Opening on an absolutely gorgeous tableaux full of color and slow, gliding movement, Kitty Shayne, perfectly costumed as a wartime prostitute, sits in a chair in full recline and begins to undress. A serviceman (Eric Stein) watches and does the same, Glenn Miller’s “Sunrise Serenade” playing over a nearby radio. As they make their way into their sex scene, the soundtrack cycles through “Marie” by Tommy Dorsey and his Orchestra, “Red Bank Boogie” by Count Basie, and finally “The Golden Wedding” by the Benny Goodman Sextet with each new sexual position bringing a new needle drop until a smoothly employed optical transition is quickly followed by an explosive climax.
There is no doubt that this, the cold opener to Bob Chinn’s Tropic of Desire, was definitely an opulent recreation of a pin-up wet dream that was had by many a service man during the war, captured in glorious 35mm, and splashed across the screen in full-color. And considering how long and languidly Chinn works it, it’s more than apparent that he wants you to sit and luxuriate in that production design and rightfully so. The amount of style that drenches the scene is astonishing from its bamboo walls down to its beautiful furnishing and details such as the packs of Camels and Lucky Strikes. So meticulously crafted and with the utmost care given to everything from the period tchotchke to the carefully composed framing, I have to wonder if the scene didn’t cause its 1979 audience of fiftysomethings to feel an honest twinge of nostalgia to go along with the libidinous stirrings it engenders. And that’s just the beginning, folks!
Tropic of Desire immediately sweeps its audience into Hawaii, 1945; August 14th, to be exact. It’s the last day of World War II, something that will be announced in the film’s final minutes to the patrons and employees of the Pink Flamingo, a brothel run by Frances (Georgina Spelvin). And from its first frame until that moment, Tropic of Desire to be a rare beast of an adult film that places all of its chips on its characters and setting and bets it can succeed without really having to adhere to a conventional plot. Not only does it bet wisely, it pays off in spades as Tropic of Desire builds a mighty mountain out of nothing except the natural flow of characters going about their lives and it delights in every single way, including some unexpected ones.
During the lazy and muggy day, Rita (Shayne) will get word that her fiancé has been killed in the war. Consoled in her grief and encouraged by the sweet and headstrong “number one girl” Donna (Jesie St. James), Rita makes an emotional farewell to Frances and the rest of the girls; Terri (Starr Wood), Gloria (Mandy Ashley), and Mona (Sue Nero). Just as she exits, a ship full of sailors pulls into port looking to have some fun at Frances’s. Among the servicemen looking for servicing are Jack (Jon Martin), a regular ol’ joe; Gus (Ken Scudder), a simple-minded guy who is absolutely lovesick for Rita; and Phil (Blair Harris), the young’un who’s going to get shown a head-spinning great time. Jeffery Fairbanks, writer and co-editor, cameos as Chuck, the unfortunate soul who pulls patrol duty and has to stay behind. Rounding out the main characters is June (Dorothy LeMay), a fresh-faced girl from Honolulu who shows up to inquire about work at the Pink Flamingo just after the sailors retire to their rooms.
What’s missing from the mix of guys and dolls that make up the bones of Tropic of Desire is any overbearing nastiness or a lapse into anything that is not in the service of being a big-hearted ode to finding and giving a good time during times that aren’t so good nor easily found. For this is a hangout movie that imagines an oasis where the external relationships are naturally transactional but they’re still as real as the camaraderies shared by the sailors and the sex workers. The biggest conflict in Tropic of Desire is reflected in the relationship between Rita and Mona as the former has proved to be so popular that it has begun to cut into Mona’s livelihood. But even this, an understandable irritation on Mona’s part, is kept cool and resolves itself almost as soon as it arises. Nobody’s petty and grudges amongst the professionals are kept completely in check.
Hell, even the guys are nice to each other. When he finds out that Rita’s gone from the establishment, Gus is consoled by Jack in a disarmingly tender moment that’s well-played by Ken Scudder and the always amiable Jon Martin. When Gus meets Malcolm (James Price), the British pilot who used to be one of Rita’s regulars, there is no animosity between the two of them and, in a neat bit of storytelling and the most harmless flex of dominance in the film, it is Mona who ends up chasing Gus’s Rita blues away during a four-person pileup that includes Malcolm, Gloria, and some Johnnie Walker. That scene is underscored by a stag film-within-a-film starring Don Fernando and Marlene Munroe which comes with a nice reference to The History of Pornography, one of Chinn’s earliest features from 1970, as Spelvin says that she hears that the stag film has a real Hollywood star in it, an actual boast given to many anonymously made and cast films of its kind.
The piggyback production to 1979’s Fantasyworld (which used the same ship’s interior set), Tropic of Desire, like Fantasyworld, puts interesting facets of sexual fantasy on display. Where Fantasyworld dealt with a more universal and generalized notion of a mysterious and exciting night on the town, Tropic of Desire centralizes it to one that’s welded to one particular place and time. This may be a fantasy where hookers have hearts of gold and there are far fewer tears than there are smiles, but what a finely and beautifully constructed fantasy it is. It is a film that embodies a codified Hollywood attitude but with the code taken off the table in one giant arm sweep. While Bob Chinn’s Candy Stripers; Hot & Saucy Pizza Girls; Hard Soap, Hard Soap; and a handful of others are tremendous pictures, Tropic of Desire leapfrogs those by being so incredibly special by traveling to a place that those don’t.
