Screened Wednesday December 23 2009 on 35mm at the MoMA Study Center, New York NY
A white man on a trade expedition in an exotic tropical locale abandons his greedy merchant colonial companions to shack up with a native girl. He learns her people’s ways and warns them of the encroaching enemy that threatens to wipe out their culture. All of this is presented in a groundbreaking cinematic format that will redefine the standard of motion pictures to come. Sound familiar?
This 1928 Tahitian excursion was the first MGM sound film (as well as the first to feature the famous MGM lion in the credit roll). Swap 3-D for sound innovation and you pretty much have a Tahitian template for Avatar. Not saying that James Cameron knowingly ripped off the plot; it’s pretty much self-flagellating post-Colonialist drivel, the Eurocentric bullshit that even Terrence Malick isn’t immune to. But at least instead of James Horner muzak, we get William Axt and David Mendoza’s sub-equatorial symphonic jazz score (listening to it, you can practically see the palm trees swinging languidly in the breeze – trimmed with Art Deco tinsel):
This production was set to be Robert Flaherty’s first feature for a Hollywood studio, but (as notes following the break detail) his ethnographic philosophy and methods clashed with his professional crew, led by assistant director W.S. “One Take” Van Dyke (The Thin Man). Flaherty eventually left the shoot (later to return to the Polynesians with F.W. Murnau to shoot Tabu) and Van Dyke took over, completing the shoot in swift succession and delivering what in many ways is a quintessential Hollywood entertainment: exotic adventure, love, gunfights, technical innovation, spectacle linked to pseudo-liberal social consciousness. Plus giant killer clams and a the unforgettable sight of a body washed ashore covered in horseshoe crabs. The film also skirts the issue of language barrier that forced Cameron to invent a whole new language, as White and Tahitian silent dialogues are translated into the universal language of English subtitles. Only in the movies, indeed.
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The following citations were counted towards the placement of White Shadows in the South Seas among the 1000 greatest films according to They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They?
David Lean, Cinematheque Belgique (1952)
Jean Gehret, Cinematheque Belgique (1952)
Jean-Paul Le Chanois, Cinematheque Belgique (1952)
Luis Bunuel, Cinematheque Belgique (1952)
Either by accident or design, MGM came up with the most unlikely partnership in the history of motion pictures in the late twenties. Imagine if you can a collaboration between Robert Flaherty, the filmmaker who pioneered the documentary form, and W. S. Van Dyke II, who was known in the industry as “One Take Woody” because of his quick, cost-saving shooting schedule. Flaherty’s filmmaking method was just the opposite. His painstaking preparation for each film was legendary (BothNanook of the North (1922) and Moana (1926) took over two years to complete) and yet these two men were brought together by MGM mogul Irving J. Thalberg for White Shadows in the South Seas (1928).
Rumor has it that Thalberg bought Frederick O’Brien’s book because he found the title intriguing and not because of its powerful story which was a bitter denunciation of white civilization and its destructive effects on the lifestyles and cultural traditions of a Polynesian paradise. The central focus ofWhite Shadows in the South Seas is Matthew Lloyd (Monte Blue), an alcoholic doctor who is shanghaied by an unscrupulous pearl trader and winds up being marooned on a Pacific island where the natives have never seen a white man before. As time passes, Lloyd is revered as a god but eventually his corrupt nature and inherent greed brings about the destruction of the island community through alcohol, lust, and disease.
Flaherty agreed to direct White Shadows in the South Seas because he was friends with the author Frederick O’Brien and was recognized as an expert on Pacific Island culture (He had spend over 20 months on the island of Savai’i in the Somoas filming Moana). Van Dyke was brought on board to head up the technical unit and the entire crew traveled to the island of Papeete in Tahiti for filming. Right from the beginning, things began to go wrong. The unit’s interpreter was arrested a day after the crew arrived due to a past run-in with the local authorities. That situation immediately made the islanders suspicious of the movie people. Complicating the situation were tropical downpours that delayed filming, a climate that quickly spoiled food and basic edibles, and the unavailability of portable lights and generators for location shooting. And Flaherty’s slow, meticulous method of filmmaking was trying the patience of the entire crew. In W. S. Van Dyke’s Journal, the assistant director wrote, “Everyone hates everyone else’s guts. They are fighting like mad. Flaherty doesn’t know a thing….I have never seen a troop in a more deplorable condition. I am spending my days running around trying to pat them on the back and telling them to carry on as we will get home all the quicker. They are not sore at me, and when I am shooting they behave alright, but the minute Flaherty starts in, they start.”
– Jeff Stafford, Turner Classic Movies
[W.S. Van Dyke’s] writing expresses a desire to sever any links to Tahitians, “half-castes,” Chinese – that is, those who cannot be assimilated into a self-reflecting sense of unified American and masculine selfhood. He writes to Chippo, “This place is sure a degenerate’s paradise. Some of our gang are wallowing in it… These natives represent a very little different strata to me than the negro. And they smell about as bad except when they are all daubed with perfume.”
For Van Dyke, shooting his film far from home, the islands refused to provide any object that he could seize upon, identify with, or offer up as an example that embodied the preconceived illusion of tropical paradise that continued to dominate in the US at the time. In his journals, Tahiti appears as a depressed and fallen place that encompasses the extremes of Dante’s vision: paradise is called a “hell hole.” Soon the metaphorical relationship between sexual and cultural alienation becomes even more closely interwoven, and the blurring of vice and disease is made explicit, perhaps thinly veiling a reference to Van Dyke’s own strict sexual abstinence and the disappointed myth of potent primitive sexuality: “The men have the right idea down here. Everything droops. Even the foliage… Everything is tired. There doesn’t seem to be a semblance of a native life left on the island. Everything is of the bastardized variety. The natives are not altogether French and the French are only partly native.”
