Bird of Paradise (1932) from Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy)

I'll bet that some of you are wondering why a film nudity specialist is featuring a movie from the thirties, but you more savvy types realize that there was some nudity in Hollywood in the early talkies. There were censorship standards set way back in the silent era, established as early as 1922, but the original rules were voluntary and thus often ignored. The so-called "Hays Code," an elaborately detailed production code consisting of rules for what could and could not be portrayed on screen, was formalized in 1930, but originally lacked any teeth for enforcement. The voluntary compliance (wink-wink!) era came to an end in 1934 when the American Catholic church announced the creation of the Legion of Decency, which encouraged the production of moral films and promptly condemned any film with an immoral message or content. The Legion's activism hit the film industry in two vulnerable areas. First, the Legion's threats to boycott objectionable films went directly for the purse strings. Second, the Legion threatened to lobby the federal government for official censorship. The industry's leaders saw the handwriting on that wall. They knew the Legion could exert a powerful influence over politicians, and they realized that self-censorship was a far more attractive alternative to draconian government interference, so they created a formal procedure to administer the code. All films released after July 1, 1934, had to get script approval before production could begin, and each film was later required to obtain a "seal of approval." Failure to comply resulted in a $25,000 fine for the studio, and a distribution ban upon the non-compliant film. Joseph Breen, new head of the Production Code Administration (which later became the MPAA), was assigned to oversee the process.

The Production Code basically kept nudity out of American movies for approximately the next thirty years. The Legion did not begin to lose its grip on Hollywood until the early sixties when an unfinished 1962 film, Something's Got to Give, was to have taken on the Code by featuring a skinny dip from Marilyn Monroe. Marilyn's death temporarily scotched the snake of mainstream nudity, but other films soon took up the baton. Cleopatra featured a modest look at Liz Taylor's bum in 1963, and The Pawnbroker managed to sneak fairly substantial nudity into arthouse theaters in 1964 despite a "condemned" rating from the Legion. Despite these efforts and a rapidly liberalizing culture in the mid sixties, it was not until 1968 that the Production Code was officially replaced with the first version of the current rating system.

But that's a story for another day. Today's tale concerns not post-Code nudity, but the bit of flesh that snuck in here and there between the adoption of the toothless Code in 1930 and its acquisition of teeth in July of 1934, a period representing four years of leftover 1920s hedonism. There were the notorious Fay Wray scenes in King Kong (1933), Claudette Colbert's breasts in The Sign of the Cross (1932), Myrna Loy's bath in The Barbarian (1933), full frontal and rear underwater nudity from Maureen O'Sullivan's body double in Tarzan and his Mate (1934), and Hedy Lamarr's notorious frontal nude scenes and breast close-ups in the Czech-made Ecstasy (1932).

And then there was Delores Del Rio's shapely bum in Bird of Paradise (1932), our subject for today.

There are two key bits of sexuality in this film. The first is an erotic dance which a native Pacific islander (Del Rio) performs for her fellow denizens of the South Seas, while wearing only a lei on the top half of her body. Although the lei was firmly (and unrealistically) affixed to her bosom, the dance was obviously sexual in nature, and Del Rio's breasts were jiggling and almost exposed. The second sexy scene featured actual nudity. Del Rio teases Joel McCrae (as a visiting yachtsman) into joining her for a midnight swim. He strips down to very minimal shorts, and she seems to be wearing nothing at all. Although the scene was filmed underwater at night, there is no mistaking the sight of bare female buttocks, so the scene could not have been included if the film had been made two years later. Although the censorship era was about to dawn, this film demonstrates that Hollywood seemed to be unconcerned with the Production Code rules in 1932, and so must have been the public in large part, as illustrated by the fact that Bird of Paradise was not a German or Czech arthouse film, but a mainstream American entertainment from RKO. It was produced by David O Selznick, who produced Gone With the Wind. It was directed by King Vidor, who directed The Wizard of Oz. That's as middle-American as it gets.


What about the movie?

