Film Historian Matthew Locey shares his favorite movies from the golden age of Hollywood – the 1940s!
ADVENTURES OF MARTIN EDEN, THE (1942) COLUMBIA Semi-autobiographical account of writer Jack London as a crew member of a Pacific cargo ship with a tyrannical, bully of a Captain. A crew member goes to jail over a mutiny of the ship in an unjust ruling. Eden, the writer/crew member vowels to get him out. He knows for anyone to listen to him and his cause, he has to become a famous writer. He doesn’t so he, in desperation boards the cargo ship to fight the captain, Eden wins, but evil Captain has him detained in the brig for the two-year trip to the South Seas and back. While the ship docks in Tahiti, Eden has a South Seas book sell, back in the states, entitled The Girl From Moa Kaloa and it’s a big hit. Even in long distance, his newfound credibility has the evil Captain fired with his second release, a gritty autobiography about his dark time aboard the same cargo ship with the same evil Captain. Now free, Eden fights the former captain once again on a Tahitian beach to get the Captain to sign a confession for the courts. Stars Glen Ford. The film earned a minor niche in media history as the first major-studio film to be released on television. Only interaction with a native islander is a graphic one, a tattooed representation of a hula maiden on the belly of a fellow sailor.
ALOMA OF THE SOUTH SEAS (1941) PARAMOUNT Dorothy Lamour and Jon Hall. Hall as a native chief’s son who just returned to island from an American education and lifestyle. Local cousin and rival fight over girl and isle’s leadership. Native dance numbers, canoe arrival, lagoon swim, culture mix, lots of moai tikis, big luau feast and a big volcano ending. Wedding and Tahitian songs. Not critically liked but popular nevertheless. Cute lagoon swim scene where Hall and Lamour meet. They fall for each other but they are both sadden with the fact that they both promised to unseen future mates, not knowing they ARE the ones betrothed to each other. Oscar nods for Cinematography and Special Effects.
GREEN DOLPHIN STREET (1947) MGM Lana Turner, Van Heflin and Donna Reed in film of two French sisters madly in love with Richard Hart who has started a lumber company in New Zealand with his partner Van Heflin. Hart being drunk sends for the wrong sister to marry, but out of pity, force, and decency by Heflin, does Hart marry the wrong sister, after traveling so far to be with him. All this during the Māori Wars (native islanders versus the early white settlers) and that fact that Heflin is discreetly falling in love with Hart’s wife. Lots of interplay with friendly Māori as they were Hart and Hefflin’s neighbors, friends and employees. Oscar for great earthquake special effects. Hawaiian Al Kikume credited as a Māori. A South Seas trope, a church bell gets knocked over in quake. Also, the younger sister that Hart really loves is so heart-broken she becomes a nun. What range of roles for Donna Reed, from a nun to a prostitute in her next South Seas movie From Here to Eternity.
IN THE NAVY (1941) UNIVERSAL Bud Abbott, Lou Costello, Dick Powell, Claire Dodd and the Andrews Sisters. Abbott and Costello are two bungling sailors hanging with Powell, who is a famous singer hiding in the Navy from the public and Dodd hiding from the Navy as a female reporter trying to get Powell’s story all aboard a battleship bound for Hawaiʽi. They do make it to Hawaiʻi, actually they make it to a soundstage with a classical Hawaiʽi set. Hawaiian music in b.g. lots of flowers, coconut trees, moonlit shore, native luau feast, real Hawaiian band, fake hula dancers with fake cellophane grass skirts and the Andrew sisters singing and dancing an “old Hawaiian” Hula Ba Luau big band boogie number. This is such a great musical scene, it the reason for this comedy to make this list.
MOON AND SIXPENCE (1942) UNITED ARTISTS George Sanders in Maugham story of westerner leaving it all to paint in Tahiti, after being influenced by a small Tahitian tiki he bought in Paris. He marries native girl, paints masterpieces and dies of leprosy. Twist at the end is he makes the native wife burn all his works. There is native luau feast scene. Tahiti stock footage is used in the final film cut, while the rest of the film is shot on a soundstage. Also, shot in black & white, but Tahiti scenes are interestingly shot in sepia tone, and one scene is in color, where they finally show the artist’s very Gauguin-like works of art as they are being burned. Also, TV movie of same name (1959), starring the great Sir Laurence Olivier.
