Dangerous Paradise is yet another very obscure early William A Wellman film – it isn’t on DVD, is never shown on TV, and the copy I got hold of has a dodgy picture and a lot of soundtrack noise. Nevertheless, I really like it. Once again, as very few people are likely to see it, I’ll keep my posting short. This film was actually the director’s fourth talkie, but it’s the earliest one I’ve managed to see so far, and has quite a bit in common with his silent masterpieces Wings and Beggars of Life, including the fact that it stars Richard Arlen. However, the film it most resembles is Wellman’s acclaimed though little-known Safe In Hell, made the following year. Both are the stories of women forced to be tough by circumstances, who find themselves on remote tropical islands besieged by an assortment of threatening males.
This isn’t to say that Dangerous Paradise is anywhere near as good as any of the three films I’ve just mentioned. It’s really a work which sees Wellman in transition from his great silents to his great talkie pre-Codes, and at times feels stiff and overly-melodramatic. However, a waifish Nancy Carroll is very good in the lead role, and there is great cinematography by Archie Stout, full of Wellman’s characteristically odd choice of camera angles, with characters glimpsed at a distance through bars, shadows or blinds, or reflected in mirrors. The dialogue is reasonably good, if a little stilted, but the most powerful moments of this film are visual ones.
The story is said at the start of the film to be “suggested by some incidents in a novel by Joseph Conrad” – in fact, Victory. I haven’t read this classic but gather from one or two comments at the imdb that the film doesn’t stick very close to it at all and only picks out one story, of Alma, which is updated and changed. As Wellman had to pack his drama into just 58 minutes, it is understandable that he and the screenwriters stripped the story down and concentrated on the plight of the heroine.
At the start of the film, Alma is living in Surabaya in Indonesia, where she sings every night as a member of a small entertainments troupe at a seedy nightspot. As she performs a torch song, oddly dressed in a sort of mock-naval uniform, a new arrival in the settlement, the rich stranger Heyst (Arlen) sits devouring her with his eyes, while the cigarette he has just lit burns down to a stub, unsmoked. This is one of Arlen’s most effective scenes in the film, with the same kind of intense desire in his face that you see in his opening scene in Beggars of Life, when he plays a tramp staring in through the window at a grand breakfast. I think most of his best moments in the film are silent, like this one – when he speaks, his voice sounds a little stagey and awkward, and part of his spell is broken.
It’s quickly revealed that Heyst lives alone on his own private island, where it is rumoured that he has discovered gold. He is strongly attracted to Alma, and tells her a little about his life, while she in turn reveals how fed up she is with working for the troupe. She has to have drinks with patrons of the club and is under pressure to have sex with them. The whole set-up of Alma living in the small, seedy hotel, with a sinister assortment of ex-pats and criminals trying to have their way with her, very much looks forward to Dorothy Mackaill’s plight in Safe In Hell.
There is one great shot of Alma in bed, seen through shadowy window bars while an unnamed guitar-player in another room sings Frankie and Johnny (“He was her man/but he was doin’ her wrong”), which is among the film’s most powerful visual moments. Another memorable scene comes when two of the men vying for her favours (Warner Oland and Clarence Wilson) are involved in a drunken fight – the camera pans away from the men to a mirror on Alma’s dressing table, where a candle is burning down, with its flame guttering. When the flame finally burns out, you know that one of the men is dead – and this shot is also reminiscent of Heyst’s cigarette burning out in the opening scene.
Keen to escape her bosses’ sexual harassment, Alma stows away in Heyst’s boat and travels with him to his island. However, he has now jumped to the conclusion that she is sleeping with the men at the cafe, and is icily polite and distant towards her. Just when their relationship is starting to thaw, there is a new crisis when three sinister interlopers arrive in search of the gold and violence explodes. Gustav von Seyffertitz is chilling as “Mr Jones”, who believes in maintaining formal etiquette even when he is robbing and murdering people.
A series of plot twists lead to an unlikely happy ending for Alma and Heyst, which feels somewhat tagged on after the claustrophobic and threatening atmosphere of most of the film. I think this movie would be of interest to anyone who likes early 1930s films focusing on groups of ex-pats, but, unless Paramount gets round to restoring it, it will continue to be seen only by diehard fans of the main stars and the director. Interestingly, Paramount made several foreign-language versions, with different directors credited, which seem to have spliced Wellman’s action footage together with different actors in the lead roles.