Joel McCrea (The Most Dangerous Game) stars as a handsome South Seas soldier of fortune who falls in love with Dolores Del Rio (Flying Down to Rio), the daughter of a Polynesian native chieftain. Alas, their idyllic romance is destined to come to a sudden and violent end: tribal custom decrees that Del Rio is to be sacrificed to the local volcano. After initial resistance, the heroine nobly resigns herself to her fate, realizing that there is no place for her in her white lover's civilization. From the legendary Academy Award nominated director King Vidor (War & Peace, The Champ) and producer David O. Selznick (Gone With The Wind, King Kong). This is the ONLY authorized edition of this classic film from the estate of David O. Selznick, restored and remastered in high definition from the George Eastman House.
During the darkest days of the Great Depression, movies were a haven for a downtrodden public enduring a meager existence and facing a bleak, uncertain future. Hope and joy were rare and precious commodities back then, and Hollywood studios deftly peddled them by producing escapist fare that allowed the common man and his struggling family the chance to forget the harsh realities of everyday life and revel in glamour and music or travel to faraway places where adventure and romance beckoned. Many of these pictures weren't very good, but they nevertheless captured the fancy of a troubled nation hungry for diversion, while padding the coffers of a burgeoning film industry.
'Bird of Paradise' was tailor-made for Depression-era audiences, with its South Seas locale, a steamy, cross-cultural romance between Mexican bombshell Dolores del Rio and Joel McCrea, scantily clad natives, and skirmishes galore. But other than a bit of titillation (del Rio's leis barely cover her breasts and there's a "nude" underwater swimming scene filmed in soft focus in murky waters) there's not much meat sticking to this island tale's ribs. In fact, the story is really pretty silly.
While on a yachting tour of the South Seas, strapping young sailor Johnny Baker (McCrea) encounters the breathtaking Luana (del Rio), daughter of the local chieftain, on a remote native island. Luana is affianced to marry a prince, but Johnny, against the advice of his shipmates, decides to pursue the alluring girl anyway, and she encourages his advances. Like Tarzan and Jane in reverse, Johnny tries to communicate with Luana, who speaks no English and only knows a primitive way of life. Of course, Luana's people frown on their union, inciting the couple to flee to a private island to indulge their mutual attraction. Their idyllic existence, however, is soon threatened when the neighboring volcano erupts and custom demands a human sacrifice to appease the angry gods. Luana is the chosen martyr, and she and Johnny must evade the tribal mob seeking to capture her and force her to fulfill her destiny.
'Luana Versus the Volcano' could have been an alternate title for 'Bird of Paradise,' which favors style over substance at every turn. Its ridiculous premise and strange denouement were too far-fetched to captivate even the most naive viewers of the 1930s (a follow-up film was planned but soon abandoned after the movie didn't recoup its costs), and they're even more difficult to swallow today. Eye candy is the raison d'etre for this film, which often seems like its sole purpose is to showcase its attractive stars wandering through the jungle half naked in a sarong and loincloth and smooching amid the flora and fauna. Director King Vidor, who would go on to helm such epics as 'Duel in the Sun' (also for producer David O. Selznick) and 'War and Peace,' possesses a superior visual sense, which serves him well here, as 'Bird of Paradise' often resembles a silent picture in the way its story draws its passion and emotion from images rather than dialogue. Vidor coaxes a fine performance from the gorgeous del Rio, who was never more exquisitely photographed and conveys a gamut of feelings without the aid of a single intelligible word.
'Bird of Paradise' is also notable for reportedly containing the first full-length original score of any film. Composer Max Steiner supplies the music, and his use of marimbas, ukeleles, vibraphone, and steel guitar so perfectly complement the South Sea setting, they became staple instruments for future tropical melodies.
Though it somewhat resembles 'Tarzan the Ape Man,' released a few months earlier in 1932, and sets the stage for the following year's 'King Kong,' 'Bird of Paradise' can't match either film in terms of spectacle or narrative drive. Vidor's east-meets-west love story is often visually arresting, but its artistry and the intoxicating beauty of Dolores del Rio aren't enough to make it more than an antique curio.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'Bird of Paradise' arrives on Blu-ray packaged in a standard case. Video codec is 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 and default audio is LPCM 1.0. Once the disc is inserted into the player, the static menu with music immediately pops up; no promos or previews precede it.
Lots of care, a sizeable bankroll, and meticulous restorative powers are necessary to bring films from the early 1930s and before up to Blu-ray standards, and the task is even tougher for public domain movies that haven't received proper nurturing over time. Sadly, 'Bird of Paradise' is one of those neglected films, and Kino has done a nice job bringing it back from the dead. This 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer was struck from an original nitrate 35mm print preserved by the George Eastman House Motion Picture Department and authorized by the David O. Selznick estate, which is a good start, but don't let those facts lead you to believe the print is in tip-top shape. The image itself possesses fine clarity, but there's no mistaking the veneer of print defects shrouding the picture. Of course, some scenes exhibit more scratches, vertical lines, white specks, and random debris than others, and after a while, one's eyes adjust to these distractions, but their appearance must be noted.
Otherwise, this is a pretty good-looking effort. Grain is present, but not overpowering, and contrast is well pitched, thanks to a varied gray scale that helps bring the exotic setting to life. Whites are bright and black levels are lush, though some daytime scenes appear slightly overexposed and occasional crush hampers the numerous nocturnal sequences. Background elements are a little fuzzy, though such indistinct detail is typical for films of this vintage, yet close-ups crackle with clarity despite the use of soft focus.
Thankfully, Kino has steered clear of digital enhancements to spruce up the picture. Never does the company try and hide the fact that 'Bird of Paradise' is a fragile antique. Barring a full restoration, Kino has done its best with what it had to work with, and those who understand the medium will respect its efforts.
Early 1930s audio is primitive enough on its own. Factor in years of neglect languishing in the public domain and you've got a seriously problematic track. It's a good thing 99% of Del Rio's dialogue is in another tongue, because it's practically unintelligible anyway, as are the lines of most of the English-speaking characters. Though it's easy enough to get the gist of what they're saying (and the exchanges are far from poetic), it still would be nice to have a clear reading of the script. The LPCM mono track, however, sounds rough, distorted, and tinny, almost as if the audio is being funneled through a meat grinder. (Yes, it's that harsh.) And sadly, the poor quality sound really hampers one's enjoyment of the film.
Hiss, pops, and crackles still remain, too, but such imperfections are more easily forgiven. The early Max Steiner music score can sound a bit shrill, especially during heavy string sections, but it fares far better than the dialogue and nicely fills the room. The dynamic scale is limited, but when the music doesn't push the limits on either end of the spectrum, it comes across fairly well.
Let's face it, this is an 80-year-old film, and its age is painfully evident. End of story.
A few trailers for other Kino releases are the only disc supplements. Previews for 'Nothing Sacred,' the 1937 version of 'A Star Is Born,' and 'Pandora and the Flying Dutchman' are included.
'Bird of Paradise' is exotic, strangely titillating, but utterly dated, and only diehard classics aficionados or fans of Dolores del Rio and Joel McCrea would be interested in picking up this disc. The island love story with a primitive twist can be visually arresting at times, but the corny story is thin and unsatisfying, and even the vibrant personalities of the stars can't successfully put it over. Clear but imperfect video helps immerse us in the setting, but poor audio often detaches us. Supplements are non-existent, unless trailers for other movies count. All in all, this is an interesting curio that classics mavens should consider taking for a spin. Appeal for anyone else, however, is limited at best.