Tuesday, January 29, 2013

The Hurricane (1937)

THE HURRICANE                B                     
USA  (110 mi)  1937                      uncredited co-director (listed as associate director):  Stuart Heisler

The South Sea islands, the last hiding place of beauty and adventure.         
—Girl on ship (Inez Courtney)

No jail can hold Terangi very long — if it has a window in it, he’ll fly away! If it has water around it, he’ll swim away!        — Marama (Dorothy Lamour)

I represent a civilization that cannot afford to show confusion or conflict to the people it governs.       — French Governor Eugene De Laage (Raymond Massey)

How can I be your judge? You’ve sinned, but others have sinned more against you. You weren’t meant for evil, you were made to do evil.             
—Father Paul (C. Aubrey Smith)

Other than the most recent Tabu (2012), another filmmaker influenced by F.W. Murnau’s TABU (1931) is none other than American movie icon John Ford who traveled to the South Pacific to make this film, specifically the village of Pago Pago on Tutuila Island in American Samoa, while also constructing an artificial native village on 2 ½ acres on the United Artist back lots where according to Life Magazine, special effects wizard James Basevi was given a budget of $400,000 to create his effects, spending $150,000 to build a native village with a lagoon 200 yards long, and another $250,000 destroying it.  Pre-dating the tornado sequence in THE WIZARD OF OZ (1939) and the modern era Weather Channel on TV, no one had ever seen such a vivid recreation of a tropical storm, more correctly called a cyclone in the South Pacific (hurricanes are in the Atlantic), where the real thrill is an incredible 15-minute hurricane sequence that was actually directed by Stuart Heisler, perhaps best known for his film noir remake of The Glass Key (1942) starring Veronica Lake and Alan Ladd, but also the rarely seen early performance from Susan Hayward in Among the Living (1941).  Ford usually liked to personally supervise all of the filming on his movies, so Heisler’s ability to simulate a savagely fierce island hurricane is particularly noteworthy, as it’s one of the best uses of special effects in early cinema.  Adapted from the Charles Nordhoff and James Norman Hall novel, the same duo writing The Mutiny on the Bounty, an Academy Award winning film in 1935, the film is a highly picturesque South Seas island melodrama that borrows liberally from TABU, especially the contrasting views of “Paradise” and “Paradise Lost,” as seen through two marriages, young Polynesian newlyweds Terangi (Jon Hall, an American actor who was actually raised in nearby Tahiti) and Marama (Dorothy Lamour, a former Miss New Orleans who became associated with roles in sarongs) and the more “civilized” European couple of French Governor Eugene De Laage, the ever dour Raymond Massey wearing a white suit with matching pith helmet, and his wife Germaine, Mary Astor.

Set during the colonial era in the South Pacific on the French Polynesian island of Manakoora, with the sweeping musical theme of “Moon of Manakoora”
Alfred Newman - The Moon Of Manakoora - YouTube (3:08) playing throughout the movie, the lushly visualized island village has a sandy shoreline with swaying palm trees where the glimmering seas never looking so romantic, a picture of innocence and hope.  Yet according to Turner Classic Movie’s Robert Osborne, the story resembles Les Misérables “with a relentlessly sadistic villain in constant pursuit of an unfairly hounded victim.”  The same could be said about an earlier Ford movie shot the previous year, THE PRISONER OF SHARK ISLAND (1936), which features another unjustly accused man attempting to escape from prison, where interestingly John Carradine plays the sadistic warden in each film.  Told entirely in flashback, the film is given a near mythical characterization, where the islanders are seen from an outsiders point of view as childishly naïve and overly happy, mostly without a care in the world, yet a cultural divide seems to have been bridged in several examples of perfect harmony, where Terangi is seen as an indispensable first mate on a European vessel traveling back and forth to Tahiti, and in a gorgeously exotic marriage ceremony between Terangi and Marama, where literally hundreds wore gardenia leis around their necks and every woman had flowers in her hair, as they are given the blessing of both the Catholic Church and the tribal chief.  However, viewers may cringe when they hear Terangi proudly announce to his new bride, “In Tahiti, when I sit down in a café with this cap on, I’m just the same as a white man.”  Overall, the natives are seen as docile and obedient to authority, where they submit to the rule of an intractable and extremely narrow minded Governor who sees the law in absolute terms.  It’s unclear why such a small island would even have a French Governor and why people would so easily submit to his authority, especially without any police or militia at his disposal.  Early on we see the tribal chief cooperating with the jailing of a native for theft, when the evidence suggests he was using a canoe to romance his girlfriend under the moonlight.  One wonders how this is considered a crime, especially since all the canoes are owned by native islanders and none were pressing charges.  Most likely the idea of property ownership is strictly a European principle, so a distinction is clearly made between the tyrannical colonizers who make the rules and the submissive natives who must adhere to them, especially when the law is unjustly applied.   

Ford builds a strong case for resistance to imperialist tyranny, as the moral divide only grows larger and more untenable when Terangi is arrested in Tahiti for slugging a drunken white man making racial slurs, where the offended party is politically connected in France, leading to a 6-month prison sentence for what might be considered justifiable assault.  Assigned to back-breaking labor and treated with all manor of abuse by Carradine, Terangi makes multiple escape attempts, seen diving off cliffs into the ocean, only to have more time added to his sentence each time, eventually totalling 16 years.  Ford insisted the violent whippings actor Jon Hall endure be real, wanting no fake acting, but unfortunately the realism was so severe the censors forced the scenes be cut due to their brutality.  Despite the disparity of an excessive sentence for the original crime, the Governor refuses to intervene, making no exceptions, going strictly by the book, despite the pleas of his wife and a sympathetic island doctor, Dr. Kersaint, Thomas Mitchell, seen as a philosophizing lush, a world-weary man who’s been away from civilization for too long, something of a preliminary run-through of his Academy Award winning performance for pretty much the exact same character in Ford’s STAGECOACH (1939).  When Terangi does manage to cleverly escape, making a heroic journey in only a canoe, he is sheltered by the village priest and the natives, who are seen celebrating his escape, which only enrages the Governor, even more maniacally insistent on tracking him down and bringing him to justice.  Nature’s response to man’s feeble attempts at implementing justice is harshly judgmental, showing a force of Biblical proportions, where the entire island comes under siege.  The ferocious devastation is brilliantly realized with a massive hurricane sequence that must have been indescribably intense when initially seen in the theaters, as no one had ever seen anything like it.  To the sound of crashing waves and gushing winds, Ford used the most powerful propeller-driven wind machines ever designed generating winds up to 150 miles per hour and 150,000 gallons of water to lambaste his actors, where no stunt doubles were used.  The force of the wind is astonishing, probably Ford’s best special effects sequence throughout his entire career, where cinema’s promise to create awe and spectacle is actually delivered.  The sequence literally overwhelms the rest of the picture, making everything else seem like an afterthought, but the contrast between the idyllic peaceful tranquility on the island and the monstrous roar of the waves remains utterly spectacular.   

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