While sailing on a yacht in the South Seas, Johnny Baker (Joel McCrea) and his friends meet a bunch of natives while sailing close to their island. But when Johnny sees a shark swimming nearby, he tries to catch it, and is pulled overboard. Luckily for him, a beautiful native girl named Luana (Dolores del Rio) dives in to save him. There is an immediate attraction between them, but when Johnny and his friends spend an evening with the natives, he’s told that she’s supposed to marry a prince on a nearby island.
That doesn’t stop Johnny from pursing her, though, and she feels the same way toward him. They sneak away to see each other during the night, but when Luana’s father finds out what’s going on, he forces her to marry that prince immediately. When Johnny finds out what’s happening, he crashes the wedding and whisks her away to a nearby island. They build some shelter and spend weeks basking in their own, private tropical paradise.
Even though they are blissfully happy on the island, Johnny would like to bring Luana home with him. Before he can do that, though, the volcano Pele begins to erupt and Luana knows that she will soon have to be sacrificed to appease the volcano god. Sure enough, it isn’t long before Luana is dragged back to her island for the sacrifice. Johnny follows, but he’s captured and is set to be sacrificed alongside Luana. Johnny’s friends arrive to rescue them just in the nick of time. He still wants Luana to come home with him, but Luana believes it would be best if she allowed herself to be sacrificed to the volcano god.
Bird of Paradise is likeable, but it just didn’t grab my attention enough for me to get terribly invested in it. However, it’s a very beautifully shot movie. Even though it’s filmed in black and white so we don’t get to see any lush, tropical colors, King Vidor really captured the essence of this tropical paradise. There’s one scene where Luana and Johnny go swimming together and Luana isn’t wearing anything. At first, I thought it was very reminiscent of the infamous swimming scene from Tarzan and His Mate, but then I realized that Bird of Paradise actually pre-dates Tarzan and His Mate by two years.
Joel McCrea and Dolores del Rio are both certainly fun to watch, but the movie also has a some other noteworthy names working behind the scenes. Bird of Paradise has the distinction of being the first sound film to have a full symphonic musical score, which was created by none other than Max Steiner. Busby Berkeley, who was still an up-and-coming choreographer at the time, choreographed the film’s jungle dance scenes. Less than a year after working on Bird of Paradise, Berkeley would move on to bigger and better things when he went to Warner Brothers and made 42nd Street.