Tuesday, January 29, 2013
It’s funny what memory can do. I’m convinced that many years ago, probably on some late late show, I saw Betty Grable decked out in a hula skirt, singing and dancing to something called “Lola O’Brien Has Gone Hawaiian.” But diligent Internet research tells me differently. There was indeed a popular ditty (recorded by Lawrence Welk’s orchestra in 1955) called “Lola O’Brien, the Irish Hawaiian.” And in 1942 Betty Grable did hula her way into our hearts in Song of the Islands, in which she played a pretty (of course) blonde (of course) named Eileen O’Brien who goes native as decorously as possible.
The attack on Pearl Harbor had put Hawaii on the map for many Americans, but in 1942 a chain of islands in the middle of the Pacific was not a safe place to make movies. Aside from some background footage, Song of the Islands was shot primarily on the Twentieth-Century Fox backlot, though a camera team also ventured to Santa Catalina Island, just off the California coast. Realism was not exactly the goal. Audiences of the day wanted escapist romance, and that’s exactly what they got.
Because I’m just back from fun in the sun on Maui I’ve been thinking about Hawaii’s place in motion picture history. When World War II ended, filmmakers started coming to the Hawaiian Islands for real. From Here to Eternity, the all-star 1953 film based on James Jones’ blockbuster novel, uses actual Oahu locations as a backdrop for its tale of passion and punishment during the height of World War II. Yes, it’s black-and-white. But anyone who’s seen Deborah Kerr and Burt Lancaster smooching in the surf at Halona Cove will want to hop the nearest jet and head for paradise.
Roger Corman, always on the lookout for picturesque production values, went to Kauai in 1956 for two back-to-back tropical thrillers, She-Gods of Shark Reef and Naked Paradise. (A catchline for the latter was “Temptation and terror . . .in a savage land of wild desire!”) In exchange for giving an on-screen credit to Kauai’s Coco Palms Hotel, Roger was able to lodge cast and crew in atypically sumptuous surroundings at a bargain price. When Hawaii was granted statehood in 1959, the public’s fascination with palm trees, coconuts, floral leis, and little grass shacks only grew. Elvis went Hawaiian with 1961’s Blue Hawaii, the usual mélange of sappy songs, insipid romance, and Technicolor sunsets. Hawaii, a gargantuan historical epic based on James Michener’s saga, premiered in 1966. More recently, Hawaii has been a convenient location for exotic features like King Kong (the Jeff Bridges version) and Jurassic Park. As a backdrop for TV production, it has hosted everything from Hawaii Five-0 to Lost.
If you grow up in Southern California, there’s always the chance you’ll find yourself in a movie. When I was a pre-teen, I was an active member of a local drama group. One day we were approached by an aspiring young director. He was making a short educational film to commemorate Hawaii’s impending statehood. “I Live in Hawaii” focused on Hawaiian children, showing mainland school kids that their Hawaiian counterparts led lives much like their own, though under bluer skies and with surfboards at the ready. Principal photography was complete: now he needed kids’ voices to add to the soundtrack. To end his film, he wanted to show the young Hawaiians solemnly pledging allegiance to the American flag. For some reason, he decided a cute little Japanese-Hawaiian girl would sound exactly like me. So I was taped repeating over and over “With liberty and justice for all.” Aloha!