Directed by W.S. Van Dyke
Cast: Ramon Novarro (Henry Shoesmith), Dorothy Janis (Tito), Donald Crisp (Henry Slater), Renee Adoree (Madge)


Henry Shoesmith is a young Pacific islander who owns a large amount of land on his island. He is content to languish his days away resting beneath the palms and singing. He owns a small store on his property but gives little time or care to it. When a white trader named Slater arrives, Henry suddenly becomes interested in his young half-caste ward, Tito. When asked what she is to Slater, Tito replies that she is his "Christian duty." Henry is discovered on the boat by Slater who runs him off saying he wants no heathens on his ship. Slater is on the island to buy rights to acreage where there are cocoanut trees so he can get copra (the meat of the cocoanut which is then used to make soap and oils). When he finds out that Henry is the owner of a large plantation with many cocoanut trees, he suddenly is much nicer to Henry. Henry, only interested in Tito, lets Slater have exclusive rights to the trees at no cost. However, Slater continues to do what he can to keep the two apart. In anger, he chokes Henry one day and throws him to the ground. However, regaining his composure, he tells Henry he only wants the best for Tito, so he suggests that Henry should borrow money, stock his store and "make something" of himself. He does this just as Slater and Tito leave the island. Heartbroken, Henry watches every day for their return while operating his store and giving credit to everyone. Henry continues to borrow money, but thinks everything is fine because he has on paper where people owe him money. One day Slater and Tito return, and Slater informs Henry he has been borrowing money from his bank, and he will take ownership of Henry's land for unpaid debts. Still more concerned about Tito, Henry is satisfied that he has a hut in the hills where he can live. Slater forces Tito to marry him, and Henry steals her away to his home in the hills just as the ceremony is ending. The two are living an idyllic life until Slater finds them and takes Tito back to his ship while Henry is away from the hut. Henry must use all of his wits, courage and strength to get her back.


Paradise lost

W.S. Van Dyke had made "White Shadows in the South Seas" the year previous to the release of "The Pagan" (1929). Because he directed both, each was filmed in the Pacific islands, and both deal with the theme of white man's intrusion - and ruination - of the simple islanders' lives, a comparison is inevitable. However, these are two completely different films - "White Shadows" being a darker, more somber film, while "The Pagan" is a beautiful love story with the proverbial villain standing in the way of the two lovers. Although "White Shadows" is an excellent film, for sheer entertainment value, "The Pagan" is the better story.

The story has many merits, although it offers nothing extraordinary in either narrative or character development. What it does do, however, is immerse us into a world that is unknown but only to a few - and it's a beautiful, peaceful world that each of us, at one time or another, has imagined finding ourselves. Our anger is aroused when that world is invaded by outsiders who care nothing for its preservation and are content to "rape" its resources for personal profit. Therein lies a conflict that carries throughout the story and stirs our emotions.

That is what happens when businessman Henry Slater enters the picture. He is the antithesis of all that's good about the island and life there. We see Henry who, although he owns land and a beautiful home, is only interested in living a carefree existence in peace with his fellow man. Money means nothing to him, because what he wants in life is free.

Even so, we are surprised and disappointed when Henry allows Slater to strip his trees of their cocoanuts without charge - and this is after Slater had kicked him off his boat saying he wanted no heathens associating with Tito.

This ravaging of the land culminates when Slater takes possession of Henry's home and land - a result of Henry being duped. Slater convinced him that he needed to borrow money and stock his store so he could "make something" of himself. Henry does this only because he believes it will bring Slater's approval and clear his way to be with Tito. However, the money he is borrowing comes from a bank that Slater owns, and Henry doesn't understand that he cannot continue to allow people to buy on credit. To him, money "on paper" is proof he has the resources.

So now Henry has lost all except a hut he owns in the hills where he now goes to stay. Then, when Slater forces Tito to marry him, it appears there is no hope for Henry and Tito.

Casting sets this film apart

What really sets this film apart is the casting. Ramon Novarro is perfectly cast as the simple, romantic young half-caste who, although far more complaisant than we'd like him to be, does prove he can be moved to action if it means protecting his beloved Tito.

