Tabu: a Story of the South Seas (F.W.
Murnau, 1931)

The use of primary sources is
helpful for revealing how a film interpreted by different group of people
around the time it was released. In this essay, I am going to discuss five
different sources regarding the film Tabu: a Story of the South Seas made by
F.W. Murnau in 1931. The five sources will provide different aspects and show
different attitudes from consumer and trade publications and also technical

My first primary source is an
article from a movie section in The Illustrated London News released on Sep.
26, 1931, a couple of months after the premiere of Tabu. The section, named The
World of the Kinema was for articles about movies around the world. The article
served as a review in a popular publication, and was more like personal opinion
by the column writer. The writer, Michael Orme stated that he “cannot believe
that after seeing Tabu the public will allow the silent picture to be sent once
more into limbo”. The article was positive about the artistic contribution of
Tabu to silent films. He suggested that “It has come as a timely reminder of a
form of Kinematic art which must not and cannot be permitted to die.” In order
to support his point, he mentioned the director, F.W. Murnau and Flaherty, who
were both famous in the movie industry. When the production of silent films was
challenged by the new technology, silent films should find their own value that
could not be replaced by sound films. However, the weak point of the author to
advocate the art form of silent films was that he only took the famous
directors as evidence, but failed to construct more convincing argument with
discussion on “cinematography” or “the musical setting”. After all, this review
is still helpful in understanding how people viewed silent films under the
overwhelming tide of sound films after The Jazz Singer released in 1927.

As for its discussion on the
authenticity of Tabu, the author did not struggled much with its documentary
outdoor shooting style, and simply mentioned it as a drama. It seems that the
writer did not want to lie much of his argument on the genre of the movie. First,
he mentioned the plot as “fragments of Polynesian folklore”, and the director
and native actors successfully gave the audience a glimpse of the fairy-tale
romance of the island lovers. In this sense, Tabu was more like a reproduce of
South Seas folklore, and it was successful with its use of native actors. From
his perspective, the authenticity could do nothing to shake the artistic value
of Tabu.

the source also has its limitation; as a personal opinion, we do not know if it
was a major argument of the time. In other words, the source lacks
representation of his time, though he did mention a few evidence to back his
argument. To emphasize his point on Tabu’s artistic success, he introduced the
storyline and used a series of pictures to emphasize that the natives did
successfully reproduced the legend of the South Seas, and that Murnau, the
famous director, was the core to make this film great. Though not strongly
supported by abundant evidences, in the short article, he had made his point
clear, and was not distracted by the largely discussed theme of its
authenticity as being a documentary film.


        The second source is a report on Tabu in
the magazine: Paramount Around the World, published in March, 1931. Paramount
Around the World was a periodical trade magazine published by Paramount
Pictures, one of the major studios in Hollywood. Like other big movie companies,
such as Fox and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM), Paramount Picture were vertically
integrated – controlling the industry from production, distribution, to
exhibition (, 2018). The magazine was in circulation
from 1927-1931, and was only one of all other trade magazines published by the
company. The magazine clearly served as a tool to build the image of Paramount Picture
especially during the worst days of the Great Depression in 1931. Variety
wrote, “The outstanding market lesson of the year…is the exploding of the
ancient dictum that low-priced amusements are depression-proof.…The current
bear market has demonstrated that nothing is depression-proof, including
Government bonds.” (, 2018) Stepping into the third year
of the Great Depression, even movie industry was under serious damage, and
Paramount was no exception, with its earnings fell from $18.4 million to $6.3
million and then, in 1932, to a record loss of $21 million (,
2018). When the audience had to choose cautiously which movie to watch with
their limited spare money on entertainment, it became more critical to find
audiences’ appetite accurately. The article is written to promote that
Paramount had “acquired the distribution right of Tabu”, and that could be the
turning point.

