It may be just an accident of technological progress that W. S. Van Dyke's Trader Horn is a talking picture while his White Shadows in the South Seas is virtually a silent film -- it comes late enough in the era to have a soundtrack and some sound effects. But while the films were released less than three years apart they seem to come from two different worlds. I don't mean merely the Polynesia of White Shadows and the Africa of Trader Horn, but two starkly contrasted visions of "primitive" people and their relations with "civilized" whites. Race probably has something to do with the portrayal of one place as a remnant of paradise and the other as an eat-or-be-eaten hell, but White Shadows's idealization of an island undiscovered by whites doesn't require a critique of the whites themselves. Yet Van Dyke's film, and presumably the Frederick O'Brien novel that inspired it, are severe and fatalistic in their condemnation of the "white shadows" that fall across the innocent islands. This M-G-M idyll -- the laggard company's first sound film, a November release -- proves one of the most pessimistic pictures of the silent era, plumbing depths not touched again by Hollywood for another forty years.
It begins with an island where the white shadows have already fallen -- where the white market for pearls has deranged native ways of life. Unscrupulous traders fleece the natives, offering three dollars per pearl or a wristwatch if that sum won't suffice. Pearl diving endangers the divers' health and exposes them to jungle-like dangers in the deep vividly illustrated by remarkable if not unprecedented underwater cinematography. A cynical, self-loathing commentator on the corruption is Dr. Matthew Lloyd (Monte Blue), who isn't above playing the clown to cadge drinks but won't stop speaking his mind when he sees injustice. After giving a thorough tongue-lashing and thrashing to the white trader Sebastian (Robert Anderson), Lloyd is lured onto a plague ship, beaten down and tied to the wheel and set adrift on stormy seas.
Lloyd manages to free himself and attempts to steer the vessel, but he ends up shipwrecked on an uncharted island, where he finds a tribe living in primitive plenty. They take him for a "white god" by virtue of his skin and treat him to a tremendous feast of fruit and seafood. He takes a liking to pretty young Fayaway (Raquel Torres) but learns to his peril that she is a dedicated temple virgin, so that not even a god can look upon her with eyes of love unless her father revokes her status. When Matthew saves her apparently-drowned younger brother, the father consents to his daughter's union with "Matti Loa," and all seems well until our hero watches native craftsmen make fishhooks from clam shells and sees them throwing pearls away like trash.
"He was only a white man, not a god," the titles explain, and while Matthew has no desire to exploit the natives, he can't resist the thought of an easy fortune. And so the first white shadow falls on the island as he starts diving for clams and throwing away the shells to the dismay of the natives. With a cache of "pearls for the world," Lloyd lights a fire on the beach in the hope of attracting a boat, but Fayaway notices and laments that her love wants to leave her. That's all it takes to change our hero's mind. He repents his greed instantly, puts the fire out and casts the pearls into the sea. That might have been the happy ending, except that someone else did see the fire from a distance. Soon Sebastian the trader touches the shore with wristwatches and other trade goods, hoping to turn the island into another pearl factory. Knowing what Sebastian represents, Lloyd tries to rally the natives to resistance, and fails utterly. In fact, he is killed by Sebastian's men, and the film ends with Fayaway's island looking little different from the degraded site we saw at the beginning, while Fayaway herself mourns Matthew disconsolately.
As The Artist seems poised to win the Best Picture Oscar this weekend, I'm reminded of one line of critique of that pastiche-homage to the silent era that charges it with being untrue to its subject matter for lacking much sense of tragedy or pathos. I'm not sure if that criticism is valid, as Artist is basically a comedy and not in the Chaplinesque mode, but the critics could definitely use White Shadows in the South Seas as Exhibit A for the darker depth of silent cinema. Knowing little about the movie except that pioneer documentarian Robert Flaherty had been involved early but quit, the ending caught me flatfooted by its abruptness, finality and misery. Here is a movie that actually had a happy ending and chose to throw it away in order to make a larger point about the inexorable corruption of the world by a uniquely "white" greed. Individuals might overcome it after considerable struggle, but that greed is portrayed here as a collective cultural force that invariably overwhelms individual resistance, destroying the individuals if necessary. Of course, it seems that Americans didn't think the same way when whites ran amok in Africa, but that brings up the question of timing again. Somehow Trader Horn seems like the fantasy on primitive themes the Depression might produce for Pre-Code audiences, while White Shadows, however bleak its finish, offers its Twenties audience a utopia of escape to plenty. The Polynesian fantasy didn't disappear with the Depression, but it may be worth noting that in King Vidor's Bird of Paradise, the standout Pre-Code variation on the theme, the native beauty is doomed to be a human sacrifice. On the other hand, Pre-Code cinema usually celebrates survival ethics, even if those weren't necessarily ethical, while silent cinema does sometimes seem to wallow in the pathos of sacrifice, renunciation and lost dreams -- often even in ostensible comedies.
Watching White Shadows after seeing Trader Horn gave me a greater sense of the technical constraints Van Dyke labored under making the talking picture. White Shadows is shot in high late-silent style with plenty of tracking shots; it's a more fluid and fluent film than Trader Horn. The two films presumably established the director as a "nature" specialist and M-G-M's natural choice to helm Tarzan the Ape Man, and they certainly make a nearly bipolar double feature. Monte Blue makes a strong impression as Matthew Lloyd that makes ironic his frequent later casting as Native Americans and various ethnic villains. White Shadows is probably his best claim on movie history. The sound is mixed; the score struck me as pre-evocative of many later films, but the sound effects and the occasional human "hello!" seemed awkwardly unnatural, reminding us of the limitations of early sound film even when actors didn't try to talk. But White Shadows's points of interest outnumber its flaws, and it's worth a look for anyone interested in movie history who can stand that downer of a finish and appreciate the point it makes.