Is it possible to make a thoroughly wholesome, family friendly movie based solely on sex appeal? Robert Alton tried to answer “yes” to that very question with his 1950 musical, Pagan Love Song. Musicals, of course, often use song-and-dance as visual metaphors for sex, but Esther Williams did it better, because her musical sequences usually involve swimsuits and underwater writhing. Originally, Pagan Love Song was going to star Cyd Charisse, with Stanley Donen set to direct, but Charisse’s pregnancy and Williams’ dislike for Donen ended those plans. With Williams on board, a new script was written, choreographer Robert Alton placed as director, and a new leading man was found in Howard Keel.
That’s really all there is to it. The plot, if it can be described as such, involves Keel as a school teacher from Ohio who inherits a Tahitian plantation, and meets an attractive half-native woman (Williams) whom he attempts to hire as a house keeper, not realizing she’s actually a wealthy landowner with perfect English. After teasing him for a bit, she eventually befriends him, and falls in love with him. And then... well, that’s just about it. The movie only runs 76 minutes, and a good portion of that is either comedy gags or singing, or Williams in a bathing suit. There’s a whole lot of screen time devoted to Williams and her bathing suits.
All this probably sounds like I’m down on Pagan Love Song, but my only real problem with it is the music, which mostly sounds like the sort of thing one might hear in any Hollywood musical. It’s bland compared to the setting, and Alton only takes advantage of the south sea milieu for a single sequence involving lots booty-shaking women in grass skirts. The greatest sin: Pagan Love Song has no pagan love song.
It actually did well enough when it was released, one assumes due to the star power of Williams and Keel. I think that as bad a film as it is by contemporary expectations (it has a 4.2 weighted average at IMDb) there’s an amusing quality to its feigned innocence. The “water ballet” that plays out in Howard Keel’s imagination is so transparent it becomes funny, although I’m sure that it was pretty hot fifty years ago. The fact that any problems between the characters resolve themselves within minutes (and usually a song) adds to the silliness.
But in 1950, with the memories and consequences of WWII still too recent to be regarded as history, musicals like this one fulfilled a very important fantasy. The white people in Pagan Love Song spend most of their time lolling about without a great deal of clothing (Keel and Williams were both very fit at the time) while beautiful brown people run around with even less clothing, doing all the manual labor. Teaching the native children proves easier than teaching unruly schoolboys in Ohio. Tahiti shows no wounds of the fighting (the location shooting was done in Hawaii) from just a few years prior.
It’s a narrative feature of musicals that incredible gifts of athleticism and musicality come naturally to good people. We never see any hard work going into the music sequences that simply happen in the middle of Singin’ in the Rain or Summer Stock, both of which are about the production of musicals. If you’re good, you can sing good (grammar intentional) in the world of Hollywood musicals. Pagan Love Song is the same, only with the additional promise that uncorrupt paradise exists. Because everybody is so inherently good (maximizing the amount of song and dance) and because the film has no concerns other than showing its pretty people, Pagan Love Song has no conflict. Unless you’re enamored with the leads, it’s boring when it isn’t being stupid.
Stanley Donen actually would challenge the expectation of the genre with Gene Kelly in It’s Always Fair Weather (one of my favorites), so it’s kind of a shame that he didn’t have any chance to make something out of this movie. It’s a standard, stupid musical for which I have some ironic affection. Probably worth watching for a laugh if you can catch it on Turner Classic Movies, but if you channel surf a bit while it’s on, I won’t blame you.