Heavily influenced by F. W. Murnau’s Tabu (1931), The Hurricane is not among John Ford’s artistic successes. However, this South Seas island melodrama is ultimately very moving—overwhelming, really. This is due to a poised, emotionally mature marital reconciliation that allows new appreciation, wisdom and tenderness to thaw the frosty side of the union. It is also due to the reason why Samuel Goldwyn produced the film in the first place: a spectacular climactic hurricane commandeered by James Basevi, the special effects wizard behind the earthquake in San Francisco (W. S. Van Dyke, 1936), the previous year’s biggest hit.* Indeed, it is the storm’s separation of the couple that leads Tahiti’s French colonialist governor, DeLaage (Raymond Massey’s finest performance**), to relax his heartless law-and-order stance and adopt his wife Germaine’s humane perception of things. We infer Nature’s participation in DeLaage’s transformation, and we simultaneously grasp Ford’s condemnation of colonialism as “unnatural.” Ford’s sophisticated understanding of human motivation sheds light as well on the sexual unease and jealousy that inflame DeLaage’s “moral principles.”
The film contrasts two married couples. With Robert J. Flaherty’s spirit hovering (as it did over Tabu, which he and Murnau had planned to co-direct until Murnau’s vision prevailed), young Polynesian newlyweds Terangi and Marama (Jon Hall and saronged Dorothy Lamour, close to the beginning of their careers) live to the chord of a single heartbeat.*** But Terangi’s unjust imprisonment sets the DeLaages at subtle odds; although she doesn’t press Terangi’s case with the inciting boldness of a Desdemona, Germaine (Mary Astor, magnificent****) persists in trying to set her husband’s heart to the cause of justice. European colonialism, though, limits her role and restricts her influence, while her alignment with outspoken Dr. Kersaint (Thomas Mitchell, endearing—and, for the time, jaw-droppingly sexually ambiguous*****) at the very least irritates DeLaage. Nature seems to have blessed the Polynesian pair but cursed the DeLaages with “civilization.”
Terangi’s repeated attempts at prison escape, each of which—until the last—earns him a whipping upon recapture and two years’ imprisonment added to his sentence—makes the narrative, for me at least, drearily repetitive. Ford’s achievement falls short of a poetic hymn to freedom. Moreover, Bert Glennon’s diffuse, wishy-washy black-and-white cinematography is no match for Floyd Crosby’s Oscar-winning high-contrast black-and-white cinematography in Tabu.
Yet each time I revisit this “Ford failure” I am left in joyful tears. The revival of a marriage is a beautiful thing.
* The film’s script was based on the novel by James Norman Hall and Charles Nordhoff, whose Mutiny on the Bounty generated Hollywood’s biggest hit of 1935. Goldwyn doubtless had this also in mind—and the fact that that film won the best picture Oscar.
** Anna Massey, Raymond’s gifted daughter, was Ford’s godchild. Ford directed her (beautifully) in Gideon of Scotland Yard (1958).
*** Ford’s mea culpa would be the more complex vision of South Seas native society he offered in Donovan’s Reef (1963), made the year prior to another mea culpa of his, Cheyenne Autumn (1964).
**** Andrew Sarris has identified Astor’s unforgettable Germaine DeLaage as Ford’s idea of ideal womanhood. Whether one agrees with Sarris, Astor’s loyal Germaine is the artistic equal of her treacherous Brigid O’Shaughnessy in John Huston’s The Maltese Falcon (1941). I am glad that this superb actress won an Oscar for something (The Great Lie, Edmund Goulding, 1941).
***** Mitchell was Oscar-nominated as best supporting actor for his Kersaint. Two years hence, he won the prize for playing more or less the same character, this time called Doc Boone, in Ford’s Stagecoach (1939). The Hurricane’s only Oscar went to Thomas Moulton for his supervision of the film’s sound recording. Another of Moulton’s credits: Gone with the Wind (Victor Fleming, George Cukor et al., 1939).
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