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Cinema Revisited: “Bird of Paradise” (1932)

Dolores Del Rio, Joel McCrea
Kino Classics

Pre-code American cinema is a genre all its own, allowing for levels of experimentation and a grittiness of subject matter that would be absent after 1934 when the Production Code imposed its creative limitations. In the case of director King Vidor's “Bird of Paradise” (1932), a film of exotic beauty and sexual tension, it would likely be difficult to produce at any later time.

The edgy, concentrated performance of Joel McCrea fits perfectly opposite the beauty of Dolores Del Rio, each of them already veterans whose career dated back to late silents. And while the film achieved only modest success at the time of its initial release, it has since grown in cult status.

Del Rio is an island girl forbidden by her tribe to engage with any man other than those of a certain caste system within her immediate world. Joel McCrea is the brave American who bullies past this system without regard to the possible consquences.

Much of Vidor's film examines what could be done at the time with underwater photography. An early scene shows natives diving for trinkets. The first real encounter between McCrea and Del Rio is an underwater swimming sequence (and supposedly a nude scene by Del Rio, but the lighting makes this difficult to see, even on a restored blu ray). This culminates in his seduction of her (he pins her down while she struggles, eventually succumbing to her own sexual attraction to him). While tame by today's standards, this sort of situation was quite the challenge, even prior to the enforcement of the Production Code. But the base of the film deals more specifically with the outer layer of the story, dealing with the savage elements of the natives as well as McCrea's attempt to absorb himself into the prevailing culture of the islands, railing against the suppression as well as the superstitions.

There are some interesting "firsts" with “Bird of Paradise.” It was the first talkie to contain a full orchestral music score in the background to enhance the scenes. It was also the first film for Lon Chaney, Jr. (billed here under his real name of Creighton Chaney, which he used until 1935).

The Kino Classics blu ray of this movie features a beautifully restored 35mm print licensed directly from the estate of producer David Selznick via the George Eastman House. It not only allows for greater enjoyment of the film, but for a better appreciation of the rich photography and VIdor's use of location (initially Hawaii until inclement weather made that impossible).