This uniqueness is explicitly highlighted in a eight and a half minute scene with Frances as she retreats to her room after delivering the devastating news to Rita about her fiancé. Immediately, we get the sense that, over the course of the war, she’s probably delivered many letters just like it and it has taken quite an emotional toll on her. This is all conveyed as she tiredly retrieves her opium works and smokes before masturbating herself into an emotional jag in one wordless, (mostly) continuous take. It’s one of the most remarkable things in either Chinn or Spelvin’s careers and it is a scene that really takes a torch to any notion that adult films were made by amateurs and cast with unprofessional clowns. Quite the opposite, it takes a special skill to both perform and capture something so human, vulnerable, and real and make it work cinematically. The balance between the despair and the ecstasy is so perfect before it collapses into something that is both but unrecognizable as distinctly either. Also impressive is that the shot begins on a painted portrait of a woman in a relaxed and horizontal pose before concluding on a prone Spelvin in the same position.
Watching Tropic of Desire is like watching Bob Chinn run rampant like a kid in a candy store. While he was still enjoying a fruitful relationship with Armand Atamian’s Freeway Films, giving him decent budgets and more freedom to expand his canvas, it was nothing compared to the kind of electric train set he got to play with at Caribbean Films. While he wasn’t swimming in a bottomless pool of money, the productions for Caribbean have a much smoother sheen and each one looks lavish beyond its budget. This is helped tremendously in this film by the gorgeous photography by Ken Gibb, one of Chinn’s regular cinematographers and, again, by Bill Wolf and Jon Ekworthy’s production design which hits a high water mark here with the absolutely masterful sets.
The music in this film shows Chinn’s taste in music is as impressive as his taste in movies as it is packed with tunes from Harry James and His Orchestra, Duke Ellington, Bessie Smith, and Bing Crosby. Of note, “Rockin’ the Blues” by Albert Ammons is spot in its best possible cinematic location when it is used during the foursome and, in a quick nod to a timeless classic he couldn’t help but take, Chinn throws in Sammy Kaye’s rendition of “As Time Go By” to recall the proper emotion from Michael Curtiz’s Casablanca when the melancholy spirit pops up here with the forlorn Scudder doing his best Bogart. It is an absolutely dynamite soundtrack and one of the best of its kind this side of a Woody Allen movie.
On top of all of this, there is nary a sex scene in the film that is wasted or could be considered subpar and each one of them is impressively captured and incendiary. Martin and St. James have the type of chemistry that makes it quite obvious that they were pretty fond of each other, Harris and Wood have a great time, Harris and LeMay have an even greater time, and LeMay gets the best of both worlds as, along with her capper with Harris, an earlier scene between her and Spelvin is molten. The Scudder-Nero-Price-Ashley foursome is also a nice piece of cinema as it both matches the rhythm of the stag film they’re watching and feels much larger due to Chinn cutting between the two couples in the room and the couple on the screen.
The other highlight of Tropic of Desire is its cast, all of which is superb. Not only was putting Georgina Spelvin front and center worth its weight in gold, but holding Martin and St. James over from the Fantasyworld production a wise move given their easygoing believability. Ken Scudder, often cast as grittier characters or ones who have commanding authority, is kind of touching here as the simpleminded Gus. And one of the cannier casting decisions involves Sue Nero who exudes an energy and authenticity that makes her seem like an a world-weary pro even though Tropic of Desire was one of her very first films. It’s a testament to Sue Nero’s natural screen presence and her ability to convey a phone book’s worth of info with just a sultry look and five words that makes it absolutely undetectable that she was as green on the scene as she really was, and it makes it equally easy to see why she quickly became such a beloved favorite.
I’m not going birth a take so hot that it declares Tropic of Desire the best film of 1979 seeing that it would have to best other greats that year such as Apocalypse Now, Breaking Away, Being There, Nosferatu: Phantom der Nacht and All That Jazz. But this I will say with some certainty: it’s probably a better movie than Kramer Vs. Kramer and it most definitely has a healthier opinion about women. What I wouldn’t give for a twist of fate to occur where Tropic of Desire has the same kind of 100% name-ID enjoyed by Caligula, the embarrassingly bloated Tinto Brass/Bob Gucccione curiosity released the same year which captured all the oxygen in the room while reveling in the gaudy worst of the adult entertainment business. And while Caligula still enjoys the kind of notorious attention that it did then, Tropic of Desire, a small film that’s so attuned to its characters’ individual moments, needs, and feels more in line with what people who aren’t nutty Roman emperors experience, continues to be undervalued and under-seen. For Tropic of Desire is a film that is sweet and joyous that finds its value in its own rhythms and life without ever going low or wallowing in sleaze. It’s an absolute treasure and Bob Chinn’s finest achievement.
(C) Copyright 2023, Patrick Crain