It’s easy to look down on a movie like Bird of Paradise, an unabashed imperialist fantasy, fetishizing the erotic/exotic ideal of virgin territory, either conflating or confusing untouched country and the corresponding perfect state of Woman. Luana (the quintessential role for Dolores del Rio), like so many islands and far-flung stations in the eyes of Western expansion, is the paragonal object of desire: at once trusting, childlike, and fully a vivacious, bodacious lady, exquisitely proportioned. She speaks in a South Seas gibberish, yet intuitively understands the earnest longing of her white American suitor, Johnny Baker (Joel McCrea, at the height of his pre-Sturges “hunk” phase). King Vidor’s film, adapted by three writers from a play by Richard Walton Tully, tells an oft-recycled cautionary tale, validating Rudyard Kipling’s dictum of “East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet.” It has links to everything from King Kong to Avatar, and its telling lacks any impulse to comfort contemporary viewers with reflexive self-awareness, or the “slyly kidding” quality Bosley Crowther required of the 1951 remake.
You can hoist the film by its own (arguably colonialist) petard, or, as you can probably intuit by the artful tone of qualification nestled in the preceding paragraph, you can take a different tack, one that positions the viewer as the intrepid explorer, and Bird of Paradise not as some mouth-agape relic from guileless, blameless Old Hollywood, but a lush, island spectacle galvanized by one of the era’s great directors. Vidor was a bankable shooter, like Borzage at Fox, but also a very versatile one, adept at handling massive war epics (The Big Parade remains one of the highest-grossing movies of all time), romantic comedies, and progressive-minded, “social ills” melodramas. If auteurism is supposed, as it is by some, to be a game of spotting connectivity in terms of visual matches or consistent thematic grooves, King Vidor will almost certainly disappoint. He was too much of a renaissance man, his films were too diverse in texture, pedigree, and pattern, to serve the needs of a desk-reference ledger of Vidor-ness. Even in his silent films, Vidor’s cine-voice can be heard in the deep, bass-heavy channels, the fabrication of earthquake-sized vibrations and violent maelstroms of energy and tectonic movement. Such tumult, fitted to any scale of imagery, large and small, provides the motive force for the effervescent communal labor sequences in Our Daily Bread, the emotional roller coaster of The Crowd, and the camp eroticism of The Fountainhead.
With a degree of control that contributed heavily to his great stature as a film artist, Vidor held these tempests in the hollow of his steady hand. Bird of Paradise overflows with scenes that afford him the opportunity to field-test a very early prototype of Pocket God. The island drums and throngs of hot-blooded natives rarely cease undulating and shuddering. Even before they’re seen, they’re foretold by a dazzling montage in which the non-natives’ sailing vessel navigates a treacherous, narrow strait to reach the island paradise. The climactic volcano rhymes with similar eruptions in An American Romance, which sublimates rivers of molten steel into a sky-blotting fleet of aircraft, or the potent cocktails of pheromones and jealousy in Hallelujah! and Ruby Gentry.
One speaks of public-domain properties like Bird of Paradise (or His Girl Friday) the way cynical cops talk about orphaned kids released into the indifferent machine of foster care: Such films usually end up the worse for wear before they get better, if they ever get better. King Vidor's film has existed in a perpetual state of loveless neglect for longer than most people have been alive, so that most viewers will have experienced it only from shredded 16mm prints, or nigh-unwatchable tapes and DVD releases. Kino's Blu-ray release was taken from original nitrate materials belonging to the estate of legendary producer David O. Selznick. It's far from perfect, but, relative to what's come before it, it amounts to seeing a brand new film. Damage and wear have not been obliterated, but scaled back considerably, especially when the opening titles have passed. The transfer doesn't have the razor-sharpness one would expect from Criterion (contrast this with Island of Lost Souls), and the soundtrack is a little muddled and tinny, but you have to grade this on a steep, steep curve.
After years of neglect in the public domain, Kino's Bird of Paradise is obviously the phoenix, emerging renewed from a privately owned nitrate print.