Tropic of Passion came about as director Bob Chinn and producing partner Alain Patrick were keen to get out of the then-hot L.A. area to avoid an all but certain bust by the vice squad as hardcore pornography was most definitely illegal to make at the time and the authorities had a particular hard-on for arresting anyone involved in its production. In traveling to Hawaii, they figured out a way to make the best out of the situation and shoot a Johnny Wadd feature while on vacation, even if this meant having to put up with John Holmes, whose star and day rate were both on a meteoric rise, one more time.
In Tropic of Passion, Johnny Wadd (Holmes) travels to Hawaii to assist soon-to-be heiress Ruth Miller (Patti Snyder) in ridding herself from a blackmailer who poses a threat to her inheritance by threatening to release a clandestine pornographic film in which she appears. During his investigation, he befriends probate attorney Alex Royale (Alex Elliott) and crosses paths with mysterious underworld figure Fuk Yu (Chinn).
Though it began as a necessary legal move, the move to Hawaii turned into a refreshing endeavor as Tropic of Passion, the fourth film in the series, gets a boost in the gas reserve due in large part to its gorgeous location. Doing wonders for the entertainment value of the series, it also unlocked a new level of imaginative play-acting that would come to mark the best of Bob Chinn’s work (eg, wildly shooting John Holmes as he sprints towards a departing tourist helicopter to mimic an daring escape by the elusive Fuk Yu).
As there was really little script on Tropic of Passion, the film is a lot of moments that are strung together and half-improvised or, as is the case with all of the the Hawaii footage, dubbed in post production. Instead of feeling like it’s taking a step backward, the awkward conversation surrounding some of the sex scenes has a certain realistic ring to it and Alex Elliott’s continued pleading to Holmes to take it easy because he’s “in Hawaii now where things are slower” moves from nervous, free-balling banter to minor running gag. Hell, I don’t even mind Wadd’s completely superfluous trip to the strip club on Hotel Street for the kind of specific history Chinn is able to capture.
So Tropic of Passion certainly isn’t polished but, since it was made during the nascent days of hardcore features, it’s not attempting to be. But even if it was just another piece of product for hungry theater owners, in some ways, the film is an experimental dry run for 1976’s Tell Them Johnny Wadd is Here as both films use their exotic locations to their best advantage while having a great deal of escapist fun in the process. And of the first four Johnny Wadd films, Tropic of Passion mixes everything up so expertly that the construction is much less evident and it actually tacks a little closer to the perfect balance found in the Freeway Films series that began with TTJWIH.
Though it was still a micro-production, Tropic of Passion plays like a bigger, more widescreen version of the three previous Johnny Wadd films. Sex scenes (at least one of them) moves out of Alain Patrick’s beach condo and in a high rise Hawaiian hotel; outdoor fight scenes that played out on beaches and oilfields are relocated to the steep sides of verdant terrain; Wadd drives amid a paradise instead of up and down the alleyway next to Alain Patrick’s condo or the California freeway; and spread out among the usual Morricone selections are a great deal of slack-key guitar instrumentals by Gabby Pahinui and a bigger variety of lively covers by Sandy Nelson. The camerawork here is extremely loose and has the sort of crawling voyeuristic quality that keeps the proceedings feeling as immediate as they can.
Though there is an undeniable ho-hum aura that surrounds the Ruth Miller character and there’s a good reason Patti Snyder didn’t become a household name, even to adult cinema aficionados, if Tropic of Passion suffers from anything, it’s an embarrassment of riches when it comes to its sex scenes. For after sticking a perfect landing with an encounter with the always lovely Sandy Carey (and not too long after we’re treated to a spirited threesome including Holmes, Elliott, and Sandy Dempsey), we are given a repeat pairing of Holmes and Chlorine Stillwater (back from The Blonde in Black Lace, but now playing Wadd’s secretary/girl Friday). But if cutting their second sex scene meant losing her off-the-cuff “I’d love to see you beat up just once” line, I’d probably keep the whole thing, too. Plus, Stillwater doesn’t seem to be complaining so who’s really to judge here?
As the heat in L.A. had not died down when Chinn and Patrick returned from Hawaii, they decided to cool it and concentrate on softcore pictures with the occasional general release feature thrown into the mix when appropriate. Chinn wouldn’t return to hardcore for a couple of years. Holmes’s Johnny Wadd, courtesy the magic of editing and Chinn’s leftover footage from Tropic of Passion, would again pop up in Walt Davis’s The Danish Connection in 1972 which was made for producer Manny Conde. But, as far as he was concerned, Bob Chinn was done with the Johnny Wadd character, a decision helped immeasurably as red-hot John Holmes’s $75 a day fee ballooned to the cost-prohibitive $250 a day. Since this was a salary he was able to command due to the star power he got from the Johnny Wadd films, it may have helped in his decision to work with Chinn on a couple of softcore features he produced after this one.
But in 1975, flush with a proper budget and a friendly production company backing him, Bob Chinn’s attitude about the Johnny Wadd series would shift a bit and he would pull off an incredible cinematic reboot almost thirty years before a term to describe such a thing would become ubiquitous in popular culture.
(C) Copyright 2023, Patrick Crain