Some upper-crust American sailors, dressed in their best Princeton blazers, exhibiting their best finishing-school postures, and smoking their most sophisticated pipes, maneuver their yacht into the harbor of a stereotypical South Seas Island, where they are greeted by stock footage of natives in exotic canoes. An enormous shark appears in the harbor, and the handsomest young adventurer, played by Joel McCrae, is pulled overboard when the shark attacks a wayward fishing line. McCrae's leg becomes tangled in a rope and he is about to be drowned when a beautiful native girl (Delores Del Rio) cuts the line and saves his sorry ass. He is immediately smitten, and decides to stay on the island to court her while his colleagues sail off in their manly blue blazers. Unfortunately for him, Del Rio can only marry a prince for some reason or another and is therefore promised to the island's Big Kahuna, who seems to be the only available royal candidate. McCrea's yachting pals had previously counseled him to “run for Prince on the Democratic ticket,” but their cavalier advice offered no practical help, so he ends up kidnapping her during a ritual dance and spiriting her off to an uninhabited island where they start to play house. The Kahuna eventually kidnaps her back and it's not long before both Del Rio and McCrae are tied to palm trees, awaiting some fate worse than death, or at least as bad. Meanwhile, the other yachting swells have realized that McCrae might need their assistance, so they turn their schooner around and rescue the star-crossed lovers before they can be consigned to whatever unpleasant fate the islanders had prepared for them. Blah, blah. Islanders go batshit. Volcano explodes. Yadda, yadda. To make a long story short, the only way there can be peace between the islanders and the yachtsmen is if Del Rio agrees to jump in the volcano as a sacrifice to the local Lava God. She does, and the film ends with her self-sacrifice!


The film may have been eminently watchable in 1932, but it's too quaint to stand modern scrutiny. You might be amused by its naiveté. The acting and musical styles come from an earlier time, and the filming techniques are primitive. The boat used for exterior establishing shots and the boat used for the deckside discussions are obviously not the same ship. The "sailors" never get their spiffy blazers wet at any time. Del Rio spends the entire film speaking obvious booga-booga gibberish or clumsily mispronouncing words when she attempts English. The dialogue supplies more than a few cringe-worthy moments, especially when Skipper Johnson, Skeets, Mac, and the other blazer-clad lads grasp their cigarette holders, polish their spats, down their drinks, and discuss the "carefree" islanders.

Apart from the nudity, there is one other element of historical interest. Future wolfman Lon Cheney Jr., then known as Creighton Cheney, made one of his earliest appearances in this film, playing a bit part as one of Skippy's crewmen. (Far right.) He is credited for his small part, but I don't even remember hearing his distinctive voice.

The only thing worthwhile about the film, excluding the elements with historical significance, is some impressive location footage which was really lensed somewhere in the South Pacific.  The actors actually interact with waterfalls and coves, but not with the shark or the volcano, which seem to come from stock footage. Stock or not, the shark is real and that seems to be real lava flowing from a real exploding volcano. I assume those sights, so familiar to us now from basic cable, were new and exotic sights for many Americans in 1932. 



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The Critics Vote ...

  • There are no reviews available from major print sources, but the IMDb page includes some interesting reviews from internet-based sites.


The People Vote ...

The meaning of the IMDb score: 7.5 usually indicates a level of excellence equivalent to about three and a half stars from the critics. 6.0 usually indicates lukewarm watchability, comparable to approximately two and a half stars from the critics. The fives are generally not worthwhile unless they are really your kind of material, equivalent to about a two star rating from the critics, or a C- from our system. Films rated below five are generally awful even if you like that kind of film - this score is roughly equivalent to one and a half stars from the critics or a D on our scale. (Possibly even less, depending on just how far below five the rating is.

Our own guideline:

  • A means the movie is so good it will appeal to you even if you hate the genre.
  • B means the movie is not good enough to win you over if you hate the genre, but is good enough to do so if you have an open mind about this type of film. Any film rated B- or better is recommended for just about anyone. In order to rate at least a B-, a film should be both a critical and commercial success. Exceptions: (1) We will occasionally rate a film B- with good popular acceptance and bad reviews, if we believe the critics have severely underrated a film. (2) We may also assign a B- or better to a well-reviewed film which did not do well at the box office if we feel that the fault lay in the marketing of the film, and that the film might have been a hit if people had known about it. (Like, for example, The Waterdance.)
  • C+ means it has no crossover appeal, but will be considered excellent by people who enjoy this kind of movie. If this is your kind of movie, a C+ and an A are indistinguishable to you.
  • C means it is competent, but uninspired genre fare. People who like this kind of movie will think it satisfactory. Others probably will not.
  • C- indicates that it we found it to be a poor movie, but genre addicts find it watchable. Any film rated C- or better is recommended for fans of that type of film, but films with this rating should be approached with caution by mainstream audiences, who may find them incompetent or repulsive or both. If this is NOT your kind of movie, a C- and an E are indistinguishable to you.
  • D means you'll hate it even if you like the genre. We don't score films below C- that often, because we like movies and we think that most of them have at least a solid niche audience. Now that you know that, you should have serious reservations about any movie below C-. Films rated below C- generally have both bad reviews and poor popular acceptance.
  • E means that you'll hate it even if you love the genre.
  • F means that the film is not only unappealing across-the-board, but technically inept as well.


Based on this description, this film is a C. It is too quaint to take seriously, but is worth a look for a few reasons: historically significant nudity, a very young Lon Cheney Jr, some impressive location shots, and a charming naiveté that could never again be duplicated without irony.

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