Pagan Love Song (1950)

Film Review


Release Date: 29 December, 1950

Studio: MGM

Director: Robert Alton

Starring: Esther Williams, Howard Keel


Keel disembarks in Tahiti to claim the plantation he has inherited from his uncle. He meets Williams and many native Tahitians and hires a brother and sister to be his plantation manager and housekeeper respectively. Following local custom, he accepts three children into his house on a shared basis with their families. He and Williams fall in love and become engaged; however, they separate after Keel publically scolds his plantation manager. The copa crop has been left in the rain, and Keel, who will not get the money to pay his debts, may have to sell the plantation. Fortunately for Keel, his three children have mobilized all the local children, and they have moved the crop into the shed. Keel apologizes to the plantation manager, and he and Williams reconcile.


Pagan Love Song was produced by the Arthur Freed Unit (An American in Paris, 1950, Singin' in the Rain, 1952) at MGM. According to Hugh Fordin in his book The World of Entertainment!: Hollywood’s Greatest Musicals (1975), Freed wanted a film about Tahiti based on the slice-of-life novel Tahiti Landfall (1946) by William S. Stone. The film was named Pagan Love Song after a well-known song Freed and Nacio Herb Brown had composed in 1929. Freed and Harry Warren composed new music for the film. Esther Williams, who was a competitive swimmer before becoming an actress, rejected direction by Stanley Donen (who would later direct Singin' in the Rain and Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, 1954), and so Freed gave Robert Alton, a renowned dance choreographer who had directed only one previous picture (Merton of the Movies, 1947), another chance to direct.

Due to travel difficulties, filming took place on the Hawaiian island of Kauai rather than on Tahiti. According to Fordin, Alton was inexperienced, indecisive, and insecure. Filming was delayed by frequent rain, many of the accommodations were subpar, and, overall, the location shooting was wearisome for the entire cast and crew. The finished film reflects Alton’s inexperience and incompetence. Although he continue d to stage and direct musical numbers until his death in 1956, Alton never directed another film.

A plot barely exists in Pagan Love Song. Most of the film consists of views of the beautiful island with or without the actors in the scene. When the actors are shown, Keel has most of the screen time. He is seen at home, bicycling island roads, or romancing Williams along the picturesque shore. He looks handsome and sings the bland songs nicely. Williams has her usual underwater ballet. As a couple, they smile, acknowledge each other, and speak their lines, with little resulting chemistry. Overall, Pagan Love Song is one of the weakest products of the Freed Unit.

Despite her limited acting abilities and the shortcomings of her films, Williams had many fans, and they came out to see her. According to Fordin, the film, which cost $1.9 million, grossed over $3.2 million.