It mentioned, “the jaded appetites
of a public fed up on the synthetic marvels of the studio”, and what audiences
needed was something different to catch their eyes. In addition, “silent
pictures with synchronized music score” could be salable in the foreign market,
which is an important point during the time when overseas sales shrunk incredibly.
The two reasons explained why Paramount bought the distribution right of Tabu,
and this article promoted the effort exaggeratingly to convince their employees
and their investors with its prospect. The article could be seen as an
advertisement without critical comments. The investment on the film was
promising because not only it was “something different”, but also the
difference was made by famous directors, Murnau and Flaherty, whose names had
been associated with “artistic box office success”. Moreover, it boasted the
film with the South Seas setting, using native actors, accompanied with many
flowery descriptions not relevant to adequate analysis. Next page, even more
sensational, was an advertisement surrounded by several different press’
recommendations, including nine pieces of news. All of these press highlighted
the film’s fine photography and its music score by Hugo Riesenfeld with little
discussion on its authenticity as a documentary. Rather, the article used more terms
such as “real romance of South Seas” and “obtaining performances of amazing
sincerity” to emphasize its authenticity but at the same time admit its
dramatically set plot.

As a trade magazine published in
the interests of Paramounteers in every part of the globe, it is understandable
of the keen promotion on its newly bought movie, Tabu. The source gives us a
sense of how Paramount deemed Murnau’s new film and the taste of audience at
that time. They wanted something different to catch their eyes; they needed
quality proof with famous names, such as Murnau and Flaherty. However, as an
advertisement, the comments was exaggerated of its merits and lost its
credibility. This disadvantage can be complemented by the next source from
another prominent trade magazine, Variety.


The third source is a short film
review on Tabu from Mar. 25 Variety. In the contrary to Paramount around the
World, Variety was not founded by movie production company, and did not have as
much commercial pressure to sell certain films as Paramount Around the World.
Under such circumstance, Variety is often used as credible references in film
studies. Stripped off the advertising elements, the reviews were
straightforward to show one’s opinion, and its film reviews were more objective
and critical.

Unlike the previous two sources, this
film review focused more on its authenticity in a negative tone: “more like a
Hollywood made love story than a South Seas romance” (pp. 17). It compared the
film with a previously made film also in the South Seas settings – “Moana of
the South Seas”, and claimed that “Moana” brought a lot more in portraiting
native life than Tabu, which used about 90% of footage on the “romantic leads”
(pp.17). What makes his argument more reasonable is the use of comparison and
relevant evidence, rather than solely discussion on the film itself. As for its
aesthetics, he criticized Tabu with its discontinuity, claiming that “it was
still doubtful in the middle”(pp. 17). However, the statement is much weaker,
for the absence of supporting evidence. Also more like an personal opinion was
the author’s praise on Hugo Riesenfeld’s music score. To sum up, the article gave
a reasonable critique on the authenticity of the film and also reflected that
though advertisements back then mostly promoted Tabu as a romantic film, the
dispute on its genre have never stopped. However, his view on aesthetics were
not as much plausible, and thus should be considered as personal opinion.


The fourth source is an April, 1931
publication of International Photographer, a technical journal that focused on
cinematography in the interest of cameramen and other technical production
crew. The article about Tabu was one of the articles in the column: Looking In
on Just a Few New Ones, which introduced new films. Without the pressure of
advertising like Paramount Pictures nor restricted knowledge by an outsider,
this article, though still personal, possesses higher authenticity of
professional view.

On the discussion on Tabu’s
authenticity, the author compared it with Flaherty’s previous work “Nanook of
the North”, and said it was more “eloquent in realism than a tale of the South
Seas” (pp.38). The reason why it looked not that “documentary” as “Nanook” was
partly because its setting in tropic island rather than in the arctic north. Compared
to the last source in Variety, they both used past films as examples to support
their views. What was different was that in International Photographer, it
seems to stand on a more empathetic aspect, saying the reason why Tabu could not
be filmed realistic enough was partly due to the story setting. Nevertheless,
it did not consider other South Seas films, like Moana, mentioned in the third
source. On the side of Tabu’s aesthetical performance, he complimented its
well-organized picture by Murnau and Flaherty by having a cast of native
inexperienced actors. Overall, his tone was positive rather than critical. He
still gave his praise on Murnau’s novelty and his skills. Lastly, he also
mentioned the musical setting, and considered it as “what make up for the
absence of the sound truck” (pp.38). As a technical magazine, we can infer that
the industry was no longer in the age of silent films with the term “make up
for”, indicating if it were not for the musical score, Tabu would not be a
success only beautifully photographed. This article and the last one of Variety
are great sources to explore the discussion on documentary. Back in 1930s, it
was still a new genre with too few productions to construct its definition, so
it is important to utilize primary resources to understand the divergence of
the time. Yet, these short columns could only provide limited credibility due
to its length and the lack of evidence they used to support their points.

