BluRay/DVD Reviews

ISLAND IN THE SUN

By • Jan 10th, 2006 •

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(Fox) 1957. 119 mins. 2.35:1 AR

Honoring, or dishonoring, Black History Month, depending on how you look at it, Fox has released three black-related films from its library (this one, PINKY, and STORMY WEATHER), WB has released another three (CABIN IN THE SKY, HALLELUJAH, and GREEN PASTURES), Image Entertainment has released four more (THE DEVIL’S DAUGHTER, GANG WAR, THE BRONZE BUCKAROO, and UP IN THE AIR), and MPI has thrown offering into the mix (PURLIE VICTORIOIUS with Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee, I HAVE A DREAM [Martin Luther King’s entire speech +], and THE VOYAGE OF LA AMIDSTAD with Brock Peters and Charles Durning). Up front disclaimers on the WB discs, usually reserved for the commentary tracks, are now aimed at disarming opponents of the subject matter. The commentary tracks feature historians, black history authority figures who justify the release of the films while criticizing them as well in an effort to remain balanced, as well as talent from the aforementioned films such as Lena Horne and Eddie ‘Rochester’ Anderson’s daughter and widow. The transfers are generally pristine on those coming from the studio vaults.

ISLAND IN THE SUN is nothing without Freddie Young’s sumptuous, saturated CinemaScope color photography. And while this is the film’s only consistent virtue, it paradoxically points up how lacking the narrative is.

On a small West Indian island (Barbados and Grenada provided the locations) racial unrest has pitted local black politico Harry Belafonte against the PTB. Generational land owner and jealous weakling James Mason decides to oppose Belafonte in the elections, but his life takes a lethal turn. There are other sub-plots, featuring Stephen Boyd/Joan Collins (no real chemistry here), John (THIEF OF BAGDAD) Justin/Dorothy Dandridge (she wears the brightest colors in the film, but this combo just lays there as well), and Joan Fontaine/Belafonte (the best of the bunch, even though their alleged make-out scene was cut after much pressure from the deep South, including KKK boycotts). All have the rigor mortal feel of having been studio compromised, despite the incendiary nature of the race card, and Robert (THE HUSTLER, LILITH) Rossen’s direction is sporadically effective at best. It’s an unrewarding affair.

So why is so much space being devoted to a pan? FIR doesn’t usually do that. Well, I take that back, Victoria does it all the time, and often to films everyone else likes. But I don’t. Would that a simple dismissal such as this were sufficient advice for the DVD aficionado, but alas, it grows more complicated. Included are a commentary track by writer/historian John Stanley, and a powerful documentary about dancer/singer/actor/ Beverly Garland look-alike Dorothy Dandridge. I was seriously taken by Dandridge’s looks when I was an adolescent, and heard misleading things about her death. The doc, if not aesthetically overwhelming, is emotionally devastating in its portrayal of a forlorn life. Betrayed by her own people (Harold Nicholas owns up to being a scumbag in his treatment of her during their marriage, which yielded only a mentally handicapped daughter who further depressed the gifted actress), father figures followed, including egotistical, emotionally violent and dominating Otto Preminger, who directed her to within inches of the first Best Actress Academy Award every given to a Black person (for CARMEN JONES), then bullied her into a floundering career for two years before she staggered away from that relationship. Her next marriage was an abusive folly that drained her finances to the point where her daughter could no longer receive private care and had to be institutionalized (and we know what that means). Finally, bottomed out from despair, at age 43, she offed herself.

Well illustrated, and pulling no punches, unlike the film it accompanies, DOROTHY DANDRIDGE: LITTLE GIRL LOST is a tragic look at a talented, self-destructive individual, and it makes the DVD hard to let go.

Ms. Dandridge’s performance in ISLAND IN THE SUN, one essentially unworthy of her talent, is utterly unconvincing. Her smile, which caps several of the scenes in which she appears, feels forced and insincere; as a result, I never knew what her position in the relationship really was. Perhaps the documentary sheds a little light on that unpleasant ambiguity.

James Mason’s character is such a squashed figure, his portrayal is difficult to watch. I’m of the opinion that the best thing Mason ever did was discovering the lost Keaton films under the stairs in the Hollywood home he bought in 1952. Fontaine, Collins, Boyd, Justin and Rennie are all merely adequate. John Williams as an island police inspector who fancies himself in a Dostoievskian cat-and-mouse game with his quarry (a conceit no doubt shared by the author of the novel from which the screenplay was taken) was my favorite among the actors. Director Robert Rossen (about whom Jules Dassin tells a sad tale on the RIFIFI disc supplement section, as does Stanley, to a less personal degree, on the commentary track here) has done good work; this certainly doesn’t qualify. Just look at all that talent operating below their standards.

John Stanley’s commentary talk is illustrated with quotes from interviews with the actors he has compiled over several decades. The Belafonte portions are particularly telling, the anger and frustration of a political man who saw in film and music hateful trends he couldn’t change.

It should be noted that the title song, written and performed by Belafonte is quite moving, although its accompanying montage of toiling islanders – beautiful as Young’s cinematography renders it – is a poor man’s version of James Whale’s brilliant montage, set to “Old Man River” in 1936’s SHOWBOAT. Belafonte sings it with genuine passion and insight and it became a standard in his concert tours, as I recall, (though it doesn’t appear on the concert CD in my collection. Maybe there was a rights problem?) All the more idiotic that neither he nor Ms. Dandridge were allowed to sing their own parts in CARMEN JONES. It wouldn’t have been, say, a precursor to CAMELOT; it would have been wonderful, more idiosyncratic, and would have resulted in a better film.


Special Features:
Audio Commentary by historian John Stanley. Dorothy Dandridge doc originally shown on A&E.

Directed by Robert Rossen.
Screenplay by Alfred Hayes from the novel by Alec Waugh.
Produced by Darryl F. Zanuck.
Cinematography by Freddie Young.
Score by Malcolm Arnold.
Songs by Harry Belafonte.
With: James Mason, Joan Fontaine, Harry Belafonte, Dorothy Dandridge, Joan Collins, Michael Rennie, Stephen Boyd, Basil Sydney, John Justin.

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