#602) Tabu: A Story of the South Seas (1931)

#602) Tabu: A Story of the South Seas (1931)

OR “How are Things in Bora Bora?”

Directed by F.W. Murnau

Written by Murnau and Robert J. Flaherty

Class of 1994

The Plot: The South Pacific island of Bora Bora is met with the arrival of Hitu (actor unknown), an emissary from another island with a message from their Chief. With the death of their sacred virgin, the title has now been placed on young native Reri (Anne Chevalier), who is officially declared “tabu”: she cannot be touched or desired by any man under penalty of death. This news does not sit well with Reri or with her beau Matahi (actor unknown), and the two flee the island, taking refuge in a colonized city in French Polynesia. Reri and Matahi are happy in their new life, but Hitu and the curse of Tabu loom over the couple. Will these two keep their newfound happiness, or become the next victims of Tabu?

Why It Matters: The NFR praises the film’s “lush” cinematography and quotes the New York Times review that described “Tabu” as a “picture poem”.

But Does It Really?: “Tabu” is on the list because of its impressive cinematography and for being F. W. Murnau’s last film. That’s it. Unsurprising for a Murnau film, “Tabu” is beautifully shot, and it’s impressive to watch a story told almost exclusively through the visuals, but the film suffers from the kind of exoticizing of other cultures prominent throughout most films of this era, which makes for a difficult modern viewing. Still, “Tabu” is a unique movie thanks to the melding of Murnau’s expressionism and Robert Flaherty’s docudrama technique, and holds up well enough today to warrant a pass for its NFR designation.

Everybody Gets One: Raised in Tahiti by a Polynesian mother and French father, Anne Chevalier was discovered by F.W. Murnau at age 16 and cast as Reri. Chevalier traveled to the United States and Europe to promote the film and even performed her dance routines in nightclubs and cabarets (plus a stint in the Ziegfeld Follies). Anne Chevalier was the only “Tabu” cast member to appear in other movies, starring in two more (“Black Pearl” and “The Hurricane”) before returning to Tahiti for the rest of her life. And for the record, Anne is of no relation to Maurice Chevalier.

Wow, That’s Dated: The opening credits state that while the film is cast with “native-born South Sea Islanders”, there are a few “half-castes”, a derogatory term for people of mixed European and Indian heritage.

Title Track: Tabu is the Polynesian concept denoting something as sacred and prohibited (it’s the word that the English “taboo” is derived from). While spelled “Tabu” at the time of the film’s release, the Tongan language now spells it “Tapu”.

Seriously, Oscars?: While not very successful upon its initial release, “Tabu” was nominated for – and won – a single Oscar for Floyd Crosby’s cinematography. “Tabu” was the last silent film to win Best Cinematography, and at age 31 Crosby is still the category’s youngest recipient. 

