In 1936, writers Charles Nordhoff and James Norman Hall published their 7th adventure novel, The Hurricane. Their 4th novel, Mutiny on the Bounty, published in 1932, had been such a literary sensation that MGM turned it into a film in 1935 starring Clark Gable and Charles Laughton. This time around, studio mogul Samuel Goldwyn wanted to make a movie based on a Nordhoff and Hall novel and he hired John Ford to direct this tale of wrong-doing, injustice, and love, amidst the onslaught of a South Pacific hurricane.
Goldwyn made a promise to Ford, that he could make the film in the actual South Pacific and even wait for a real hurricane to come along and use footage of it in the film! With Ford’s love of the sea and his penchant for realism in his films, he jumped at this chance. Unfortunately, only a few weeks after agreeing to make the film, Goldwyn contacted Ford and said he’d changed his mind about filming on location. He told Ford to just put wind machines on a back lot at the studio and film it there. That caused Ford to lose interest in the film but thanks to a strong cast, script improvements by Ben Hecht, and outstanding special effects by James Basevi, The Hurricane was a hit and it still holds up to today’s audiences.
The two main characters are Dorothy Lamour as Marama, this being only her second film, and Jon Hall as Terangi. Coincidentally, Hall was the nephew of James Norman Hall, one of the novel’s authors. Mary Astor is Madame De Laage, the govenor’s wife and Raymond Massey plays the govenor. C. Aubrey Smith is Father Paul and Thomas Mitchell plays Dr. Kersaint. John Carradine plays a sadistic jailer and Jerome Cowan plays Captain Nagle.
The setting is the beautiful island of Manakoora. Terangi is first mate on Captain Nagle’s trading ship. Terangi also marries Marama, the daughter of Mankoora’s chief. There is an elaborate and beautiful wedding ceremony and feast sequence where Governor and Mrs. De Laage are honored guests, and lovely leis are placed upon Mary Astor. Father Paul is there to pray a blessing of thanks for the trading ship’s safe arrival and to perform the wedding. The newlyweds happiness is short-lived. While on a trading ship excursion to Tahiti, a white man who is bullying Terangi gets a deserved punch in the jaw. Unfortunately, the bully is a man with influence and he gets a Tahitian official to sentence Terangi to 6 months in prison. Terangi’s friends go to Governor De Laage, the French Governor of Mankoora. He is a hard-nosed, no nonsense, follow the letter of the law kind of guy. He refuses to have Terangi brought back to Mankoora to be pardoned. Even when Madame De Laage pleads with him to relent and bring Terangi back because his wife is expecting a baby, the Governor won’t listen. After many escape attempts, Terangi manages to do so, but accidentally kills a guard in the process. He arrives back in Mankoora as a terrible hurricane is heading towards the island and in a selfless act, he ties his wife and daughter to a tree, then he ties a rope from that tree to the church, where Mrs. De Laage, Dr. Kersaint, and Father Paul are sheltering, along with a large group of islanders. Governor De Laage is out on the ocean on a schooner, hunting for the escaped Terangi. Dr. Kersaint manages to head out to a canoe where a woman is in labor and he delivers that baby during the hurricane! Terangi leads Mrs. De Laage to the tree and ties her to its upper branches as he has done for his wife and daughter. Father Paul won’t leave the church behind and tells all of them not to worry about him. After the hurricane has blown through and utterly destroyed the island, we learn that Terangi and his family have survived, as well as Mrs. De Laage, Dr. Kersaint, and his tiny patient and the mother. Governor De Laage can see with binoculars that Terangi is still alive, and that he has also saved Mrs. De Laage. She, in turn, urges Terangi to grab a canoe and sail away with his wife and daughter. When the Governor arrives at his wife’s side, he sees the canoe in the distance and she tells him it is just a log. He knows it is Terangi, but embraces his wife and agrees that it is just a log.
In reading about Mary Astor and her career, I learned that she began acting in silent films in the 1920s. She easily made the transition to talkies and was adept at playing in comedies or dramas. Her role in The Hurricane was not that of the lead, but one of the co-starring parts. With her elegance, and calm demeanor, she was the perfect choice to play the warm-hearted wife to a hard-hearted governor, such as the one Raymond Massey portrayed.
Director John Ford was known to choose one actor or actress to be the one that got “picked” on during the entire production run of a movie. For whatever reason, Mary “won” that title during the filming of The Hurricane. She reportedly took his jabs and comments with good humor and later said, “I think ‘laconic’ is a good word for John Ford and for his technique of direction”,…”No big deal about communication with John. Terse, pithy, to the point. Very Irish, a dark personality, a sensitivity which he did everything to conceal.”1
For the actual hurricane scene, Special Effects director James Basevi was given a $400,000 budget. He spent $150,000 to build a native village on a back lot and then spent $250,000 to destroy it! The planning of the scene, the production of it, and the filming took 4 months. Usually Basevi didn’t like to discuss how he made his special effects magic on any film, but The Hurricane was one film where he was quite open as to how he got that great scene completed. His village set was 600 feet long with wharves, huts, a church, and palm trees. The beach ran into a lagoon, which was actually a 200 yard-long tank. Across this tank were put up airplane propellors, mounted on towers to create the fierce winds. Water from 12 fire hoses streamed in front of the propellors’ blades to send water and spray over the actors and the set. Wave machines churned up the waters of the lagoon. To show a tidal wave, Basevi let loose 2000 gallons of water down chutes topped by big tanks.2
A very kind soul has put the hurricane scene up on Youtube and I have watched it over and over. Those are really all of the main actors in that scene. Mary Astor is soaking wet and trying to grasp that rope to safely get from the church to that giant tree, with Terangi leading her to safety. It is a very impressive scene, and I am delighted to report that Turner Classic Movies will be showing The Hurricane on Wednesday, May 29th, at 11:00 p.m. CST.
To see an exciting film directed by John Ford and one of Mary Astor’s subtle and warm-hearted performances, set your dvrs and don’t miss The Hurricane!
This blog was written in conjunction with The Mary Astor Blogathon, hosted by two great classic movie bloggers: Tales of the Easily Distracted and Silver Screenings. If you visit their sites, you will read other wonderful blogs all about the wonderful Mary Astor.
Sources sited for this blog: 1 Davis, Ronald L., John Ford: Hollywood’s Old Master, University of Oklahoma Press, Norman and London, 1995. Page 88.
2Zinman, David, 50 Classic Motion Pictures:The Stuff That Dreams Are Made Of: Vintage Films From Hollywood’s Golden Age, Limelight Editions, New York, 1992. Pages 112-113.