White Shadows of the South Seas is a title that frequently appears in many top ten silent, classic film lists that are compiled by the experts who choose the best. The N.Y. Times chose this film for their “Top 10 Film List” for 1928. Taken at face value, this film is so exquisite it defies any erroneous assumption that silent films were lacking in sophisticated and beautiful outdoor cinematography. Or that the subject matter is sanitized, or at the very least, softened to appeal to altruistic, American sensibilities. This film’s plot deals with the callous exploitation of a splendid, island society by White mercenaries. It is set against a backdrop of breathtaking locations, filmed in the Marquesas Island, in the South Pacific.
What makes the production of White Shadows of the South Seas so intriguing is that it was a pioneering undertaking for M-G-M, the crown jewel of all studios, to send a large company to a remote and un-Westernized area to produce a film with local inhabitants interdispersed with the professional cast. Documentaries that focus on natives were not unusual, but turning them into actors with a fictional script was.
A movie viewer generally takes for granted the seemingly effortless results of a feature length motion picture. White Shadows of the South Seas packs more behind-the-scenes intrigue from the studio front office to difficult location snafus. It’s a wonder that it ever was produced, let alone deemed one of the finest, artistic efforts ever put forth. The “through the looking glass world” of filmmaking and deal-cutting, often times cinematic masterpieces occur out of the most impossible and difficult situations. On the other hand, the most promising, but inevitability mediocre films, with a perfect cast and without any behind the scenes conflicts can produce the dullest and most disappointing films that sink like the Titanic.
How do we know the details of this unique piece of filmmaking history? W.S. Van Dyke (1899 – 1943), the director who was eventually saddled with this grand undertaking (due to the fact the original director and visionary, Robert Flaherty, quarreled with M-G-M and was summarily replaced), kept a journal about his experience. W.S. Van Dyke, also known as the famous “One Take Woody”, was the indispensable M-G-M contract director who could be counted on at a moment’s notice to rescue pictures in production and turn out a quality film in record time. Van Dyke had a style, however. It’s what a lightening bolt possesses in it’s compelling delivery of visuals. He had an economy of directing style, and he could direct a screenplay beautifully and concisely. White Shadows of the South Seas was Van Dyke’s first major triumph for M-G-M (he began as a full fledged director in 1917, directing The Land of Long Shadows (Essanay), and eventually worked exclusively for M-G-M – putting out 50 films from 1927 to 1942). He went on to direct such classic, sound films as Trader Horn (1931), Tarzan the Ape Man (1932), Manhattan Melodrama (1934), The Thin Man (1934), Rose-Marie (1936), Rosalie (1937), Marie Antoinette (1938) and It’s a Wonderful World (1939).
This journal was discovered in 1992 in an “interesting looking, old trunk” that was procured by an individual who “inherited” it from an elderly couple in gratitude for his assistance in helping them clear out their house filled with odds and ends. In the bottom of this trunk was found papers, memorabilia, scripts, but most important, the thoughts of a man who really expressed his deepest conflicts in the creation of this film. We have so few documents of this type with a first person emphasis, especially from this period of filmmaking. This journal was intended for private thoughts, but it is important that it has been studied and published. This journal on the making of White Shadows of the South Seas would make an intriguing movie in itself. Van Dyke’s writings eloquently convey his personal experience as well as he conveyed a visual movie scenario.
W.S. Van Dyke’s Journal is also a collection of information gleaned from other scrapbooks, correspondence, articles and photos. There are insightful notes provided by Mr. Behlmer. This is an approach to biography that infuses a personal touch. The selection of what a person decides to comment about in his or her writings is revealing in a way that a studied, chronological expose lacks in spontaneity and absorbing little known facts. The facts presented in this book provide pieces to a puzzle of a professional director that we know little about. In fact, we know more about stars and studio moguls than we know about the artisans, called directors, who put the vision on screen. The fantasy world of Hollywood would like it’s grateful audiences to be content with the finished, polished product only. The reality of history, and the necessity of all sides being presented, is imperative. W.S. Van Dyke’s Journal places our motion picture heritage, on this subject, in the proper perspective and makes for damn good reading.
Included with the journal are story conference notes on the making of Tarzan the Ape Man, the first and wildly successful entry in the Tarzan series, between Van Dyke, British actor and playwrite Ivor Novello (who was brought in to polish the final dialog of the script) and producer Bernard Hyman. There is an article by Van Dyke, himself, titled Rx for a Thin Man (Stage Magazine, 1937). It is an excellent and witty commentary on the making of best loved classic films of the golden age of sound. Another article, from Photoplay entitled The Star Creators of Hollywood (1936), is a wonderful account of Van Dyke in the prime of his filmmaking career. You will also find behind-the-scenes comments about famous Van Dyke films. The off-screen stories are just as good as the story on the screen. The section of comments from the colleagues of Van Dyke, who were directed by him, like Myrna Loy, and supervised his productions, like Hunt Stromberg, are insightful and honest. Rudy Behlmer has shown us a portrait of a productive director we only knew about in footnotes. Occasionally, TCM (Turner Classic Movies) airs White Shadows of the South Seas. It is a beautiful print with the original, Vitaphone synchronized, musical score and sound effects track. Rent some of Van Dyke’s pictures. Read Rudy Behlmer’s book. You will be gratified to learn about and appreciate W.S. Van Dyke.