A sensual, exotic pre-code romance, King Vidor’s Bird of Paradise often bears all the hallmarks of a clunky colonialist fantasy, but it doesn’t fall prey to them wholly. Native villagers are generally reduced to easy primitive stereotypes, but complex characterization isn’t exactly a strength of the film across the board — the white sailors who stumble upon a South Seas island are nearly as interchangeable as the natives.
Rather, the film endures because of its striking images and sturdy direction from Vidor, who wasn’t able to shoot on location like he had hoped, but retains a fairly convincing sense of place throughout. Any notions of stagebound stuffiness are rebuked by the film’s fantastic opening — a brilliantly edited sequence where the sailors navigate a treacherous strait to reach the native island.
Soon, Vidor has introduced us to Luana (Dolores del Rio) with a shimmering shot of her floating in the water. The unabashed romanticism makes Johnny Baker’s (Joel McCrea) infatuation seem like the product of a pure, timeless love rather than a case of the island fever. The feeling is cemented in the film’s centerpiece sequence — an underwater mating dance that’s both innocent and erotic.
These moments help make up for some of the less appealing elements, like Luana’s ridiculous faux-dialect and the villagers’ clichéd obsession with a volcano god and his thirst for virgin blood. Luana is doomed to be the chosen sacrifice, but Johnny outsmarts the natives and whisks her away to a jungle paradise, which he hopes will be followed by a trip back home to the states.
Bird of Paradise is easy to roll your eyes at, but Vidor has an impressive handle on romantic visual storytelling — the kind that supersedes the shortcomings of the script by Wells Root, Wanda Tuchock, and Leonard Praskins. For pre-code fans, it’s a charming delight.
The Blu-ray Disc
Bird of Paradise is presented in 1080p high definition in its original 1.33:1 aspect ratio. Sourced from an original 35mm nitrate print from the George Eastman House, the disc presents the film in a far better light than the numerous public domain DVDs have done in the best. There’s only so much you can do though when the elements are this rough. Moderate to heavy scratches are constant, and the image is generally a little soft. Whites are often blown out and blacks crush detail occasionally. All things considered though, the film is presented in a very watchable state here, and the high definition transfer offers improved clarity and sharpness, even if they’re not stunning.
The audio is worse off than the image, with the mono soundtrack afflicted heavily by hiss, crackle, and a general thinness that can obliterate softer spots of dialogue. Most remains intelligible, but you might have to listen a little more intentionally here.
Nothing, aside from a trio of trailers for other Kino Classics releases.
The Bottom Line
A respectable disc for this minor pre-code gem.