Breening Thursday: 25. “White Shadows in the South Seas” from 1928

BREENED

Good day, ladies and gentlemen! It is time for the next Breening Thursday article, which is the 25th one in the series! Last week’s topic, The Moon-Spinners from 1964, was a suggestion from one of our readers, Sally Silverscreen of 18 Cinema Lane. This week’s topic is also a suggestion from fellow blogger. On Sunday, we had the pleasure of republishing an article which Jenni from Rollamo of Portraits by Jenni wrote as the April entry in our monthly guest series, What the Code Means to Me. Her lovely article, the second in the series, is called 1939’s Lady of the Tropics and Mr. Breen’s Influence. Every participant in this series gets to make two suggestions for our next Breening Thursday article, one of which I watch and breen. Last month’s guest writer, Paul Batters of Silver Screen Classics, suggested Baby Face and Scarface, the former of which I enjoyed breening.

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Jenni suggested two silent films from 1928, The Wind and White Shadows in the South Seas. I am extremely grateful to Jenni for suggesting silent movies, since I have only breened one silent so far, The Phantom of the Opera from 1925, and greatly need to expand that era’s breening category. I researched both her suggested films, and each sounded fascinating. My decision was made by the fact that only the latter film is available for rent on Amazon Video. Thus, I watched White Shadows in the South Seas on Tuesday morning and breened it in preparation for today’s article. I really enjoyed watching this movie! This gives me a great opportunity to expand my own knowledge of silent films as well as my experience of breening them. Before we proceed to the breening, let’s begin with a brief outline of the film’s plot.

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A Polynesian island is controlled by a greedy white man, Sebastian (Robert Anderson), whose mad desire for the wealth which South Seas pearls bring is destroying the island. He forces the natives to dive endlessly for oysters, many of them dying of the hazards which come with the occupation, including burst blood vessels, feet caught in giant shells, and collapsed lungs. Then, he buys the pearls for a fraction of their worth, appeasing the naïve islanders with trinkets like cheap wristwatches. The only person who denounces his behavior is Matthew Lloyd (Monte Blue), a doctor who has become a drunkard to escape the harsh reality of his race’s ruthless greed. Sebastian shows his heartlessness when a young diver is brought back by his father with collapsed lungs. The tyrant orders everyone back to work, but Doc Lloyd punches him and takes the young man to a hut to tend to him. Although he tries to make him breathe late into the night, he can’t save him. Sebastian realizes that he has a powerful enemy in the outspoken doctor, so he devices a scheme to get rid of him. Matthew is told that a boat in the harbor is full of men sick with the measles who need his attention. When he arrives on the ship, he realizes that all the men have died of bubonic plague. Henchmen tie him to the steering wheel and send the boat off into unknown waters. He manages to untie himself and steers the ship for days. It eventually crashes on a reef during a typhoon. Fortunately, it crashes right next to an island, to which he swims. He finds that the island is inhabited by friendly natives, who welcome him as a “white god.” He makes friends with them and finds peace in their carefree, simple life. When he saves the chieftain’s son’s life with his medical skills, he wins the hand of his daughter, Fayaway (Raquel Torres), whom he has loved since she first helped him upon his arrival at the island. Unfortunately, their paradise together does not last forever, since Matthew Lloyd, known by the natives as Matta Loa, is soon overtaken by the “White Shadow” which plagues the South Seas, the white man’s greed! Now, with no further ado, let the breening begin!

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In the film’s beginning, we see the harsh Sebastian and his mistreatment of his Polynesian workers. A native is selling a pearl, and Sebastian shrewdly appraises it. A title card with the following words tells us his offer: “I’ll give you three dollars for it… dam’ good pay!” (The italics in the line are mine.) I was rather surprised to see this profanity plainly printed on a title card. I found it rather ironic that the profane word was spelled like a beaver’s home, with the fourth letter substituted by an apostrophe. Apparently the filmmakers were embarrassed to write the whole word, although they weren’t embarrassed to include it in the first place! The swear word, even if misspelled, is unacceptable. It should be replaced with darn or mighty.

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When Matthew Lloyd first arrives on the boat which is supposedly filled with measles-infected sailors, he notices that something is strange. For one thing, he sees a deceased man covered by a canopy. The second man he finds is leaning against the side of the ship. After inspecting him, he realizes that he too is dead from the horrible bubonic plague. These corpses are very delicately depicted, since no focus is made on them. However, after the ruffians tell Dr. Lloyd what really is happening, they knock him out and drag him to the steering wheel. Another victim of the plague is sprawled over the wheel, and they knock his body aside to tie Matthew to the wheel. This sprawled body is rather gory. This unfortunate man’s corpse should be removed.