The last source is a report of the
leading Hollywood fan magazine of the 1920s and 1930s – Photoplay. With its
large readership and its essence of being a fan magazine, Photoplay played an
important promotional role of Hollywood industry at the same time remained
independent and critical. Photoplay often reported stories of movie stars,
directors into their personal lives, and this source is a page introducing
Murnau, who died shockingly in an automobile accident before the premiere of
Tabu at the Central Park. Similar to other general publications and ad-oriented
articles, it did not refer to its documentary authenticity much. Rather, it
laid more emphasis on the effort Murnau and Flaherty spent on the filming in a
beautiful but remote island. It wrote that the director, “satiated with the
artificiality of Hollywood”, sailed away for the South Seas (pp.27). It said
the intention of Murnau was for the reality, but did not comment on the film
came out as a result of their hard work on the remote island of Bora Bora.
Theme focused more was Murnau, Flaherty, and Dr. Hugo Reisenfeld,
which was the highlight of all these primary sources. We can infer that the
popularity of the production team was important for the public, and was widely
used to attract audience. As a new genre of films, which the public still not
familiar with, famous directors became a kind of quality guarantee. As a fan
magazine, the terms it used is distinct from other trade magazine with descriptions
such as “genius”, “added immeasurable to the value of their picture”, and “see
Tabu, or never again complain about screen clap-trap” (pp.27). These reflects
its essence of a fan magazine, which we should consider the credibility and the
proportion of facts. At the same time, Photoplay still give us a window into
how the public receive film news.

In conclusion, advertisements and
consumer publications have fewer discussions on genre as documentary. The
pressure of the box office and the time during the Great Depression led to the
result that the information the audience get was more of excitements, such as
the exotic dances and the romantic drama of the lovers. In the contrary, sources
from trading magazine show the opposite, touching both topics around
authenticity and aesthetics. Even when the term “docu-fiction” had not been
invented, and the concept of documentary was still new, Tabu still aroused some
discussions on its authenticity as being a documentary. From different aspects,
using different evidences, they came into totally different tone. Though mostly
the public receive it as a romantic drama filmed outdoor using native actors,
basically what audience know : it’s a drama Their themes and their aesthetics.
What in common of all five sources selected in this essay is that no matter it
was an advertisement, a news article, or a film review, they all stressed a lot
on Murnau, Flaherty, and Dr. Hugo Reisenfeld.


(2018). Surviving the Great Depression – The Exhibition Market, The
Recovery, The Paramount Case. online Available at:
Accessed 16 Jan. 2018.


Photographer. (1931). Periodicals Media History Digital Library, Technical
(2018). MHDL: Hollywood Studio System Collection. online Available at: Accessed 16 Jan. 2018.


Michael. “The World of The Kinema.” Illustrated London News, 26 Sept.
1931, p. 490. The Illustrated London News Historical Archive, 1842-2003, Accessed 5 Jan. 2018.

Document Number: GALE|HN3100291408


Around the World. (1931). Periodicals Media History Digital Library,
Hollywood Studio System,


(1931). Periodicals Media History Digital Library, Fan Magazines, Hollywood
Studio System,


a Story of the South Seas. (1931). film Directed by F.W. Murnau


(1931). Periodicals Media History Digital Library, Hollywood Studio System,
Theatre and Vaudeville,



I'm Katy!

Would you like to get a custom essay? How about receiving a customized one?

Check it out