The Pagan (1929)

Director: W. S. Van Dyke

Novarro 1

By Marilyn Ferdinand

During the silent film era, exoticism was all the rage. The original Latin lover, Rudolph Valentino, was the stand-out heartthrob of the age, but Myrtle Gonzalez, Gilbert Roland, Antonio Moreno, and Beatriz and Vera Michelena all had their followings, and Dolores del Rio and Lupe Velez became bonafide movie stars. It took Valentino’s death in 1926 for Mexican singer/dancer/actor Ramon Novarro to become Hollywood’s reigning Latin lover, a place he would have held easily in any open field. Novarro combined the athletic daring and comic wit of Douglas Fairbanks with the dusky good looks of Valentino, and threw in his own dazzling smile for good measure. The camera loved him, and soon, so did audiences all over the world. Novarro almost single-handedly saved MGM from bankruptcy when his star turn in Ben Hur: A Tale of the Christ hit theatres in 1925; after that, he made up to four pictures a year through 1934.

The Pagan came about in the middle of Novarro’s heyday, and aside from recycling some popular tropes of the silent era, it lavishes a good deal of attention on Novarro’s sex appeal. It also has a documentary quality to it, filmed as it was in Tahiti, with fascinating footage of workers harvesting coconuts and making copra from it: a title card even tells us what copra is and what its uses are. Perhaps most interesting to me are the musical threads that run through and beyond the film itself.

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Stalwart representative of white progress Roger Slater (Donald Crisp) sails to the island where half-white/half-native Henry Shoesmith, Jr. (Novarro) owns a vast coconut grove in hopes of striking a deal with Shoesmith to harvest the crop for copra production. Slater learns from an Asian banker where Henry lives and that the young man takes after his native mother—in other words, he’s too lazy to work the plantation. Slater and Henry meet cute when Slater goes to the manor house looking for Henry and is directed to a pair of bare feet by a servant. Henry is lounging barechested and rebuffs Slater, telling him he should come back later. Henry is much more interested in sleeping and playing his ukulele than in talking business.

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I’m not sure why, but every tropical paradise seems to have a white prostitute, and we meet this island’s good-time girl, Madge, (Renée Adorée, a dead ringer for another actress of the night, Shirley MacLaine) as she’s being thrown out of the bank. Unaccountably, we next see her lounging with Henry in a field, playing his ukulele to him. The camera pans up Novarro’s half-naked body as Madge asks with a sigh why Henry never liked her. Of course, she means in the biblical sense, but Henry is such an innocent that he merely answers that he does like her very much. At this moment, Henry’s sexual urgings are awakened when he starts to sing “Pagan Love Song” and hears the song returned by a woman on board a ship anchored near his field. Madge warns him that the ship belongs to a nasty white trader—Slater—but he responds, “she native voice” and swims out to meet the lovely young woman whose voice he heard—Tito (Dorothy Janis), an orphan and Slater’s ward.

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The Pagan offers echoes of Sadie Thompson (1928), but with a much lighter and more peripheral touch. Instead of a sanctimonious preacher who falls for the prostitute, Slater is this film’s reformer, and his project is Tito. The film is quiet in portraying Slater’s attraction to Tito, with Crisp underplaying what could have been a cardboard villain role; he gently plays with her hair while she reads scripture aloud to him and projects as much fatherly regard as he does lustful suitor. It’s not clear how long she has been his ward, but when Henry appears as a rival for her attentions, Slater’s affections stir to the point of “sacrificing” himself to her betterment by forcing her to marry him through the power of his parental authority.

The Pagan group

More central to the film is the clash of Western progress/colonialism and native culture. The film states its case in the opening moments of the film, remarking that Slater is too busy to notice the natural beauty all around him as the camera scans the tropical idyll. At the same time, Henry is such a naïve nature boy that it’s hard not to see some condescension in the film’s attitude toward native people, though his cluelessness is played largely for laughs. He has no interest in or knowledge of money, accepting no payment for giving Slater exclusive rights to harvest his coconuts because he has too many to eat himself and similarly giving away the goods in his plantation store on the promise of payment as he tries and fails to become a businessman worthy of Tito’s affections. Despite being cheated of his plantation, Henry only becomes angry when Slater snatches Tito away. Even Slater’s comeuppance is dealt by the impersonal hand of nature, not Henry.

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It’s safe to say that The Pagan was the Out of Africa (1985) or Under the Tuscan Sun (2003) of its time—an escapist travelogue that allowed audiences to enjoy the attractive island and human scenery and dream about a simple life unencumbered by financial concerns. Novarro and Janis are a gorgeous couple who play extremely well together and provide an island of calm and joyful play to balance the more melodramatic moments of this generally solid film. Because of the location shooting, the film was made as a silent, and employed a MovieTone synchronized score for the musical interludes, though I think I detected a very short scene that seemed to be sound-recorded on one of the interior sets.

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It is the music connections of this film that I found most interesting while researching this review. Novarro had ambitions to be a professional opera singer, but his voice lacked the strength to carry it off. Nonetheless, a contemporary review of the film by the New York Times’ Mordaunt Hall says, “Mr. Novarro, who is to make his bow on the Berlin operatic stage within a week or so in ‘La Tosca,’ is heard singing a few songs in the course of this film.” “Pagan Love Song” was produced by the composer/lyricist team of Nacio Herb Brown and Arthur Freed (“I Cried for You,” “You Were Meant for Me,” “Singin’ in the Rain”), the latter of whom would play a monumental role in creating and fostering movie musicals in Hollywood. Finally, the beautiful Dorothy Janis, who also sang in The Pagan, ended up marrying popular, Chicago-based bandleader Wayne King in 1932 and retired from movies.

  • Sam Juliano spoke:
    28th/09/2014 to 11:47 am

    “During the silent film era, exoticism was all the rage. ”

    Well, that is of course a contention that’s impossible to debate, and though I am sorry to say I have not yet seen this particular film, I have seen other films from this era that both exemplify this qualification and the subsequent one concerning the clash of western progress/colonialism and native culture. I am thinking here for Murnau’s TABU for one. Great contemporary examples of the escapist travelogue this one embodies. I was not aware that Navarro has operatic aspirations back in the day, but listening to his beautiful silvery voice here on this clip makes a stellar case, although more in an operetta vein than in the more soaring parameters of high opera. Yes Navarro did save MGM with his celebrated performance in the silent BEN-HUR. As always a terrific essay on this generally obscure but obviously worthy early gem.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    28th/09/2014 to 3:09 pm

    Thanks, Sam. MGM even cooked up a half-Cherokee background for the Texas-born Janis – total fabrication. Her husband is well known to me from old time radio broadcasts I hear quite frequently.

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