Belgian film poster

One of Samuel Goldwyn’s prestige productions, The Hurricane proved to be a big commercial success with audiences thrilled to see the special effects which featured in the climactic scenes of this ‘disaster movie’. According to the Ford scholars Tag Gallagher and Joseph McBride, however, the director himself thought little of the film except that it brought him a hefty fee and a percentage of the box office receipts. Ford had won his first director Oscar for The Informer (US 1935). The Hurricane won only one Oscar for sound recording (Thomas T. Moulton) and critics and scholars have generally not rated the film, apart from the special effects.

Dorothy Lamour and John Hall as the young couple

Ford accepted Goldwyn’s commission after Howard Hawks turned it down. Initially he believed that Goldwyn would let him shoot on location in the Pacific islands. Ford’s second interest after cinema was his boat the Araner which he sailed regularly between shoots. But Goldwyn reneged on the deal and switched production to a huge studio tank. Apart from some second unit work in American Samoa and some scenes aboard the Araner off the Californian coast, Ford was restricted to using only studio work. Despite this, I think there are connections to Ford’s later work – his period of high critical acclaim from 1939-1941 was only a couple of years away.

C. Aubrey Smith and Mary Astor as Father Paul and Mme DeLaage

The narrative of The Hurricane is adapted from the 1936 novel by Charles Nordhoff and James Norman Hall. They wrote together from a base in Tahiti, producing several novels, most well-known being a trilogy of Mutiny on the Bounty stories. The Hurricane is set in French Polynesia on a small fictitious island known as Minakura (spellings vary). In the opening scene Dr. Kersaint (Thomas Michell) is on the deck of a cruise ship with a young tourist when they pass a small deserted island. Kerstain begins to tell the story of the island’s destruction in a long flashback. There are four Europeans on the island. Dr Kersaint himself, the priest Father Paul (C. Aubrey Smith) and the French colonial administrator Eugene DeLaage (Raymond Massey) and his wife Germaine (Mary Astor). The native population is headed by a chief, Mehevi (Al Kikume) who has a beautiful daughter Marama (Dorothy Lamour in her sarong). A ship visits the island regularly from Tahiti some 600 miles away. Captain Nagle (Jeremy Cowan) relies on his first mate, an island youth Terangi (Jon Hall), who reads the seas and the winds expertly. Terangi and Marama are to marry to general delight, but soon after Terangi must leave with his ship again.

Raymond Massey as DeLaage argues with the ship’s Captain (Jerome Cowan) about the danger posed by the hurricane

This is a fine cast and the narrative would have been familiar to audiences from other novels and films. It offers the ingredients of a colonial melodrama involving the Europeans as well as adventure on the high seas and a romance associated with the ‘exotica’ of island life. But the narrative today appears problematic as a colonial hangover. How did Goldwyn and Ford handle it? I was struck by the connections to Ford’s films about African-American characters and, later, communities in the South. A few years earlier he had made two films with Will Rogers, Judge Priest (1934) and Steamboat round the Bend (1935) both featuring Stepin Fetchit, the African-American actor whose name embodies the typing of servile characters.  In 1953 Ford made one of his own favourite films, The Sun Shines Bright, based on three more Judge Priest stories but with more emphasis on the African-American community. I was struck in The Hurricaneby the representation of the joyous scenes of the wedding between Marama and Terangi. In particular I noted the how when the couple appear at the door of the church, they are dressed in the European clothes deemed appropriate for a wedding. They are then pounced upon by the young people of the island, disappearing from our view as these clothes are stripped from them and they re-emerge dressed as their compatriots in short sarongs made from bright prints. But in the morning when they awake, Terangi appears to have regained his trousers! I’m not sure what the new Production Code  made of this but I suspect that there was less concern about the propriety of depictions of colonial peoples at the time. The Europeans meanwhile conform to strict colonial types. Dr. Kersaint is the colonial figure who has ‘gone native’. He believes he understands his patients and their behaviour. But this is based on the view that they are ‘childlike’ and even ‘childish’ in their reactions as well as unusually sensitive to the natural world. The Doctor often finds himself opposed to DeLaage who represents the colonial figure of the upholder of colonial law, even if it requires ignorance of the actual conditions of local life.