Other notes

  • F.W. Murnau and Robert Flaherty were introduced through Flaherty’s brother David and hit it off immediately. The two agreed to collaborate on a film set in Tahiti; Murnau had always wanted to make a film there, and Flaherty had previous experience filming in the South Seas. The original film was titled “Turia”, but when financing fell through (possibly due to the 1929 stock market crash), Murnau funded the film himself and rewrote the entire script to avoid a potential legal dispute with the original production company.
  • “Tabu” was filmed in Tahiti over eight months. Production went south immediately as Murnau and Flaherty’s relationship started to sour. Flaherty did not like Murnau’s new script, and the little he contributed to the rewrite was deemed unusable by Murnau. Unsatisfied with Flaherty’s footage of the opening sequence, Murnau hired Floyd Crosby to serve as cinematographer, with Flaherty returning to America to develop the arriving film stock. Flaherty’s initial co-director credit was removed, and his ultimate contributions to the final film are debatable. Flaherty’s involvement was further diminished when after production, broke and desperate for money, he sold his share of the film back to Murnau for $25,000.
  • It’s 1931 and we’re thousands of miles away from the nearest Hollywood studio, so you know what that means: Pre-Code nudity! The opening bathing scene is tasteful and shows great restraint. I wonder if any of these women ever suspected this footage would be readily available for viewing over 90 years later.
  • Shoutout to Floyd Crosby; the cinematography is genuinely impressive. The shots aboard the outriggers are the best: the rowers and their boat are stable in the foreground while the ocean bounces wildly in the background. Fun Fact: Crosby was the only professional cameraman on the shoot, the rest of the cameras were helmed by native Bora-Borans. 
  • The ship from Papeete is named “Moana”. This is, of course, the Tahitian word for “ocean”, but now I have the songs from that Disney movie stuck in my head. Damn you Lin-Manuel Miranda and your worthy succession of Alan Menken!
  • The inherent issues with women being treated as property aside, my big question regarding Reri’s new Tabu status: What happened to the last virgin? They gloss over that little detail quickly.
  • Matahi and the other natives participate in a ritualistic dance celebrating Reri, and boy I hope it’s culturally accurate. Things take a turn when Matahi dances a little too close to Reri. I didn’t realize this movie was the original “Dirty Dancing”. Nobody puts Reri in a corner.
  • Anne Chevalier has the “head down in sadness” look down pat. Every time she walks I keep waiting for them to play “Christmas Time Is Here“.
  • Oh come on, the message says that Reri was “stolen”? She’s a person, not property. Somehow the term “kidnapped” is less demoralizing in this scenario.
  • As one of the last truly silent films (soundtrack aside), “Tabu” features no intertitle dialogue, with the only expository text coming from letters and journal entries within the film. It’s commendable, but that being said the filmmakers increasingly rely on this technique as the film goes along.
  • You gotta love any movie where a plot point involves a shark. Obviously, it’s a model shark (you can more or less sense the hand holding it up in some shots), but it works for a movie on a shoestring budget. And like “Jaws” some 40 years later, Murnau knows to only show the shark sparingly for maximum effect.
  • Between this and “La Perla“, the NFR really wants to warn me about the dangers of pearl diving. 
  • Is it just me, or does the score keep almost turning into “Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing“?
  • Ah yes, there’s your Murnau expressionism at work. The camera gets in close to Matahi’s face as he struggles to sleep, with the image of the man he owes money to superimposed over him. This composition should feel out of place, but given this movie’s somewhat heightened reality, it works.
  • Wow, what a downer ending. I guess the moral is “keep it in your pants”?

Legacy

  • Upon his return to Hollywood, F.W. Murnau sold the distribution rights of “Tabu” to Paramount, who added a score by Hugo Riesenfeld to the otherwise silent film. Murnau was in talks with Paramount to make several films in Tahiti, the next one planned was an adaptation of Herman Melville’s novel “Typee”. Sadly, one week before the premiere of “Tabu”, F.W. Murnau was in a car accident and died the following day from sustained head injuries. He was 42, and “Tabu” was his final film.
  • After the lackluster box office performance of “Tabu”, the film’s distribution rights reverted to Murnau’s mother Ottilie Plumpe. In the 1940s, she sold the film to screenwriters/directors Rowland and Samuel Brown, who re-released it in 1948 (albeit with Code-mandated cuts). Murnau’s nieces eventually bought the film back in the 1960s, and in the ’70s Floyd Crosby funded a restoration of the original uncut film by UCLA.
  • Floyd Crosby would go on to serve as cinematographer for such NFR entries as “The River” and “High Noon“. I don’t think I’ve mentioned this yet on the blog, but Floyd Crosby is the father of singer David Crosby. Do with that piece of trivia what you will.
  • “Tabu” is one of many films of the era that romanticized the South Pacific for American (re: White) moviegoers. Among the other films, Best Picture winner “Mutiny on the Bounty” and Anne Chevalier’s final film “The Hurricane”.

Further Viewing: “Tabu” is typically remembered today in conjunction with the rest of Murnau’s filmography. Easily the most iconic of his earlier, NFR ineligible films is 1922’s “Nosferatu”. Check that out and, if there’s time, take a peek at 2000’s “Shadow of the Vampire” with John Malkovich as Murnau!

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