SANDS OF IWO JIMA (1949) REPUBLIC John Wayne starred in WWII marine action film with Forrest Tucker. Usual, war action changes to seedy action in Honolulu, where bar and prostitute scenes take place. But no location filming in Hawaiʽi. Bit by Martin Milner. These Marines train on mainland, land on Tawara, continue training and resting on Oʽahu. Yes, All-American Wayne does hire an independent prostitute and soon after he arrives at her apartment, he discovers a toddler, awake, in a crib, in another bedroom. Then reality hits Wayne of a young mother struggling, he tosses his intended cash on the table and leaves before the working girl/single mother returns from the bathroom. Of the many WWII Pacific theater films, this is the only movie that actually admits the reality of this not uncommon relationship.
SON OF FURY (1942) 20TH CENTURY-FOX Tyrone Power jumps ship in the South Seas, falls in love with a local Polynesian a girl, played by brownface Gene Tierney. Power collects pearls and with his new riches he returns to England to clear his name and stake his family claim. Power then returns to his Polynesian love. Also stars; George Sanders, Francis Farmer, Elsa Lanchester, John Carradine and Roddy McDowall. Luau, dance, and small canoe greeting scenes. Tyrone looks great in his tapa printed loin cloth as he goes native. “I was mad for riches but I didn’t know what they were, now I’ve found them and wisdom too.” – J. Carradine, when deciding not to leave his new lifestyle on the island. Tani Marsh featured dancer. A rare South Seas film when the American hero actually returns to marry his native lover.
SONG OF THE ISLANDS (1942) 20TH CENTURY-FOX Pin-up, sex symbol and mega star, Betty Grable, as a local island girl of European descent, fights and loves visitor Victor Mature. With Hilo Hattie and Jackie Oakie. Classical “Hollywood-hulas” in this dance/musical about a beachcomber, white landowner clashing with a wealthy, greedy white ranch owner over pier property. Set was fictitious Hawaiian island “Ami-Ami Oni-Oni” with some Big Island shots, mostly of cattle. The rest of movie filmed in Hollywood. It seems natives didn’t have any land. Hawaiian War Chant as well as many Hollywood hula numbers in this comedy. As a dance/musical, this film is one of the best in the genre.
SOUTH OF PAGO PAGO (1940) UNITED ARTISTS Victor McLaglen, Jon Hall and Frances Farmer. Unscrupulous gang of American fortune hunters on uncharted isle of “Manoa”. Captain McLaglen comments to his first mate who raises a rife as a hoard of innocent Polynesian canoes race to greet the American ship: “Rifles are no good when you coming in, just for coming out”. Trinkets are used to trade and to dive for instead of the clichéd coins. Tropes of big canoe greeting, hula dance, luau feast, lagoon waterfalls, giant clam and a male volcano god Pele, found on a neighboring isle of Au Toa Toa. Farmer is a Euro-American woman with a questionable past and Hall is the native prince who sings and dances his native Tahitian culture. Farmer finds love with Hall and finds sexy sarongs to wear. Hall and Famer actually marry. While on their honeymoon, on Au Toa Toa, the rest of the sailors steal pearls from innocent Polynesians and the natives revolt. Farmer leaves her love to get the bad Americans away and all is well at the end. L.A. based Polynesians credited are: Santini Puailoa, Lela Vanti and Al Kikume. B.g. shots of Big Island of Hawaiʽi. Tiki and worship area below volcano. Rare reverse gender native seduction.
WAKE OF THE RED WITCH (1948) REPUBLIC John Wayne as adventurous sea captain has a personal rivalry with a shipping magnate. Together they get pearls from fictitious Polynesian islanders and fight over a woman. Duke Kahanamoku plays island chief. Besides sacred pearls, giant clam, and octopus clichés, there is also found, in this film the lagoon swim, large canoe greeting, and the ubiquitous luau feast tropes. All making this, along with a big tiki moai, a classic South Seas Cinema film. Not to mention, John Wayne is treated as a god by naive natives. Also starring Gig Young.