It reminded me that my favorite, most-read part of "Mutiny on the Bounty" is not actually the mutiny or even anything having to do with Fletcher Christian, but rather the swimming contest between Tehani and Byam. Yeah, seriously -- I mostly read Mutiny on the Bounty for everything that happened on the islands. And when I watch South Pacific, it's really to get to the parts with Lt. Cable and Liat on the island. What can I say? I really am a complete sucker for a romantic South Seas Island story.
So, did I get what I wanted from Bird of Paradise?
Romance? Check! Natives enthusiastically greeting boat and subsequent wild party? Check! Shark attack? Check! Boy gets, then loses girl, check! Unexpected brutal violence, check! Lots of boats and swimming, Joel McCrea tied up not once, but twice, lots of beautiful scenery, coconuts, everyone (including our handsome hero) scantily clad... yeah. All of that. Oh, and did I mention the romance?
Bonuses: 1) The volcano. 2) Snappy dialog, particularly among the ship passengers/crew. 3) And the absolutely wonderful native lady that Joel McCrea bribes with a record player. I loved her!
So, yeah, this version of Bird of Paradise was a lot of fun for me. It gave me everything I want out of a palm tree flick, and quite a bit more. Sailor falls for native girl, only she's off limits (of course) being a princess. She falls for him too, so her dad hurriedly shoves her into marriage with a prince on another island. Only Joel McCrea follows, steals her right out of the middle of the wedding ceremony (now that takes guts!). Off they run to their own little tropical island, where he builds a house and she shows him what they can eat and he teaches her English, and life is oh-so-sighingly indolent and lovely. Then the volcano starts erupting, and everything goes south from there.
I think it's kind of ironic how good the special effects were back in the 30's (Wizard of Oz's tornado still looks better than any CGI crap they do nowadays. Ditto, The Hurricane's typhoon) compared to even just a decade later. This movie gets a lovely lava flow with real footage, and the volcano itself looks pretty good in all but a couple shots.
The only very minor disappointment was that I was expecting an ending more like the Debra Paget remake's ending, and this one sort of faded to black before it quite got there. This movie was far superior in every other aspect, I thought (though it's been ages since I've seen the remake, so that might be an unfair comment).