Thursday, June 24, 2010

“Bird of Paradise” (1951)

A publicity still with Debra Paget and Louis Jourdan.

This was the second cinematic rendering of the “Bird” story, following a version with Dolores del Rio and Joel McCrae from 1932, but the plot’s antecedents reach further back to a more remote era on Broadway, to a hit 1912 play of the same name by Richard Tully that starred Laurette Taylor.

Its plot only slightly resembles that of the later screenplays but is equally as melodramatic: Luana, a Hawaiian princess, redeems the soul of her lover, a beachcomber doctor who saves her people by isolating the germ that causes leprosey, and then sacrifices herself to the volcano god to save her people (again).

Despite the ludricrous story, “Bird of Paradise” brought a whiff of the erotic and the exotic, including a simulated volcano for the third act and real Hawaiian music. Though its success was limited in New York, the play was hugely popular throughout North America for over a decade between 1912 and 1924 and was revived twice in the West End of London. It made both its author and producer a fortune, which they lost and partially regained in the course of a protracted plagiarism lawsuit.

The play was also a major influence in popularizing Hawaiian performance culture throughout the US and beyond. While “Bird” was a drama, it included in the production what was purportedly authentic Hawaiian music. As only Hawaiian musicians could play in the style, Tully imported a band from the Islands known as the Hawaiian Quintette, which included the famous steel guitarist Walter Kolomoku (seen at right). Their performances led them to become so successful in their own right that they recorded the play’s incidental music for the Victor phonograph company, a recording that sold well into the 1920s.

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