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Friday, November 21, 2014

RETURN TO PARADISE (1953)

About five years after his SOUTH PACIFIC stories were musicalized on B’way (and five years before being embalmed on film), James Michener had his big screen initiation on another tale of tropical paradise lost . . . and found. As storytelling, it’s sometimes bumpy going, yet it captures a measure of island culture ‘otherness’ better than many of his other projects did. (And might have claimed more sans ‘50s censorship in nudity & various racial taboos.) Gary Cooper, looking much healthier than in last year’s HIGH NOON/’52, is a drifter who lands on a small Pacific Island where a puritanical missionary keeps the locals in line with the fear of God & a trio of brutal henchman. Cooper easily overthrows this tinpot dictator & gains the islanders’ respect, but remains phobic about putting down roots. But friendship, war, wary love, a child and the pull of absence can change a man like Cooper. It may even change the spots on a missionary zealot, which sets up the story arc before a downed war plane full of horny American flyboys brings things to a head. Director Mark Robson refrains from pressing motivations, no facile explanations for Coop’s reserve, moving the film forward in shorthand. And though Coop is a good twenty years too old for the first half of the story, he plays with great charm and a believable right hook when needed.

DOUBLE-BILL: Robson also did the next Michener adaptation, THE BRIDGES AT TOKO-RI/’54, a larger, more prestigious pic, but already showing a bit of bloat.

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