[an error occurred while processing this directive]American Films in Tropic Tahiti

by Armstrong Sperry

New York Herald Tribune Magazine
Sunday, July 25, 1926
Section VIII, pp. 1-2

THE long, narrow street before the Palace du Cinema is thronging with people. Overhead the tropic star-glitter goes down in defeat before the blaze of twenty electric arcs. The drums are beating. Tonight is the big night! There is a new film from California! It concerns a handsome young man who killed bulls for a livelihood until he in turn was slain by one. There is, moreover, a beautiful lady, a Serpent Woman whose heart is full and whose dresses have no backs. Tonight we will get one more glimpse into the life of the white man, the popa'a who does such fascinatingly inexplicable things.

It is 7:30 o'clock. The entire day has been lived in anticipation of this hour. The hokey-pokey wagons of the Chinese peddlers lie in wait for their willing prey -- venders hawking their wares:

"Haere mai! Watermelon one sou! Cocoanut pâtè ten centimes!"

Kerosene torches sputter and spark. Not yet, Chinaman! After the entr' acte. Then will you be patronized and bullied, browbeaten and insulted. But your wares will be bought and you will ignore the insults and pocket the money, wax fat and rich and return to Peking and take ten wives. Not for you the cinema from California. Not for your eyes the spectacle of the young man who slays bulls. Yours but to hawk and cry.

Hear the drums beating? Aue! It's the rhythm of the upaupa. Come one, come all! Tickets everybody. The cinema starts!

Within the great whitewashed structure an air of expectancy pervades. Not a man breaks the perfect stillness. Suddenly, seeming like an explosion in that strained atmosphere, a cocoanut falls with a clatter upon the galvanized iron rooms, causing every one to start nervously. In a tiny alcove under the eaves an orchestra of tinkling guitars and wheezing concertinas bursts into rhythmic sound and instantly 300 pairs of feet tap an insistent tatoo upon the floor.

All Tahiti is singing. A simple song: spontaneously evolved by a baud of wandering minstrels has swept the island like an epidemic. Old women sing it as they beat their clothes upon the stones in the river; the sturdy fisherman coming in from the reef at sunset swings his paddle to the lilt of it; little boys whistle its insidious notes as they clamber up the boles of the coco trees in search of drinking nuts.

A thin and flickering ray of white light cuts the Stygian darkness, falling upon a sheet stretched at one end of the hall. The interpreter, well primed with absinthe, takes his important place at the back of the hall. From his decision there is no appeal. He is King, Prime Minister and referee. Knowing few words of English, he interprets the printed captions entirely through the action that has preceded them; his knowledge of the American vernacular being limited to a few cuss words, he is more at home perhaps among "movies" of the custard-pie school. When occasion demands he gibes at the actors, insults, praises, encourages and spits upon them. A woman being pursued with evil intent by the villain is earnestly exhorted to hurry, to literally pick up her skirts and run, the villain is berated roundly, while his ancestry or his mother's, grandmother's and great-grandmother's sides, even unto the seventh generation, is held up to public scorn. The interpreter talks, weeps, laughs, curses and swoons through three solid hours. What wonder he is admired? His is the first place by right of endurance.

A motor purrs noisily overhead. The ray of light flickers uncertainly, then narrows into place: "Rudolph Valentino in 'Blood and Sand."' The long-awaited words flash upon the screen and there is a sharp intake of breath. Buxom, brown-toned damsels lean forward and gaze earnestly upon the flickering and famous profile of their hero. How large his face is; it fills the entire screen! Starched young escorts pass furtive hands over unruly pompadours that have been cocoanut-oiled into submission.

The romance begins. The Plaza de Toros of Madrid lies before our eyes. The handsome matador salutes his sovereign. In a box near the arena the Serpent Woman smiles upon the illfated warrior and she is roundly hissed by the audience. Cape in hand, lithe and graceful, we see the young matador spring toward the bull, flashing the scarlet temptation now this way, now that.

"E Valentino iti e!" cries the interpreter. "Beware! Aye! Almost he caught you on his horns. May he be struck dead, the thrice-accursed bull! May he burst his liver with fright! Aia! Run, Valentino!"