Novarro's biggest claim to fame is his casting as Ben-Hur in the 1925 MGM epic. However, he had played a variety of roles before that including both villains and heroes. Director Rex Ingram is credited with developing Novarro's talent and providing him with plum roles in some of the director's best films. He played the villainous Rupert of Hentzau in "The Prisoner of Zenda" (1922), but is then cast as the hero in Ingram's "Scaramouche" (1923). After starring in most of Ingram's films in the early 1920's, he became one of MGM's top draws following Ben-Hur, being paired with some of the studio's biggest stars such as Norma Shearer in "A Student Prince in Old Heidelberg" (1927), Joan Crawford in "Across to Singapore" (1928), and Anita Page in "The Flying Fleet" (1929). He remained with MGM through the mid-thirties and appeared in films and on television for the rest of his life.

Novarro has been described by historians as one of several Latin lover-types who were intended to be competition for Valentino (or a replacement after Valentino's death) such as Gilbert Roland, Ricardo Cortez or Don Alvarado; however, that is not the case. This belief about Novarro may have come about because of a riff between Rex Ingram and Valentino when he left the director who had brought him instant fame in "The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse" (1921). Novarro was the immediate replacement, yet Ingram never groomed him as the Latin lover. Instead, he was given a variety of roles and proved himself worthy of each.

As for Novarro being compared to Valentino, look at the muscular, heroic, seductive Valentino in "Son of the Sheik" (1926) - hardly a role Novarro could have played believably. However, one has to agree with Novarro biographer Andre Soares (Beyond Paradise: The Life of Ramon Novarro, University of Mississippi Press, 2002) who said, "Ultimately, Novarro's more conventional persona gave him an edge over Valentino in terms of casting, allowing him to tackle 'regular guy' roles that completed eluded the Italian Lover - the Sheik would have been unthinkable as Dick Randall, the Naval Academy student in 'The Midshipman;' or Karl Heinrich, the boyish monarch in 'The Student Prince;' or as Tommy Winslow, the navy flier in 'The Flying Fleet.' On the down side, Novarro's milder screen image prevented him from reaching the heights achieved by the more erotically charged Valentino . . ."

It is difficult, as well, to imagine another actor in the role of Henry Shoesmith in "The Pagan." He plays the part to perfection keeping a boyish smile on his face almost entirely throughout the film, in spite of Slater's condescension and mistreatment. It is difficult to imagine Henry allowing Slater to have his cocoanut crop considering Slater's condescending and even violent treatment of him. The viewer may even wonder if Henry is not too bright - but, no, that is not the case. He leads a simple life. It is not in his nature to indulge in conflict. He sees the best in others and is patient and forgiving to a fault. Therein lies a simple message provided in this film as Henry displays more "Christian" characteristics than Slater who claims to be rescuing Tito from being a heathen. There are obvious similarities between Crisp's character and Lionel Barrymore's Alfred Atkinson in "Sadie Thompson," especially when we learn of Crisp's romantic designs on Tito.

However, Henry does not lack intelligence - or bravery. When the times comes that he must rescue Tito, he springs to action and succeeds in abducting her from under Slater's nose at the wedding. We are also compelled to cheer when Henry rescues Tito from being beaten by Slater - pummeling his adversary until Slater begs for his life. In this instance, as in so many others throughout, excellently crafted titles contribute so much to Henry Shoesmith's character. After nearly killing him, Henry tells Slater, "Mister Slater, some day you make me very mad."

A perfect pair

Although Novarro does a superb job of portraying Henry Shoesmith, his character is made complete by the interplay between him and Dorothy Janis' Tito. Janis was a relative unknown with only three minor films to her credit prior to "The Pagan," and the pairing with Novarro was her first co-starring role - and one for which she was perfectly suited - not only in her acting, but her dark-haired beauty, as well.

How the innocent Tito came to be under the control of the hypocritical Slater is not evident in the film; but, no matter, it is that very innocence that makes her submission to him believable. She wishes to better herself, and Slater has convinced her he is the one to do it - although his motives are selfish and lecherous, not altruistic.

