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Tuesday, 3 March 2009

White Shadows in the South Seas (1928)

Director: W S Van Dyke
Stars: Monte Blue and Raquel Torres

Sounding like a pulp adventure, this is really an indictment of western exploitation of the natives in the South Seas, wrapped up in a highly melodramatic storyline. It's a film from the end of the silent era that won an Oscar in 1928 for cinematography, and which unlike some of its competitors (such as F W Murnau's 4 Devils) has fortunately survived to this day. Based on a novel by Frederick O'Brien, it claims to be filmed in 'the natural locations', the coral atolls of Polynesia, but was really shot in Tahiti. It has a couple of firsts to its name though: it's the first MGM film to be introduced by a roaring lion and it counts as MGM's first sound picture, though it's really a silent. Douglas Shearer synchronised music and sound effects. I didn't catch any speech though.

Our lead is Monte Blue, a leading man in the silents whose long career continued into the serials and westerns of the forties and fifties. He's Dr Matthew Lloyd and when we first meet him he seems to be a bitter drunk willing to stoop as low as a bad joke to get a free drink, but that's only partly true. He still cares enough to leap out of the bar when one of the local pearl divers is brought to shore with a collapsed lung and spend all night trying to save the man. He's certainly bitter and cynical, but it would seem with good reason: the local trader, named Sebastian, is exploiting these locals to a large degree: he has them diving too often and pays for their pearls with trinkets.

We're shown the dangers of pearl diving: not just the obvious perils of the deep like sharks, octopi and razor sharp clams, but the unseen ones too, the burst veins and collapsed lungs caused by the frequent dives and great and sudden changes in pressure. We soon see plenty of other dangers, because Sebastian has it in for Dr Lloyd, especially after he belts him one and knocks him into the sea. Soon a boat arrives, all its men dead of the bubonic plague and Sebastian has him lashed to the wheel and set adrift. He frees himself but only once out at sea and one typhoon later he's shipwrecked on the island of the Mehevi tribe who have never seen a white man before.

Of course they see him as a god and celebrate his arrival with a great feast. Here's where we get to see some footage more akin to a documentary, which is shot very effectively indeed. We see the natives walking or leaping up palm trees to harvest coconuts, catching giant turtles and octopi from the sea and putting the feast together. There's some clever use of editing to speed up time, used to great effect when the natives generate fire or peel breadfruit. We even see a little native dancing, which isn't plentiful but lively, especially in the form of Kekelafaufaupaopao, which apparently translates as 'Man with legs like exploding eggs'. Is this 1928 humour or a real translation? Who knows.

With the Mehevi tribe, Dr Lloyd finds himself again, which is hardly surprising given that it's an island paradise and the natives think he's a god, though he almost loses himself to greed when he realises the cheap and plentiful supply of pearls. Of course he falls for one of the beautiful dancers, Fayaway, who is naturally the daughter of the chief and while she's initially tapau, or a virgin bride of the temple, Lloyd saves the life of her little brother, and is allowed to look upon her with love. In the bizarre logic of early Hollywood, she's also beautiful but not Polynesian in the slightest. She's Raquel Torres, born in Sonora, Mexico, and this was the first film in a brief but successful career. I've seen her before in the early Boris Karloff film, The Sea Bat, and with the Marx Brothers in Duck Soup.

The South Seas were notably exotic in 1928 and so the setting for no end of pulp adventure stories. Hollywood paid attention and so early American cinema is full of such films. It was a time when any story could be believable if it was set in such a location, up to and including King Kong. This isn't quite as fantastic but it's certainly outrageous melodrama. It looks great and it plays out nicely to anyone of a pulp mindset, with Blue and Torres fine in their roles and with a very neat villainous performance in the silent style by Robert Anderson as the trader Sebastian.

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