Saturday, July 14, 2012
DVR Diary: NEVER THE TWAIN SHALL MEET (1931)
W. S. "Woody" Van Dyke was Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer's specialist in exotica dating back to 1928's White Shadows in the South Seas, a silent film that portrayed Polynesian folk as Edenic innocents corrupted by the "white shadow" of the civilized world's greed. Van Dyke carried on in exotic mode into the talkie and Pre-Code era, most memorably as the director of Johnny Weissmuller's debut as Tarzan the Ape Man. That film has a somewhat different idea of the un-"civilized" world from that of White Shadows, and so does the Peter B. Kyne story -- he also authored 3 Godfathers -- Van Dyke directed from an adaptation by three screenwriters. Itself a remake of a lost 1925 silent directed by Maurice Tourneur, Never the Twain Shall Meet is just about the polar opposite from White Shadows, since it's the story of Polynesian culture corrupting a civilized white man. Corruption comes in the form of Tamea (Conchita Montenegro), a half-breed daughter of a white ship captain and a Polynesian princess. The princess is dead and the captain is leprous and suicidal when he brings his latest cargo, including Tamea, to San Francisco, where he entrusts the cargo and the daughter to Dan Pritchard (Leslie Howard) and promptly jumps overboard to his death. Given Howard's presence, movie buffs probably can't help anticipating a Pygmalion approach to the material as the somewhat uptight trader welcomes the nearly wild girl into his mansion. She speaks English just about adequately, plays a wicked concertina, but isn't quite comfortable in American clothes. She assumes that "Daniel Pritchard," as she always calls him, is meant to be her mate, and her demands for his physical attention -- she won't agree to dress for a social evening unless he kisses her -- complicates Dan's relationship with his frosty fiancee (Karen Morley). Dan's indulgent and forgiving of Tamea's innocent aggression and grows increasingly defensive as the fiancee and his own father (C. Aubrey Smith) increasingly disapprove of the island girl. When the elder Pritchard finally arranges to have Tamea shipped back to her home, Dan rebels against convention and follows her to the island, which proves anything but paradise for him.
Dan doesn't care for the food or the way the natives eat it. He cares less for the other whites on the island, especially the alcoholic beachcomber (Clyde Cook) who predicts ruin like his own for Dan. Worst of all, Tamea proves hopelessly promiscuous, running off with handsome island boys at every opportunity but still expecting Dan to love her. Her apparently instinctual infidelity demoralizes Dan until he becomes a dirty, drunken beachcomber just as predicted. First disgusted by Tamea's conduct, he vows to quit the island, but Tamea solves the problem by inviting him to beat her. "Beat me but don't hate me," she pleads in the Pre-Code Play of the Film, "Beat me or you will hate me!" Dan takes a few whacks that have the desired effect, one presumes, on both people, and so things go until his old fiancee shows up on the island to see what's become of him. She finds Dan drunk and defensive, still insisting that he can leave any time he feels like it. Very well then, she says -- she'll go back to San Francisco and wait for him. She can do nothing but wait, she reminds him, because there can only ever be one man for her. The contrast with Tamea is like a cold shower to our hero, who resists all further temptation from Tamea, cleans up, packs his bag and departs on the same boat as his true love, going so far as to drag his fellow white man, the beachcomber, kicking and screaming on board for redemption. Tamea sulkily watches the ship depart, broods a minute or so, and then runs off with the first available boy-toy. The End.
Earlier in the picture, when a friend of Dan's in San Francisco confronts Tamea with the hard fact that the white race shouldn't mingle with others, her indignation and Dan's sympathetic response suggested a brave anti-racist direction for this movie. Boy, was I wrong. If anything, its escalatingly harsh presentation of Tamea makes Never the Twain one of the most bigoted films I've seen from the Pre-Code era. A non-racist reading might have been possible had the film suggested that Tamea was just a nympho or hopelessly starved for male attention, but the hints from the beachcomber that he'd had a similar experience suggest that Tamea is really just a typical mindlessly promiscuous island girl. The contrast between Tamea and Dan's selflessly faithful fiancee reinforces the assumption of the era that non-whites or "primitive" people were incapable of living according to any ideal higher than instant gratification of appetites. Somehow this situation never arises in the more "noble savage" fantasies like White Shadows or Bird of Paradise. In those pictures it's assumed that a white man can find a true, albeit doomed love in the islands. Never the Twain is just as much a fantasy, but it's much nastier and not very convincing. Howard is his usual cool customer and lacks much chemistry with the Spaniard Montenegro, who plays Tamea less like an island siren and more like a bratty child. It must be added that, in retrospect, there's simply nothing seductive about dancing with a concertina. The childish aspect of Montenegro's performance is in keeping with the era's assumption that aboriginal people were "just children," and both the performance and the assumption make Never the Twain a childish film. It's one of those films that make an enthusiasm for Pre-Code cinema occasionally embarrassing.