Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Hurricane, The (1937)

Director: John Ford


Audiences experience the fury of a South Seas storm in the John Ford picture The Hurricane. This picture featuring a melodramatic love story is punctuated by the near half million dollar special effects sequence that would shake theaters to its foundation, bringing the ferocity of a hurricane indoors. In a string of success by John Ford, this tropical disaster picture further manifested the creativity of the filmmaker when given the means and resources to create a tangible event to the silver screen.

The Hurricane is a drama of wrongfully accused South Seas nativeof a European colonized island attempting to escape prison and return to his loving wife, capped off with a massive storm that destroys his home island. Terangi (Jon Hall) is the very well-loved native sailor of the small French colonized island of Manukura who runs afoul of a terribly racist white man in Tahiti. After striking this man, breaking his jaw, it is revealed that the man was of high political power and Terangi is imprisoned. With no help from Manukura’s newly appointed duty-first governor, De Laage (Raymond Massey), Terangi’s sentence stands and increases in length for each time he attempts to escape, from six months to 16 years. He eventually does escape,becoming a fugitive as he makes his way home reunited with his wife Marama (Dorothy Lamour) and daughter, whom was born during his imprisonment.  Despite De Laage searching for the fugitive islander, Terangi helps to save the governor’s wife (Mary Astor) during the devastating hurricane that completely destroys the island, leaving the governor to only quietly thank as Terangi escapes one last time into the South Pacific.

This melodramatic love story can be compared to many other stories of a wrongfully imprisoned man ripped away from his family, seen numerous times over in a variety of films. Audiences would go to see this picture and enjoy it for one reason, and it can be seen in its title. Most of the budget is delegated for the epic storm sequence that encompasses the final twenty minutes of the picture, which is clearly manifested in the high quality special effects of extraordinary power and realism. In the end audiences would feel like they survived a horrific event along with the picture’s hero.

John Ford would be one of the busiest and most fruitful directors of the late thirties, producing success after success with uncanny regularity. His genre of film would also fluctuate with many types of pictures, manifested earlier in the year he directed the Shirley Temple film Wee Willie Winkie. Though he is a very skilled director, the focus of the superior filmmaking skill is seen in the powerful hurricane sequence with many special effects shot, heavy use of water and wind effects, the quick editing, and the choice to edit the storm with only sound effects and no overly dramatic music. The skill and precision would make the scene easily the most significant of feature.

Looking at the credits of the picture would star two rather unknown actors. Jon Hall, the new professional name for the actor born Charles Locher, had only been acting for a couple of years. He would change his name to better associate his moniker with that of his uncle, the author of the film’s story James Norman Hall. He gives a rather bland performance to the role of the film’s hero which a critic would liken to “a competent Tarzan.” This description would not be far off with Hall’s build, costume, and hair very similar to Johnny Weissmuller. His wife in the movie would be played by the equally flat performance of Dorothy Lamour. This Paramount contracted beauty lent to Samuel Goldwyn for the picture would begin to see her name rising, which is why her name tops all other actor in the credits. Lamour would peak in the coming years with her appearances in the hugely popular Bing Crosby/ Bob Hope Road to… movies.

Mary Astor would be given a high credit in the picture, even though her role is rather minor compared to others in the scope of the story. Coming out of her highly publicized divorce, Astor proved to be still a strong actress and a good draw through the year.

With the top actors in Hall and Lamour being, unfortunately, the flattest characters in the film, the ensemble of supporting cast would make for the best acting in the film and the most dramatic. Raymond Massey plays the major protagonist, even though he has no interaction with Terangi, as the governor that refuses to pardon the popular and likable native. His smug scowl and deep set eyes makes him an easy villain. Weathered veteran C. Aubrey Smith provides the spiritual center of the film as Father Paul, whose drama rises in the wake of the church being torn to pieces by the storm with him in it, which would test the faith of audiences attached to the character.

Above all other performances is that of Thomas Mitchell, the usual supporting actor whose character of the island’s alcohol loving doctor provides the most heart of the film. He makes for the most human of all the performances as a man with depth of character, complete with flaws, fits of anger, compassion, and sense of nostalgia, ten times the profundity of any other characters in the picture. Mitchell’s character appropriately opens the film in flashback looking at the island in its final days. This outstanding performance warranted Mitchell a nomination for best supporting actor.

The film would best be considered as a fine production for its attention to detail in the face of devastating fury. The massive water and wind effects would bowl over actors throughout the storm sequence, even drawing blood from hard mist and sand hitting her face, Astor would later recall. John Ford would even have Jon hall really flogged in a sequence of torture for its painful reality that would later be cut from the feature for its intensity by censors.

The film would be a rather well received success, including an over one million dollar box office draw domestically. The superior sound design and editing for those final twenty minutes of the picture would win the feature an Academy Award for best sound recording. All said the film was a meager picture with overall poor performances, but superior filmmaking. A remake of the film would release in 1979 as a romance picture, but would be further forgotten when compared to this original. Director John Ford would be in a whirlwind period of his career, but his greatest films were still to come.

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