by Roy W. Winton
The appearance of this ghost of a deceased Photoplay-fare department in Movie Makers is made possible by Paramount’s Tabu which, following on the heels of Chaplin’s City Lights, would seem to be a tentative return by Messrs. Zukor and Lasky to a field in which they scored so many triumphs, the silent photoplay, now, alas, so infrequent.
Tabu was jointly directed by F. W. Murnau, whose recent accidental death in the West is such a real loss to motion picture art, and Robert Flaherty, the amateur whose infrequent invasions of the commercial field have resulted in Moana and Nanook. It is easy to see that Mr. Flaherty’s ethnological convictions have been happily modified by Mr. Murnau’s fine sense of exalted and restrained drama. Floyd Crosby, cameraman, is the third member of the trio which has given us a film of such calm and sure distinction as the screen has not shown for many a synchronized day.
If Tabu were considered as one in the succession of silent films and if the interrupting Babel of the last three years were ignored, its Paramount importance would be less, although its beauty and dignity would not be diminished. Conceivably, had motion picture art used the last three years for development and not for gadding into the preserve of the legitimate stage, Tabu would be “old stuff.” It is, actually, old stuff but stuff whose texture is golden because of its adherence to the canons of silent filming.
Cinematically, Tabu is adequate but not novel. Photographically, it has all of the authority of Robert Flaherty who has excelled in this field for years. The direction is almost austere, so far does it differ from the nervous efforts of most of the talkies to get all kinds of thrills into seven or eight reels. Native actors, including one or two half castes, are used entirely and none of Hollywood’s wonder girls or pretty boys is asked to “go South Seas” in decorous and codified fashion. These actors engage in episodes that, with a pornographic directorial concept, could have been revolting but which, because of a directorial elevation, are sincerely germane to the advancing story. It is true that the tragedy is western, rather than eastern, and the traveled observer will doubt whether Matahi, who, it is to be hoped, will not be lured to Hollywood for shop girl thrillers, would have been greatly bothered about the tabued maiden, since so many others were at hand. Yet, if we grant the tragic concept, the rest follows naturally and inevitably to a climax that has never, for dignity and beauty, been excelled on the screen, in the opinion of this reviewer.
It is obvious that a comparison with the great talking pictures, All Quiet, Blue Angel, Seven Days Leave, Disraeli, The Right to Love, is suggested. What does Tabu offer, as pure dramatic entertainment, laying aside questions of motion picture art, that they lack? Chiefly a sense of measured and certain dramatic progress in which the directors are sure of their intention, their goal and the route to the end. It was possible for the beholder to follow and to identify his emotions with those of the film, without vocal distractions which at once set up a demand for third dimensionality that cannot be satisfied.
Secondarily — and this will be particularly apparent to the movie amateur who is conversant with screen problems — the audience will be conscious in Tabu of a free and mobile camera, traveling where the cinematographic and photographic requirements lead it and not uneasily subservient to the demands of a microphone whenever the action wanders beyond the limits of a studio. To see Tabu after hearing so many films dramas is like returning to the open lands after a time in the city. The hurry, the noise, the nervousness to say all that could be said in a time too short to say it, give place to a golden silence that is moved only by the wide sweep of epic emotions.
(Movie Makers, June 1931)