Often relegated to tawdry box sets proclaiming the films inside to be from the saucy era of the racy early ‘˜30s, pre-Code films have become both oddly respected as time capsules from a fleeting moment in cinematic time, and also seen as camp-filled works of art finding the cast and crew willing to do things that their contemporaries wouldn’t.
However, while most don’t ever see the light of day on Blu-ray, at least in any respectable form, Kino has released a new, masterfully done Blu-ray copy of one of the more intriguing pre-Code efforts, King Vidor’s romance film, Bird Of Paradise. Staring the incomparably beautiful Dolores del Rio and the always dashing Joel McCrea, with David O. Selznick aboard as a director, this is not only one of the gaudiest works of this short time period, but is also one of its most genuinely superb.
McCrea stars here as Johnny, a sailor taking to the South Seas, who one day comes across the stunning Luana, an island chief’s free spirit daughter. Del Rio play’s McCrea’s paramour, who is scheduled to be married to a local price, only to go out and get hitched with Johnny on her arm, with their romance the direct focus of this lusciously shot romance epic.
Both McCrea and del Rio are fantastic here, both having to do wholly different things, but doing both with the highest of skill. McCrea, best known for films like Foreign Correspondent (currently available on Criterion’s Hulu Plus page), Sullivan’s Travels, The Most Dangerous Game and a handful of Westerns, is as roguishly charming as ever here. He plays the brutish sailor type with a sense of ease and confidence that bleeds directly into the character himself (gives Johnny a sense of ‘swagger’ as I think the kids are calling it today).
Del Rio, a stunning actress who grinded her teeth on early silent films as a prototypical silent actress, often garnering comparisons to say a female version of the iconic star Rudolph Valentino only to go onto bigger and better things, like a fiery relationship with Orson Welles, is great here. She isn’t asked to do a whole lot narratively, but you somehow feel the chemistry between the two stars, and genuinely care for their ultimate conclusions. It can’t be said enough that she’s absolutely gorgeous, and while that’s normally a pejorative when talking about an actress’ performance, her raw beauty and free spirit really pair well together, making del Rio seem absolutely born to play this type of romantic lead.
With the pair of Vidor and Selznick behind the camera and production respectively, the spectacle is justly campy. With whirlpools, scantily clad women and bombastic romantic interchanges, the scope here is admittedly melodramatic, but also stunningly crafted. Vidor was as strong a visual director as they came during his reign, and Selznick gave him the perfect amount of breathing room and backing to make what is one of the biggest romantic epics of its day. Toss in some great music crafted by none other than Max Steiner (King Kong) and you have a film that may in fact ooze a sense of Sirkian melodrama, but one that fully rewards any and all investment that one may put into these respective characters.
Clocking in at only 80 minutes, Bird Of Paradise is a tough film to recommend when released in such a bare bones version. It’s an extremely slight film, that doesn’t have much to say about the human experience or how we share it with others, opting for a broad romance to connect with the viewers. Now, while that may be a tough film to shell out $20 for, particularly when most releases of public domain films like this look shoddy and haphazardly put together, this release’s transfer is impeccable. There are no supplements to speak of, but the film itself looks and sounds great. Kino has again knocked this Blu-ray out of the park, adding yet another winner to their growing Selznick Collection sidebar. Restored from an original 35mm nitrate print, the film looks crisp and truly alive in gorgeous 1080p. You can’t get much better than this.