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Thankfully no island girls look like this!

When Doc Lloyd arrives on the island, the first natives he sees are a group of island girls splashing around in a lagoon. If I had read that scene description in a synopsis before seeing the film, I would have pictured a group of topless islanders barely covered by their hair or flowered leis. I was very pleasantly surprised that there was none of that in this scene or any other part of the film. All the girls seemed to be wearing sarongs or two-piece garments. Only one girl seemed to be wearing less than that. Her back was toward the camera. Her hair was long and flowing, and she kept bending forward, tossing her hair down in front. I think she may have been trying to dry her tresses. Every time she bent forward, her back was visible, and she didn’t seem to be wearing anything besides a skirt. She should be wearing a top of some sort, even though she does not face the camera. If there are any indecent island girls which I missed, they should be wearing decent clothing, as well.

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Thankfully, all the native girls on this island and on the previous island wear sarongs for most of the film. They are one piece and quite covering. My only suggestion is that they could be a little higher on the neckline. On some of the girls, their chests are slightly revealed. This is extremely picky, since they easily could have been topless or barely covered. However, there aren’t many objectionable qualities in this film, so I am being extraordinarily particular.

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Once Matthew adapts to the island life, he is shown frolicking happily with Fayaway, strictly in a friendly way, since she is a temple virgin who cannot marry. However, the attraction between the two is unmistakable. She asks Matthew to go out in a boat with her, and he agrees. We see them from a distance when they are out in the boat. She is standing in the vessel, and she unwraps her outer-garment. We only see her silhouette, so it is difficult to tell exactly how much she is wearing. I really couldn’t tell. When we see them coming ashore a moment later, she is wearing her sarong. Perhaps nudity or near-nakedness wasn’t meant to be implied. However, I couldn’t help wondering. The shot of her removing some garment should be removed, since it is suggestive.

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Calamity strikes the island when a ship bearing Sebastian arrives at the island. Matthew, the only islander who knows the horrible consequences of the greed of men like Sebastian, begs the intruder to leave and let the island continue to exist peacefully, undisturbed by outsiders. Sebastian refuses to be dissuaded from his selfish purposes by the sentimental doctor he tried to eliminate before. A title card tells us that he says, “You give me the cramps! You always did.” The expression the cramps sounds very vulgar. I have never seen it listed as a forbidden expression, yet it sounds undeniably unacceptable. I feel that it isn’t proper. It should be replaced with a common acceptable expression of that era, such as “You give me a pain” or “You give me a swift pain.”

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A fight ensues between Matthew and Sebastian. It ends when one of Sebastian’s henchmen shoots Dr. Lloyd. He staggers back to his hut, where he collapses, badly wounded. Fayaway follows him to the hut, and she leans over him. She touches the spot where he is wounded, and then she looks at her fingers, which are covered in blood. The blood is excessive and a little gory. She should just touch him and react as though she sees blood.

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That concludes my breening! When I read about this film, I pictured a bunch of half-naked island girls. I was very pleasantly surprised by how well-dressed the native women were. This film did not exploit the fact that it was set in an exotic location by using that as an excuse for near-nudity. I appreciated how decent this film was. Like the other silent film I breened, The Phantom of the Opera, there weren’t many problems with this movie. Some other silent films I have seen, such as Flesh and the Devil from 1926 and Speedy from 1928, had more problems. I have also read about other silent films with far more problems.

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The two silent films I have breened so far show me why the movement for a Production Code really began after the widespread popularity of talking pictures. The new freedom which the soundtrack and its dialogue created made filmmakers go wild, resulting in the scandalous Pre-Code Era. However, although films were more decent before that, they needed the Code even during the Silent Era. Even if small, there is always something to breen in most un-Code films!

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Thank you so much for this suggestion, Jenni! I really enjoyed watching and breening this fascinating film. I was extremely impressed by the filmography and the location footage in Tahiti. All the cast members except the three credited leads were natives, which I thought added great authenticity. I can see the great W. S. Van Dyke II’s directorial touch here. This is a fine film which I think classic film fans should watch. I hope that you will buy this film and watch it, keeping my breening points in mind. Do you think they would have improved the film?

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I hope you enjoyed reading this article. Please come back for next week’s feature!

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