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 is generally credited with pioneering the documentary form (though some film scholars take issue with that classification), 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; both Nanook of the North (1922) and Moana (1926) took over two years to complete. Somehow 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 of White 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. Lloyd falls in love with Fayaway (Raquel Torres), a native girl, and begins an idyllic existence. But Lloyd’s corrupt nature and inherent greed emerge when he is revered as a god and 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 spent 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. But the biggest problem was that 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.”
Flaherty knew his attempt to create a natural, ethnographic portrait was doomed when he came upon his disinterested crew members sitting on the sand, listening to a radio concert broadcast from the Coconut Grove, a popular Hollywood nightclub. Even though the natives were singing Polynesian songs in the nearby coconut grove, the crew were only interested in returning home. Reportedly, Flaherty said in disgust, “Why not go back and make the picture in the Coconut Grove?” He soon quit the production and returned home to Hollywood leaving MGM to frantically try and salvage the film.
Van Dyke was soon promoted to director and successfully rallied the troops to complete the filming in Tahiti. Back on the MGM lot at Culver City, he shot some additional material for White Shadows in the South Seas including a typhoon at sea and a shipwreck. Then the studio decided to make White Shadows in the South Seas their first sound film so they added synchronized music and sound effects including cries, laughs, whistling, and one spoken word, “Hello.”
Despite all the behind-the-scenes difficulties, White Shadows in the South Seas was enthusiastically received by audiences and a surprising number of film critics. Motion Picture Magazine called it “a picture ravishing to the eye and appealing to the heart” while The Film Spectator proclaimed, “Nothing finer than White Shadows in the South Seas ever has come to the screen.” Variety singled out the film’s cinematography, in particular, for praise, stating that “the panchromatic work in this feature is outstanding. It’s so good it very likely makes these Marquesas Islands look better than they really are.” Mordaunt Hall of The New York Times was one of the few who voiced any criticism. He pronounced the film merely “average” and complained about MGM’s promotion of the feature as the first sound film as it had almost no dialogue and relied on sound effects and music. The cinematography by Clyde De Vinna went on to win an Oscar and the film launched W.S. Van Dyke’s directorial career. He would return to the South Seas the following year for another exotic picture – The Pagan – but this time, he completed the picture in one month and, in the process, delivered a profitable box office attraction.
Flaherty also returned to the subject of native life in the South Seas with Tabu (1931), which was a collaboration with German director F. W. Murnau. They both share screenplay credits but their partnership was no more harmonious than the Flaherty-Van Dyke teaming and Flaherty ended up selling his stake in the film to Murnau. The final cut of Tabu reflects more of Murnau’s vision for the film than Flaherty’s but it was appraised by most critics as being far superior to White Shadows in the South Seas and is still admired for its pictorial beauty today. Unfortunately, Murnau died in a car accident before the premiere of Tabu. As for Flaherty, he opted for no more collaborations if possible (an exception was 1937’s Elephant Boy, co-directed with Zoltan Korda) and returned to independent filmmaking, working on several short form documentaries before delivering his next acknowledged masterpiece in 1934 – Man of Aran.
White Shadows on the South Seas is currently available on DVD from the Warner Archive collection. http://www.wbshop.com/product/white+shadows+in+the+south+seas+%28mod%29+1000179935.do?sortby=ourPicks&refType=&from=Search * This is a revised and expanded version of an article that originally appeared on the Turner Classic Movies website
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