This bastardized offspring of colonial mixing seems somehow the fault of Tahiti itself. It is this impure, sexually fallen and literally infertile – “drooping – reality that the director finds himself constantly in need of disguising, making up, smoothing over and revitalizing in his film. White Shadows in the South Seas ultimately highlights the ways that film images can encode the relationship between desire and representation: appearing to penetrate the truth of the “passive” peoples and landscape of the South Pacific, it succeeds not so much in capturing others as in representing the idea of otherness in the US imagination.
Jeffrey Geiger, Facing the Pacifc: Polynesia and the US Imperial Imagination. University of Hawaii Press, 2007.
Opening credits, found on YouTube. “First time we heard the [MGM] Lion roar.”
HISTORICAL REVIEWS (Courtesy of Silents are Golden)
MOTION PICTURE MAGAZINE, September, 1928:
A picture ravishing to the eye and appealing to the heart has been made in the South Seas. The theme is the destructive civilization that white men bring into the lives of the natives – destructive to happiness, and even to life. Almost all the actors are natives, with the exception of Monte Blue and Raquel Torres who have the leading roles. Monte is excellent as the vagabond doctor who tries to save one tribe of natives from the white shadows. And Raquel Torres, as the island girl, is so good and so sincere that I couldn’t believe she was an actress. See this by all means. It’s an absorbing story played against beautiful backgrounds. And it starts off with some pearl-diving scenes you can’t afford to miss.
PHOTOPLAY, August, 1928:
If this opera has not gone to sleep under a cocoanut tree, it would have been the greatest South Sea drama ever filmed. This is the film that was started by Robert Flaherty. And the cameraman has caught rare beauty with his lens. Pearl diving and its perils are shown in wonderful under-sea shots and, although drama dies with the sinking of a plague ship in a thrilling typhoon, interest is sustained by a gorgeous travelogue.
THE FILM SPECTATOR, June 23, 1928:
Nothing finer than “White Shadows in the South Seas” ever has come to the screen. It is a Metro picture, directed by W.S. Van Dyke and featuring Monte Blue. Frederick O’Brien’s charming book of the same name was the inspiration for the screen story. All the charm of the book is put on the screen. It is a soothing picture that makes one lazy, and instills a desire to dwell on a South Seas island and pick a living off a tree. We see stately palms waving their branches, languidly yielding to a lazy breeze; crescent beaches turning back rolls of foam which the sea sends to them; quiet pools which reflect the riot of foiliage that droops over their rims; brown gods of grace who glide through crystal-clear water in search of pearl oysters. We go into the homes of the nativees and see how they live, how they eat and work and play — all things that we visualized when we read O’Brien, but which now come to us to alter our imaginings to square with facts. It is a photographic idyll of surpassing beauty, a poem which nature wrote and which the camera caught. And with it all we have a story, gripping, dramatic, that saddens us, for it shows how white men — the White Shadoews — grasping, debasing, went down there, destroyed the poetry in the name of commerce, and for a life gay, sweet, and innocent, traded a “civilization” that was sodden, immoral and corrupt. It was a splendid thing for Metro to do – the making of this picture – and splendidly has it done it. In it cinematic art touches one of its greatest heights. It was a big thing to do to send a company all the way to the South Seas, a venture in screen commercialism to make a great example of screen art, and so magnificently has the venture succeeded in its artistic quest that it will prove to be a commercial triumph. “White Shadows in the South Seas” willl be one of the outstanding financial successes of film hisitory, and as such should encourage Mr. Mayer to send forth more expeditions of the sort, and other producers to consider the advisability of emulating him. The picture will be a success, not because of its scenic beauty, not as a lesson in geography, not by virtue of its sociological value, but because it is a regular motion picture that makes us interested in people who move through it. It was wise of Metro to stress the story. Reduced to its essentials, it is nothing but story, the embellishments being things it picks up as it goes along. The viewer who is not intrugued by its pictorial splendor will follow with interest its romance and its drama. The viewer who can see nothing interesting in the life of the natives, will see much to interest him in the acting of Monte Blue. Monte gives a superb performance, one othat is sincere and powerful. It is a characterization of many different phases, and he is brilliant in all of them. I have seen nothing finer on the scren in a long time. This picture will bring to the front a young woman who is destined to become a great favorite. She is Raquel Torres, a Mexican, I believe, whom Hunt Stromberg discovered somewhere and gave her her opportunity. She is splendid. She has a spiritual quality that makes her screen personality charming. It is the same quality that Janet Gaynor has in such abundance, and Loretta Young, and a few others, the quality that suggests sweetness and goodness, and instills in the viewer confidence in a girl’s intergrity and intelligence. Robert Anderson very capably plays the part of heavy, and there are many satisfactory performances given by natives. Van Dyke’s direction is masterly. The story, splendidly written, brings out graphcially the misfortune that befell the South Sea Islanders when they were “civilized” by traders. I wish it had gone farther and shown the evil done by meddling missionaries, the unconscious accomplices of greed and alcohol in destroying a life a thousand times purer than the one that set forth to purify it.