(director: King Vidor; screenwriters: Leonard Praskins/Wells Root/adaptation of Richard Walton Tally’s play; cinematographers: Lucien Andriot/Clyde De Vinna/Edward Cronjager; editor: Archie F. Marshek; music: Max Steiner; cast: Joel McCrea (Johnny Baker), Dolores Del Rio ( Luana), John Halliday (Mac), Skeets Gallagher (Chester), Bert Roach (Hector), Lon Chaney Jr. (Thornton), Wade Boteler (Skipper Johnson), Agostino Borgato (Medicine Man), Napoleon Pukui (The King); Runtime: 80; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: King Vidor; RKO; 1932)

“The photography is exotic, but the story is for the birds.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Follows in the same light as the native-themed Tabu (1931) by Murnau, but can’t touch its accomplishment with a ten-foot pole. It’s based on a creaky old play by Richard Walton Tally and is written by Leonard Praskins and Wells Root. Director King Vidor (“The Big Parade”/”The Crowd”/”H.M. Pulham, Esq.”) updates the tale and takes advantage of the freedom allowed in the pre-Code days to tell his forbidden love story with full sexual energy. Vidor, in an uneven effort, gets a flavorful take on the colorful natives on an idyllic South Sea island, but the romantic story between a white tourist yachtsman, Johnny Baker (Joel McCrea), and a colored native princess, Luana (Dolores Del Rio), remains stilted.

Vidor has a good eye for local scenery and action scenes on a South Seas volcanic island visited by an American yacht. Young sailor Johnny is attacked by a shark and rescued by the chief’s hot daughter Luana. Dazzled by her good looks and joyous attitude, Johnny courts her. But she’s tabu, as according to native custom she’s reserved for island royalty. Though warned by the witch doctor (Agostino Borgato), Johnny ignores his threats. When the yacht takes off to visit other islands, the irrational Johnny stays on the island to make it with Luana. The plan is for the yacht in a few weeks to return and pick him up.

Warning: spoiler in the next paragraph.

While the couple frolic in the bushes, her father has his tribesmen snatch her away to marry a neighbor prince. Johnny follows her to the reception and snatches her away from the groom, and takes her to another island where he talks about taking her to San Francisco and she talks about the native superstition regarding the volcano. She tells him that the legend has it when the volcano Pele erupts, she must be fed to it in a ritualized sacrifice so as to abate its hunger. When the volcano begins to erupt, the natives come for her. When Johnny tries to interfere, the tribesmen pierce him with a poison arrow. Both Johnny and Luana are tied to a stake and prepared to die, but Johnny’s shipmates return and rescue both. Luana believes Johnny will die from a fever unless she goes through with the sacrifice, and thereby jumps ship and jumps into the flaming volcano.

Vidor revels in sequences with a shark attack, a giant whirlpool, a shirtless McCrea, Americans debating whether or not to eat poi, hula dancers (with dances devised by Busby Berkeley), the rescue of a would-be bride in a flaming ring and a volcano in eruption. The photography is exotic, but the story is for the birds.

It was remade in 1951 by Delmer Daves.

Bird of Paradise (1932)