"Aia-a-a-a-a!" cries the crowd in long-drawn-out chorus of apprehension. We are breathing heavily. Our hearts are pounding like the surf on the reef.

Through the intricate maze of plot and counterplot every action of the hero is followed. He is pleaded with, cautioned, implored, laughed with and wept over. And when at last his body
is trampled in the dust by the infuriated bull, to be gored and thrown and carried from the arena so limp and still in its brave trappings, there is scarcely a dry eye in the audience. The world is a terrible place and full of suffering; we are old and have no "poi" to eat; soon we will be dead; let us cast ourselves into the lagoon where the ma'o may rend us limb from limb. Genuine sobs fill the air. And when as an aftermath the Serpent Woman is shown smiling her evil smile a shoe, a prized Parisian shoe is hurled by an infuriated hand through the screen, cutting the sheet from top to bottom.

The show is necessarily over and the crowd wends its leisurely way to the street. Girls meet their lovers and saunter away beneath the palms. Their eyes are soft and full of tears, for they have suffered much.

The wealthier spectators step into their carriages and automobiles, or perch upon their bicycles, and go around the corner to the Café Mariposa, there to discuss all the intricacies of the picture, to thrill over the bravery of their hero, to mourn his untimely demise, to preen themselves in their new clothes and smile upon their friends, ridiculing the while their enemies and rivals.

The Café Mariposa lies on the waterfront in the Rue de Rivoli, where the little pearling schooners tie up to the flamboyant trees on shore. It is a tiny, boxlike place, decorated after the modern manner with frequent signs admonishing the patrons in French and Tahitian to watch their hats and overcoats. Champagne advertisements rub elbows, and banana splits vin-du-pays and cognac have gone down in defeat before hot maple fudge sundae a la America. Watch them file in.

Here in the orange dress comes Mimi Martinet, the hussy. Mimi, rumor has it, has just separated the Gouverneur from his wife. To be sure, the Gouverneur's wife deserved it, for did she not the year before present her lord with a son who, as every one knows, was as brown as a ripe cocoanut! And look! Arriving in that old carriage with the smart Tahitian driver reclines the Princess Rima Pomae. What airs she gives herself! Her mother may have been last Queen of Tahiti, but her lineal ancestry on the male side is the subject of considerable speculation. The Princess goes to Tupai every single month. Why? Um-m-m! No one knows exactly, but there is a fascinating American painter over there.

And if there isn't Diestal, his pinched little French face cracked into the semblance of a smile, his forty-odd black hairs skillfully arranged upon his shining skull. A laughing goldentan vahine languishes upon each arm and is the center of all envious eyes. For Diestal is a pearl buyer, and if a bit parsimonious, is still considered a catch in certain circles. He has enemies who say that he forged his grandmother's will; that he is the local representative of a ring of white-slavers and is wanted in the Bronx for feeding bichloride to the giraffe; that he is a sun worshiper and takes coca-cola in large doses, refusing to support his nine illegitimate children.

There is Oma Tefa, with her hair dressed like Pola Negri's. While Mapu, the one and only postman, his tan face wreathed into a toothy and becoming smile, wears bell-bottom trousers,

Shades of Tahitian cannibals! Could you but see your offspring!

Not so many years ago missionaries and traders and whalers were met and driven away by arrow and javelin; the lagoon ran red with blood of the sacrificial wounded; smoke from the sacrificial fires rose in columns to the clouds; men roamed the mysterious valleys as free of care as of haberdashery.

But Hollywood has breathed its hot and perfumed breath upon Polynesia. Tahiti has fallen into line with the march of progress, girded up its loins and bandolined its pompadour. The palm tree droops over the lagoon; beyond the reef the dolphin cuts, his sportive capers; up over the towering heights of Aorai the moon rises like a gigantic Japanese lantern, casting its astonished beams upon the Rue de Rivoli, where tropical Valentinos and colorful Mary Pickfords turn night into day.

And when all over the island the roosters send forth their gallant challenge to the new day, then only do the revelers remove their precious shoes and turn their tortured feet toward their respective homes.

A little food, long hours of sleep through the hot day. Soon it will be 7:30 again. The hour of the cinema! To bed! Soon the drums will be beating. For to-night's the big night.

There is a new film straight from California




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