Film Historian Matthew Locey shares his favorite movies from the golden age of Hollywood – the 1930s!
BIRD OF PARADISE (1932) RKO PICS. (Pictured above) An American visitor falls for chief’s daughter with Dolores del Rio and Joel McCrea, Brown painted, chief decides to sacrifice princess to the male god Pele and she jumps into volcano. Canoe greeting, diving for coins, shark attack, luau with pig and poi, Hollywood hulas, wedding ceremony with ring of fire, riding and surfing turtle and volcano exploding scenes. Del Rio TRIES to speak Hawaiian throughout the picture but her thick Spanish accent gets in the way. First role for Lon Chaney Jr. and Hawaiian Napoleon Pukui had a part. Location shooting in the islands of Hawaiʽi and Catalina, also island scenes in the RKO soundstages. Directed by King Vidor, David O. Selznick was the executive producer, and Busby Berkeley was the uncredited choreographer. There is also a nude swim scene by del Rio.
BLACK CAMEL, THE (1931) FOX Warner. Oland, Bela Lugosi, and Robert Young star in early Charlie Chan movie with murder in Waikiki. Charlie Chan is a detective from the Honolulu Police Department. Location shooting on Oʽahu. Local girl played by an American mainlander. Only Chan movie filmed in Hawaiʽi.
HAWAIʽI CALLS (1938) RKO-RADIO. Two young stowaways on ocean liner from San Francisco become involved in a hunt for spies. One of them is a Hawaiian boy, so they are aided by local friends and relatives. Hawaiian actress Mamo Clark has a main role, while Pua Lani plays the young island boy. Songs: Hawaiʽi Calls, Aloha Oe, and That’s the Hawaiian in Me. Good use of LA based real islanders, but writing and acting is average. Big hula dance number at a big luau. Boys diving for coins scene. Filmed in a L.A. soundstage with lots of rear projection and stock footage. Hulas choreographed by Hawaiian lead dancer Aggie Auld. Produced by Sol Lesser.
HONOLULU (1939) MGM. Teenage-idol, movie star and look-a-like plantation owner switch places. Musical with George Burns, Gracie Allen, Eleanor Powell and a young Robert Young. Powell did a “blackface” number. Why? Cellophane grass skirts, hula dance numbers, including a hula tap dance and one elaborate MGM style Hollywood hula). Also, moonlight on the beach romance scene with large waterfall-slide. Filmed in Hollywood with stock shots of tropical island scenes and of course stock backdrop of Diamond Head. Boys diving for coins and surfing scenes. A Kealoha Holt credited as “Native Dancing Girl” with no speaking lines. Hapa-haole (English lyrics with Hawaiian melodies) songs: Honolulu and Hawaiian Medley, with the second played by Andy Iona’s Islanders. All haole (Euro-American) cast with So Cal Polynesian extras as playful natives.
ISLAND OF LOST SOULS (1933) PARAMOUNT. Charles Laughton and Bela Lugosi in an adaptation of a H.G. Wells story involving a mad scientist on a South Seas island who tries to create humans from animals by speeding up their evolution. His many failures result in half human creatures. Early horror classic.
MUTINY ON THE BOUNTY (1935) MGM. Charles Laughton, Clark Gable, Mamo Clark, Movita & Francis Tone. *Important notes: Oscar for best picture & only time three actors were nominated for best actor from one movie, none of them won. Also, it is said the James Cagney & David Niven were extras in this classic. Significantly and very uncommon, not only was there a native kiss scene, but interracial marriage and full miscegenation (with a biracial baby) and minimal native sexualization. But still a great movie.
NEVER THE TWAIN SHALL MEET (1931) MGM. Talkie with Conchita Montenegro and Leslie Howard. Directed by W.S. Van Dyke. Filmed in Tahiti with luau feast, native dancing and waterfall/lagoon scenes. Good drama with proper Howard, who has a proper fiancée, is in charge of taking care of his dad’s friend’s hapa (half) Tahitian daughter. Howard gets caught up in her raw sexually, directness and simple ways. He drops everything and goes back to live with the hapa in Tahiti only to find the food and life style is too hard for him and most importantly his Tahiti dream girl continues to be sexually involved with the native men. Howard gets internally angry, hits native girl, becomes a drunken beachcomber until former fiancée comes to rescue him. Howard, in turn, rescues a fellow drunken beachcomber, with whom ironically Howard swore earlier that he would never become such a derelict after the beachcomber warned Howard he would be trapped in paradise and also become a drunken beachcomber like him. Classic Paradise is hell plot.
RAIN (1932) FEATURE PRODS. Joan Crawford and Walter Huston in this version of SADIE THOMPSON (1928) and MISS SADIE THOMPSON (1954). Crawford, like Gloria Swanson in the previous silent version, received critical praise for her role as a former prostitute trying to run from her past in this dramatic classic. While on a temporary stop in Samoa, Crawford finds herself surrounded by love-struct (horny) American Marines, a tyrannical heartless Christian Minister, and lots of rain. Filmed in Catalina, CA. Produced by Lewis Milestone. Later, Rita Hayworth also received acclaim for this same role.
TABU (1931) PARAMOUNT. (Silent) Directed by F.W. Murnau, stars Reri and Matahi. Island young man and princess are suddenly forbidden to marry because the princess has been chosen to be a virgin bridesmaid of a local god and a tabu is place on her. But, in love, they escape to a far island. There, the young man becomes a good pearl diver but he doesn’t understand the value of money and ends up with very bad credit. The two lovers are discovered by their local priest who convinces her to return during the early hours of the morning. The young man wakes, discovers his lover missing and drowns in pursuit. Filmed on Bora Bora with topless vahines, lagoon/water falls, native dances, luau feast, fake moon and a shark. All native cast, part-native and a Chinese man. Famed director Robert Flaherty started to co-direct then dropped out. This film won an Oscar for photography by Floyd Crosby, father of David Crosby, as in Stills, Nash & Young.
WAIKIKI WEDDING (1937) PARAMOUNT. Bing Crosby, Martha Raye and Anthony Quinn in musical/comedy of pineapple PR man’s idea of a romantic Hawaiian vacation as a prize. Winner is disappointed and it looks like adman Bing campaign will be a bust. Bing and his native friends come up with an elaborate scheme. Bing tricks the pretty contest winner to an outer island filled with island clichés like taboos, a serious Kahuna and an extinct volcano filled with smoke and fire furnished by Bing’s native friends. During this faux adventure genuine love evolves between Bing and the contest winner but try to explain that to the woman when she finds out about Bing’s antics. Famous hapa-haole (English lyrics with Hawaiian melodies) tunes Sweet Leilani by Harry Owens and Blue Hawaiʽi. Moonlight romance scene with Bing crooning and playing the ukulele. Also, big hula dance numbers, luau and Samoan knife dance scenes. Cosby insisted that the director use and feature the song Sweet Leilani over Blue Hawaiʽi and his insistence pays off because the little-known song won the Oscar that year. We all know what happened to Blue Hawaii some years later with another legendary singer.