From the first meeting with Henry Shoesmith, we are captivated by her youthful charm. She tells him "no" when he says he will come aboard. Once aboard, she runs as he chases her, as two children playing. When he catches her, he pokes her forehead and runs away as she chases him. Swinging on a rope, he knocks her down, and the two fall down. Sitting up and facing one another, they enter into a delightful bit of playfulness, although Tito feigns indignance at his presence on the boat. He touches her leg once, and she slaps his hand. He touches her leg a second time, and she slaps his hand again. He touches her leg a third time, and as she slaps, he jerks his hand away so she slaps her leg. Then she slaps his shoulder, but he does not flinch. So she pushes his shoulder with her foot, but he simply "bounces" back into place and continues to smile at her.

"Your song nice . . . your face nice, too," he tells her. Although turned away from him, she loses her indignance for a moment and smiles at him - then remembers herself, jerks her head to the side and tells him, "Go 'way! Mister Slater not allow heathen native on this boat." However, when he begins to sing "Pagan Love Song," she joins him, and the two are content in one another's company - that is, until Slater returns to the boat.

Later, when Slater comes to the island looking for Mr. Shoesmith to talk about a contract for access to his cocoanut crop, he is surprised and embarrassed to find that the "heathen" he kicked off his boat so angrily is Henry Shoesmith, the owner of the land. Of course, Tito is with him, and all the while he is trying to talk "business" with Henry, the two young people cannot take their eyes off one another - to Slater's annoyance.

"Whimsical" lovemaking

While Slater is busy with his crew harvesting the crop, Henry finds Tito lying by a pool of water. He lies down beside her. In his Novarro biography, Soares describes the scene well. "More often than not, there was an impishness to Novarro's look that suggested fun, not danger. A perfect example is his whimsical lovemaking with Dorothy Janis in . . . 'The Pagan.' When Novarro sees Janis lying by a pond, he lies by her side and tries to entertain her by making his biceps vibrate. He tries to teach Janis to do the same, but she cannot. Feeling the softness of her arm, he caresses her gently. . . Novarro's tender moments, as in this scene, are still touching."

This same "tenderness" is shown after Henry has stolen Tito away from her wedding and Slater and takes her to his hut in the hills. Her head lays on his arm, and he gives her a peck on the check. She musses his hair. When she stops, he takes her hand and places it on his head so that she can do it again. Then she wraps her arm around his head, pulls him close as she nestles her face between his cheek and arm. This intimate interplay in such an idyllic setting truly is paradise for the young couple.

When Janis was selected for the part of Tito, she was elated to be working opposite Novarro. "He was very friendly to me," she said, "and I thought he was a wonderful actor." (as told to Michael G.Ankerich in Broken Silence: Conversations with 23 Silent Film Stars, McFarland, 1993)

Of her performance, the New York Times (May 21, 1929) said, "Dorothy Janis is excellent as the half-caste maiden," while Variety (May 15, 1929) said, "She does handsomely by the casting direction, playing a passive role with a good deal of naïve charm, eloquent in spite of its quietness."

From hypocritical religiosity to deceitful business dealings

Donald Crisp proved in "Broken Blossoms" (1919) he could portray the evil brute as well as anyone, and he is given such an opportunity in "The Pagan." In one scene (reminiscent of the scene in "Broken Blossoms" where he takes Lillian Gish home to beat her after he found her with the Chinaman), he takes Tito back to the ship to beat her with a strap for running away with Henry. Rolling up his sleeves, the tension builds as he takes the strap and orders Tito to come out from behind the bed - lips tight, eyes glaring.

Crisp's part is a meaty one - from hypocritical religiosity to deceitful business dealings that take advantage of Henry. Initially, we believe his advice to Henry to borrow money, stock his store and make something of himself is sincere. However, we later learn his motive which was to have Henry in such deep debt to his bank that he could take over Henry's property.

