There have been lots of great World War I battle scenes in movies from Wings to Wonder Woman, but most of them are missing a little extra something: flamethrowers! They're just about all the battle scene from Bert Glennon's Girl of the Port has going for it, but Glennon makes a lot of a little. He's concerned with the psychological terror of the war while he's there, and the post-traumatic consequences beyond. Jim (Reginald Sharland) is introduced in close-up, anxiously waiting for the battle to start, but he doesn't expect how it does start, with a wave of German troops dispensing "liquid fire." We see a few of them coming, and we see them get Jim's buddy in a trench, and that's all we and Jim need to see. The horror of it reduces him to screaming terror, and leaves him a broken man after the war. Like many broken men of the time, he winds up in the South Pacific, specifically in Suva, Fiji, as a barfly at McDougal's. At this same dive arrives Josie (Sally O'Neil), who must have responded to a want-ad in the Pre-Code version of Craigslist. Josie is here to tend bar and crack wise, telling the regulars that as the daughter of a bouncer and a lady lion tamer, she was "raised on raw meat and red pepper." She befriends a native menial, Kalita, aka "The Corporal" (legendary Olympic swimmer and surfing hero Duke Kahanamoku), a war veteran who's smarter than he sounds and bristles at the insults regularly sent his way by the bar's resident racist, McEwen (Mitchell Lewis). McEwen's bigotry earns him the contempt of English tourists, and for a moment it looks like Girl of the Port is going to make a precocious anti-racist statement for its era. Actually, it does and it doesn't, revealing quickly that McEwen protests too much because he's what they used to call a "half-caste" and asserting that those "touched with the tar brush" tend to be more bigoted than anyone else. McEwen is a bully as well as a bigot, lording it over the wretched Jim, who has to sing "Whiskey Johnny" for drinks. Jim still has some backbone, though, standing up for Josie when she stands up for him. When McEwen calls her a "tabby," Jim can't let the insult stand. He provokes McEwen by calling him a half-caste and lays him out in short order, despite his condition. But when a fire breaks out during the general melee, he has a panic attack, and we learn that he's become a rummy because only booze can calm his terror. Josie decides to cure him, and a title card notes the irony of her working as a bartender while keeping Jim, whom she tenderly dubs "Bozo," bone dry.
Josie keeps "Bozo" locked up in her cabin despite Kalita's warning that it's "Bad for Missy to take white man in cabin. People say Missy not nice." Jim -- he initially introduces himself to Josie as Jameson, only for her to answer, "I've seen that name on bottles" -- is under lockdown to protect him not only from Demon Rum but from the wrath of McEwen, who warns the couple that half-castes "don't run out like nasty, dirty white trash." Instead, he vows to ruin Jim until he's "lower than any bug-eating bushman." Jim explains his fear of fire in vivid terms. "Whatever it touched it burned," he says of the liquid fire, "Flesh and bone -- and brains." Life coach Josie admonishes him, "You've got to take it on the chin and like it," and urges him to "Cut out the bar varnish for keeps."
Eight weeks later Jim is virtually clean and sober and Josie is oddly trying to distance herself from him. She flinches at his praise, warning him not to "get all Jolson about it," and explains that she doesn't want to be thought of as a gold-digger. This is all very sentimental but there'd be no story left if Bozo stayed on the wagon. All this while, McEwen has been waiting for his chance, and he finally takes it, kidnapping Jim to his private island and getting him freshly drunk. Like a classic melodrama villain, he offers Josie the choice worse than death: he'll release Jim if she'll submit to him and be his "tidy little housekeeper" to make his home more presentable to the tourists. Josie agrees, but takes no chances. She makes McEwen swear on the fetish he wears around his neck. "Swear on this Hindu hocus pocus," she demands, "That'll hold a Malay."
Kalita, who by right would be the head man on the island if not for McEwen, lets Jim know what's gone down and chews him out as eloquently as his pidgin English will allow: "God no want you, man no want you ... fire no want you. Dirt. Coward." As it happens, the islanders have a firewalking ritual that they perform for the tourists. McEwen actually speaks admiringly of their "spunk," though he's still careful to differentiate himself from the savage natives. No white man, he tells the English, is capable of such a feat, but I say! Isn't that a white man marching through the flames and hot coals right there? And isn't that Sir James, the fellow we're looking for who disappeared six months ago? It certainly is. To prove his manhood to Kalita, Josie and everyone else, Jim walks through the fire to "burn out dirt" and proceeds to give McEwen the flogging he's long deserved before taking Josie away with him to English luxury, having proved himself "the whitest man of you all."
Girl of the Port is an embarrassment of Pre-Code riches or, if you prefer, richly embarrassing to watch. It may still be racist by today's anti-racist standards, but Duke Kahanamoku's authoritative performance belies a lot of the race rhetoric. As Josie, Sally O'Neil takes some getting used to, coming across initially somewhat like Betty Boop playing Sadie Thompson, and then like oldschool Harley Quinn as an AA counselor, but her irreverent earnestness definitely adds to the entertainment value and makes the film almost endlessly quotable. She almost singlehandedly drags the picture across the line dividing the politically incorrect from harmless, hilarious camp. As Jim, Sharland doesn't have much to do but yell "Don't let the fire get me!" every so often, but in the end it's O'Neil's picture, not his. It's the sort of picture that has to be a guilty pleasure, but if you don't feel too guilty about it, it definitely can be a pleasure of some sort.