The inevitable happens when newly-married Terangi visits a bar in Tahiti on his return trip and is insulted by a boorish European who attempts to throw him out of the bar. Terangi punches him and ends up in prison, convicted of assault. He repeatedly attempts to escape but is re-captured and each time his sentence is increased – John Carradine plays the disciplinarian warden. DeLaage, meanwhile refuses to request that Terangi be paroled to Minakura under his supervision despite the pleas of Kersaint and Germaine. Marama at one point dreams of the birds leaving the island – a portent of a terrible destruction of the island? This indeed arrives some eight years after the wedding when Terangi has been imprisoned and missed the early childhood of his daughter. He makes a final desperate break-out attempt just before the storm arrives.

Chief Mehevi (Al Kikume) as the wind strength increases with his daughter and grandchild

The climactic scenes of destruction were all filmed in and around the tank with Stuart Heisler sharing the work with Ford. The head of the SFX work on the hurricane scenes was James Basevi, one of the most experienced effects wizards in Hollywood. Bert Glennon was cinematographer alongside Archie Stout who worked on the 2nd Unit in American Samoa. Alfred Newman wrote the music score. It’s effective but now possibly feels too closely tied to the action and emotion – possibly what is sometimes called ‘mickey-mousing’ after the cartoon music. Several of the actors had previous and/or later experience of working with Ford. Thomas Mitchell, one of the finest character actors of his generation, won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his (similar) role in Stagecoach (1939) and later appeared in The Long Voyage Home (1940). John Carradine was a key member of Ford’s stock company and C. Aubrey Smith, coming to the end of his long career, managed to appear in three successive Ford productions in 1937 and 1938. Both Bert Glennon and Archie Stout would become important members of Ford’s circle of trusted filmmakers. All of this points to the idea that by 1937 Ford could, given a reasonable script and sufficient resources, turn his hand to any kind of narrative and make the best possible film. The Hurricane is great entertainment despite its several flaws and Ford knew exactly how to present the narrative . In this case the script was by Dudley Nichols who worked with Ford on many of his 1930s films, including The Informer (1935). However, Goldwyn is reported to have paid a sizeable fee to Ben Hecht to ‘improve’ the script. Ford still worked again with Nichols on several more films.

Thomas Mitchell as Dr. Kersaint – never far from a bottle

The Hurricane sits along Ford’s other films exploring colonial narratives and in some ways it resembles films in which Ford would use actors who had some connection to the cultures involved in the story. But he would always go with whichever actor suited his ideas for the role. In The Hurricane, the leading role of Terangi was key and there are various stories about how John Hall got the role. He turns out to be the nephew of the co-writer of the original story and had been brought up in Tahiti. Ford came across him in Los Angeles where he had taken small roles in low budget productions. After the success of The Hurricane he remained contracted to Goldwyn before later becoming typecast in roles associated with ‘jungle pictures’ and other ‘exotic adventure’ films, including several starring Maria Montez.  He was criticised as lacking charisma in The Hurricane but although he wasn’t Douglas Fairbanks, his athleticism and physical beauty were sufficient to get him through the action. His partner in the film is Dorothy Lamour, who again is OK in the role, though the Hollywood obsession with full make-up for a young woman in a tropical storm is grating for me. The other principal character is her father played by Al Kikume who had at least been born in Hawaii. I imagine that Goldwyn’s team found other ‘South Pacific islanders’ as extras from within various migrant communities in Los Angeles, as was the usual practice in the UK at the time.

The Hurricane was re-made in 1979 by Dino De Laurentiis with the unlikely mix of Jan Troell as director (following his two films about the experience of Swedish migrants in the American West, The Emigrants (1971)  and The New Land (1972)) and a cast including Max von Sydow, Jason Robards, Mia Farrow and, as the the Terangi figure, the Hawaiian actor Dayton Ka’ne. The film lost money. John Ford would return to the South Seas islands for one of his later and more enigmatic films, Donovan’s Reef (1963) which also includes Dorothy Lamour in the cast.