In one scene, the harvesting of the crop is busily taking place as Slater stands near a tree in white suit gloating over his good fortune. Henry and Tito walk by hand in hand, but Slater orders Tito away so he can talk to Henry. "For your own good, Henry . . . don't let me see you with Tito any more," he says. Henry continues to be - somewhat annoyingly - naïve to Slater's meanness and laughs as if Slater isn't serious. "But I like Tito," Henry says. First politely, Slater says, "I'm raising Tito to associate with white people." Then, teeth clenched, he adds angrily, "-not with our kind. You half-caste! You sun-baked Pagan!" With that, he grabs Henry by the throat, throws him to the ground, and walks away. Henry sits up, shakes his head and thinks for a moment. Then he runs after Slater and says, "I not like you to do that, Mister Slater. I am what you call Pagan, cause it make me happy. I do not get mad 'cause you different from me." After a short pause to think, this is when Slater suggests Henry borrow money for his store. The scene reinforces our hatred of the Crisp's character, but also increases our desire to see Henry retaliate in some way - which is not his nature to do.

The story is successful in that our dislike of Slater has reached an adequate level that we feel his "end" at the film's climax is justified - he has no redeeming qualities, therefore, he deserves no less than what he receives.

The New York Times gave Crisp reserved praise. "Crisp waxes a trifle too harsh in some passages, but during most of the scenes he once again reveals himself to be a talented performer before the camera." Variety said, "Crisp is the white trader, handling the heavy role with commendable judgment and restraint."

Underrated Adoree

Renee Adoree's part is far less than the three main characters, but as the "loose" woman on the island who dresses flamboyantly, she is particularly repulsive to Slater who treats her not only verbally abusive, but physically, as well, when he throws her to the ground when she is found talking to Tito at his small boat on the beach. Adoree's character, Madge, is a spitfire, though, who rather than cry, lashes out at her abuser - even throwing rocks at him as his small boat pulls away from the shore.

She obviously thinks highly of Henry. We are not sure of their relationship in the beginning as she asks him why he doesn't like her (he replies that he does); however, their friendship becomes very important later in the film as she assists him in rescuing Tito. Never one to hand out kudos sparingly, the New York Times' Mordaunt Hall gave as much praise as would be expected from the reserved reviewer for Adoree's efforts. "Renee Adoree succeeds as well as possible with her part, that of a brunette who is callous to affection and voluble in her slang." Variety gave her credit for her energized performance - "Renee Adoree has an entirely secondary role as a sort of Sadie Thompson and plays it for all it is worth." Adoree gave every part she ever played 100 percent! Unfortunately, when looking back at the greatest stars of the silent era, her name doesn't rank as highly as it should. Her beauty is captivating - her acting is top notch.

"A tale as langud as a summer's breeze . . ."

The New York Times described "The Pagan" as "A tale as languid as a summer's breeze," adding, "There are pardonable exaggerations in the film, but it is so gloriously photographed that these failings soon pass out of one's mind."

Filmed on location in the Paumotu Islands of French Polynesia (also known as the Tuamotus) (Director Van Dyke had also filmed "White Shadows" there), the movie does lay claim to some spectacular scenery and exquisite photography by Clyde DeVinna - a competent cinematographer who stayed busy from his beginnings in motion pictures in 1915 until his death in 1953.

Commenting on W.S. Van Dyke's direction, the reviewer says, "This current offering reveals a feeling for its locality in its seductive scenery, its invariably gentle and original type of humor and its lethargic pace."

Variety gave the film a thumbs up, declaring, "Picture has plenty of assets, among them the always effective topic love element, smashing photography and a fine production."

The original 1929 Movietone orchestral soundrack matches the tenor and mood of the movie well, and, although there are no talking sequences, there is an added treat of hearing Novarro sing "Pagan Love Song," a theme that is used throughout the film, and, as a result of this movie, became a big hit in 1929.

Novarro, Janis, Crisp, Adoree, South Seas scenery, a charming love story, a bad guy you love to hate, good direction, great cinematography, a story that stirs your emotions - it all adds up to good entertainment.

Copyright 2010 by Tim Lussier. All rights reserved

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