Monday, September 3, 2012

Island Captives (Falcon Films, 1937)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2012 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I ran Charles Island Captives, a 1937 production from a short-lived independent company called Falcon Films, produced and directed by Glenn R. Kershner and also co-photographed by him, Paul Ivano and Art Reed, though Al Martin (who returned to a South Seas setting and a plot full of skullduggery in the 1942 Universal film The Mad Doctor of Market Street) was credited with the script. The opening is a long silent prologue showing life on a Polynesian island, including half-naked men of color trooping into the rain forest and a crib of Robert Flaherty’s famous scene from Moana of a child climbing up a palm tree with a knife in his hand to cut down coconuts (for a while just about every Hollywood movie set in Polynesia had to have a scene like that). There’s a white guy who’s obviously the overall boss standing on the ground looking at him, and as the kid cuts down the coconuts I couldn’t help wishing, “Drop one on his silly head and knock him out, please.” That came close to happening as a palm frond fell in his general direction, following which the film cut to the dull intrigue featuring white people that turned out to be the main plot of the film — with the opening footage and the multiple cinematography credits I was hoping it might just be a documentary about Polynesia, but no such luck. There is a bit of anti-corporate commentary as we’re introduced to planter George Carsons (John Beck), a benevolent entrepreneur whose operation on Tahiti produces such high-quality fruit he’s being targeted for expropriation by the International Canning Company (read: the United Fruit Company), headed by three people named Bannister, two middle-aged brothers and the son of one of them, Dick Bannister (Henry Brandon). (Neither the American Film Institute Catalog nor credit the actors who played the elder Bannisters.)

Will Bannister, Dick’s uncle, is determined to eliminate the commercial threat from Carsons’ plantation by eliminating Carsons himself, but the other senior Bannister instead decides to send Dick out as an emissary to negotiate a peaceful settlement — but Will sends a radiogram to his crooked agent in Tahiti, Hudson (Forrest Taylor), ordering him to “remove obstacle to progress” — i.e., kill Carsons, which is done by two of his henchmen who fire on him through an open window in his home. (This is a gimmick the makers of the Charlie Chan movies ran into the ground — Chan’s house guests were always being killed by well-aimed bullets fired through open windows, and one wondered why his later house guests, who one would think would have been aware of what had happened to their predecessors, didn’t have him close his windows and draw his curtains.) As it happened, Carsons’ daughter Helen (Joan Barclay) was on his way to visit him when he was killed, sailing on the same ship as Dick Bannister, and for a while it looks like Al Martin is setting up a Romeo and Juliet knockoff in which she and Dick will fall in love and reconcile their families’ competing commercial interests — only Helen couldn’t be less interested in Dick because she’s fallen in love with the ship’s radioman, Tom Willoughby (Eddie Nugent, top-billed), and what’s more, though we’ve been led to believe Dick is a nice guy, he turns out to be a rotter when he offers Tom a $100 bribe to destroy his copy of the radiogram between him and the elder Bannisters so Helen won’t be able to use the copy to figure out who he really is (at least I guess that was the reason). Tom virtuously refuses the offer, and just then the ship is wrecked — the American Film Institute Catalog synopsis says it struck a reef but that’s not clear in the film itself — and the principals end up on a smuggler’s island run by a no-goodnik named Kelly (Charles King — a character villain and not the same one who starred in MGM’s The Broadway Melody in 1929). Tom protects Helen from Kelly’s lecherous designs and Taiao (Carmen La Roux), a native girlfriend of Kelly’s who’s anxious to get rid of Helen, leads them to a cave where there’s a shortwave radio set Tom can use to radio for rescue getting them off Kelly’s island.

The film ends with the principals returning to Tahiti after they’re rescued and Hudson, who hired a forger to sign George Carsons’ name to a document giving him power of attorney to run the plantation, but then found out that Carsons had already assigned a half-interest to Helen and therefore Hudson needs her signature as well, tries to get her to sign but Tom, realizing what’s up, stops her and a low-budget and pretty ineptly staged fight scene breaks out (Charles noted they didn’t even have the money for breakaway furniture — the cast members just kept throwing the same chair at each other), only it’s interrupted by the police, who arrest Hudson and leave Tom and Helen alive and in charge of the plantation, to which they’re sailing at the end of the film. Island Captives isn’t much of a movie — I nodded off through a lot of it and Charles noted the all too obvious similarities between it and Safe in Hell (made four years earlier at a major studio, Warner Bros., with a major director, William Wellman, who got a much stronger performance out of his star, Dorothy Mackaill, than Glenn R. Kershner could muster out of the talented but ill-used Joan Barclay), but the two films are miles apart in quality and overall audience interest; about all that’s worth watching in Island Captives are the red-filtered shots from actual Polynesian locations (one wonders if this was stock from an abandoned project set and shot in Polynesia, and that that was how Paul Ivano’s name got on the credits).