Lone Wolf Sullivan is a writer, songwriter, and studio musician.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

South of Pago Pago (1940) * * ¾

Bucko Larson (Victor McLaglen) leads an expedition to the South Seas to the uncharted island of Manoa to steal pearls from the innocent unsuspecting Polynesians. With his cut-throat gang, he brings along beautiful and seductive Ruby Taylor (Frances Farmer), a blonde barroom hostess. Her opening line is "Hello Sailor", spoken in a deep baritone. When they arrive, the son of an island chieftan, young Kehane (Jon Hall), defiantly opposes the efforts of Larson to invade his domain. Larson uses Ruby as a ploy to attract Kehane. She pretends to love him, he forsakes his betrothed childhood sweetheart Malia (Olympe Bradna), and they marry. Malia dresses up in high heels and make-up in an attempt to win back his affections. But all this romance is a sub-plot to cold hearted Larson's wicked scheme to exploit the natives for the pearls that are on their sea-beds--all done in pantomime villain style with very little humour. However, Ruby turns honest at the last moment and saves Kehane's life at the expense of her own. The pearl hunt is thwarted.

It is not the good guys who dominate this film, but the bad ones. Victor McLaglen in a rare role as a villain, is a combative brute with no redeeming qualities, killing without qualm. However his leadership ability, his determination to acquire wealth, and his fearlessness along with his crewmen in the face of the overwhelming number of natives against them, is quite admirable. The final moments, where their corpses are tied to their ship before it is set adrift in retribution, is a memorable scene. Chiseled adonis Jon Hall and gorgeous Frances Farmer outlined in profiles against the steaming background volcano take the romantic closeup to a level that defies comparison.

This exotic melodrama was an attempt to cash in on the success of THE HURRICANE (1937), and again stars Jon Hall as a native islander. He does an adequate job in the role and certainly has the body of a Greek god. Farmer was only 27 when she made the movie, and she does not look quite as breathtaking as when she made COME AND GET IT four years earlier. Nevertheless, it is one of the few movies one can see Frances in.

The film is typical of the tropical escapist movies of the early 1940s, and is a notch up from most similar adventure outings, with great violent action and excellent cinematography. It's basically a better-than-average action film which co-stars two attractive actors in the leads. It includes background shots of the Kona coast and the Kalapana black sand beach, Hawaiian and Tahitian dancing, as well as Hawaiian musicians Sam Koki and Lani McIntire. The song, "South of Pago Pago", a pleasant Hawaiian-type song, is played and sung during the opening credits and then only a few bars on occasion throughout the film. It should have been used more frequently, as "Moon of Manakura" was in THE HURRICANE. "Manakura" was a smash hit in the 1940s and is still heard on occasion today.

This film marked Frances Farmer's return to Hollywood after the disappointments of her post-"Golden Boy" plays for New York's Group Theater, and the end of her romance with Clifford Odets. Her role is an obvious repeat of the saloon tramp Lotta from COME AND GET IT (1936), except this time Frances doesn't have director of photography Rudolph Mate or director Howard Hawks for support. Her Ruby even wears the same period hairstyle and has a similar wardrobe. Although still a beautiful woman, Farmer's increased weight is most noticeable in the sarongs she wears on the Polynesian island and she is coupled with Jon Hall, who is photographed more flatteringly. Beefcake star Hall shows off his sleek physique at every opportunity.

Perhaps because Farmer tries a characterization rather than give a star performance, her Ruby ironically reveals her own acting limitations. The triumph she had in COME AND GET IT included a delicacy she gave to the conventional roles of whore and ingenue. Here her world weary cynicism can be funny, but the director has her cover her weeping face with a blind, and keeps the camera at medium range for a death scene. Lines like "Do I look like a dose of poison?" and "The heart of a woman can be a typhoon" have a prophetic quality, which is more coincidence than intention, and the black and white photography makes Farmer look brunette in a waist-length wig, in spite of Ruby being a blonde, in contrast to the dark haired native women.

Producer Edward Small took director Alfred E. Green's cast and crew to the south seas to film the majority of this under-rated movie on location. Far less stylized and dated than Goldwyn's THE HURRICANE, it is admittedly filled with cliches and formula, but packaged in such visual and technical excellence it doesn't really matter. Originally released by United Artists, this production later made the revival-house rounds through the distribution channels of PRC Pictures.

The cast also includes: Gene Lockhart (Lindsay), Douglass Dumbrille (Williams), Francis Ford (Foster), Ben Welden (Grimes), Abner Biberman (Manuel Ferro), Pedro de Cordoba (Chief), Rudy Robles (Luna), Bobby Stone (Hono), Nellie Duran (Laulau), James Flavin (Cafe Customer), Nina Campana (Hono's Mother), James B. Leong (Waiter), Harry Woods (Black Mike Rafferty), and many others. The original music was composed by Chet Forrest, Lew Pollack, Bob Wright, and Edward Ward. George Bruce and Kenneth Gamet wrote the screenplay. Alfred E. Green directed.

Frances Farmer was beautiful and talented, supposedly self-destructive but actually a victim. She was an alcoholic like countless others, and it impeded her career and was a major cause of her early retirement in 1942 at the age of 28. However, her main "problem" was she was ahead of her time, basically a feminist who refused to be bossed around by Hollywood moguls. Farmer was eventually committed to mental institutions by her studio bosses--with her mother's approval. They pushed a young, sensitive artist over the edge. She spent the remainder of the decade in and out of barbaric institutions run by crazy "shrinks", suffering several nervous breakdowns and losing her battle with alcoholism. For seven years, she was subjected to 90 insulin shocks and electroshocks, and was sold by psychiatric workers to drunken sailors who repeatedly raped her. She told of being, "raped by orderlies, gnawed on by rats, poisoned by tainted food, chained in padded cells, strapped in strait jackets and half drowned in ice baths." Her last "treatment" was a lobotomy by Walter Freeman--although there are no medical records of this operation, only her own testimony. Farmer never regained her abilities. In 1949 she was finally released from the asylum. She never believed she was mentally ill, and said, "If a person is treated like a patient, they are apt to act like one... I blame nobody for my fall... I think I have won the fight to control myself."

In 1957, Farmer was found working as a hotel receptionist in San Francisco and was coaxed out of retirement. She soon made her first comeback appearance on television's Ed Sullivan Show, where she sang and discussed her hopes of revitalizing her movie career. However, she made only one more film, the 1958 teen drama THE PARTY CRASHERS. Farmer did appear in a handful of theatrical productions, and beginning in 1960 she hosted an Indianapolis-based television program about movies titled "Frances Farmer Presents". She died of cancer on August 1, 1970 aged 56. Her autobiography "Will There Really Be a Morning?" was published posthumously. In the years following her death, Farmer's cult following grew immensely, and in 1982 Jessica Lange starred in FRANCES, a film biography of her troubled life and times.

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