Friday, June 28, 2013

Honolulu (MGM, 1939)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2013 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I was able to hot-foot it over to Charles’ place and run the 1939 MGM musical Honolulu, starring Eleanor Powell and Robert Young with George Burns and Gracie Allen in supporting roles. The film had a witty script, even though — as Charles pointed out — it milked its one situation (Young plays a dual role as movie star Brooks Mason and Hawaiian planter George Smith; the two trade places and Smith does Mason’s personal appearance tour in New York while Mason goes to Honolulu to relax on Smith’s pineapple plantation, only to find that Smith is wanted for allegedly stealing $50,000 from his fiancée’s father) to death, getting all too many gags out of the two Robert Youngs being mistaken for each other. (The trick photography when their characters do meet is quite good, however.) The Halliwell guide quoted a New Yorker review from 1977 (this must have been from the listing for a theatrical revival) as saying the whole movie “seems to have been thrown together so that Eleanor Powell can do a frenetic hula,” though I don’t see anything wrong with that; even though Powell’s reputation was mainly as a tap dancer she had a remarkably flexible body (at times she looks like the prototype for Gumby, and I mean that as a compliment), and it’s a real treat to watch her hula (as well as the impression of Bill “Bojangles” Robinson she does in her other big number in the film, which is spot-on and a good deal closer to the real Robinson’s style than Fred Astaire’s performance in “Bojangles of Harlem” from Swing Time — though, as Arlene Croce noted, Astaire was doing the number as an homage to Robinson, not an imitation).

Burns and Allen are wickedly funny, though their appeal is weakened by the boneheaded decision of screenwriters Herbert Fields and Frank Partos not to have their characters meet until the very end of the film; true, Gracie gets her share of alternate straightpeople earlier on (and she herself makes a dual-role appearance as herself and her sister at the end, a charming touch) — and it sounds very much like Burns contributed some dialogue for her — but he fed her so much better than anyone else ever did that it’s really a relief to see them finally team up at the end. There’s also an elaborate masquerade party on board the ship taking Young and Powell to Hawaii in which the guests come as their favorite movie stars — Gracie Allen (who earlier in the film had sung the title song and revealed a quite good singing voice in that “mosquitoish soprano” style popular in the 1920’s) shows up as Mae West and a vocal group called the King’s Men appears as the Marx Brothers (one Chico, one Harpo and two Grouchos!) and sing a song called “The Leader Doesn’t Like Music” after Young, who was appearing as Leopold Stokowski, disappears. (The Chico and Groucho were convincing masqueraders; the Harpo, however, didn’t look at all like the real one.) Honolulu is an engaging minor musical and a lot of fun (Powell’s hula turned up in the compilation film That’s Dancing! to represent her work), even though Charles and I had a mini-argument (the only kind we ever have) after he said that he could have gone to his grave content without ever having seen this or most of the other films I’ve shown him (a remark I heard as a bit more of an insult than he clearly intended). — 3/5/99

•••••

The film I picked was Honolulu, a negligible but rather charming 1939 musical from MGM with an interestingly assorted cast: Robert Young (in a dual role), Eleanor Powell, George Burns, Gracie Allen, Rita Johnson, Clarence Kolb and two racially stereotyped servant roles: Eddie “Rochester” Anderson as “Washington” and Willie Fung as “Wong.” The plot, such as it is, casts Young as Hawai’ian planter George Smith and Hollywood superstar Brooks Mason, who is constantly being mobbed by his fans, getting his clothes torn off him and ending up in hospital. (When Young-as-Mason is explaining this he holds up three ultra-shredded dinner jackets in succession and says, “This is the one I wore to The Lady Said No, this is the one I wore to The Lady Said Maybe, and this is the one I wore to The Lady Said Yes.”) When Mason misses the premiere of his latest film, Smith attends and is mistaken for Mason by his fans, getting the full treatment; when he demands to be taken home, the ambulance drivers take him to Mason’s home, the two Robert Youngs meet and Mason hits on the scheme of sending Smith in his place on a six-week personal-appearance tour in New York while Mason goes and takes Smith’s place on the Hawai’ian plantation. On the ship going over Mason meets up with singing-dancing team Millicent de Grasse (Gracie Allen) and Dorothy March (Eleanor Powell — gee, another 1939 film from MGM in which the heroine is named Dorothy!) and immediately falls in love with Dorothy as soon as he sees her dance.

Once they finally arrive the film turns into an oddly unfocused mistaken-identity comedy (Herbert Fields and Frank Partos were the screenwriters), energetically directed by Edward Buzzell, which features a costume party aboard ship in which the guests are directed to dress as their favorite movie stars. This sequence is the source of the still from this film in Leonard Maltin’s book Movie Comedy Teams in which Gracie (dressed as Mae West, of all people) is fêted by four ersatz Marx Brothers — a Harpo, a Chico and two Grouchos — played by the King’s Men vocal group (Rad Robinson as Harpo, Ken Darby as Chico and Jon Dodson and Bud Linn as the Grouchos); it also features a bandleader dressed to look like Stokowski and a screamingly funny Bing Crosby impersonator doing a lead vocal (well, since Paramount had a “lock” on the real one … ). Maltin’s book also has a rather deceptive still with Young, Powell, Burns and Allen leaning over a ship’s guard rail — the deception is that Burns and Allen actually play in separate parts of the film (Burns plays Mason’s manager and is with the fake Mason in New York while Allen plays Powell’s performing partner and is with the real Mason in Hawai’i) and only come together at the end, much to the detriment of this movie: for all the stalwart attempts of the other actors to “feed” Gracie Allen her straight lines, Burns still did that better than anyone else and it’s a relief when they finally do appear on screen simultaneously. (It’s even more of a joy when, as a nifty final gag, Gracie Allen’s “sister” appears on screen — and she’s actually playing both of them, and of course they’re equally ditzy.)

Though burdened by a not-terribly-interesting script which drops hints of a lot of interesting situations — notably the $50,000 allegedly embezzled by George Smith from Horace Grayson (Clarence Kolb), daughter of Smith’s fiancée Cecelia (Rita Johnson), from which writers Fields and Partos could have got a lot more than they did — and a not-terribly-interesting set of songs by Harry Warren and Gus Kahn (let’s face it: when you’re trying to make a musical and your best singer is Gracie Allen — though she’s quite good as the sort of mosquito-ish soprano who was so popular in the 1920’s, less so in 1939 — you’re not going to have much in the way of flexibility in terms of the songs you’re going to be able to write), including two novelties, “Honolulu” and “The Leader Doesn’t Like Music,” which Allen dispatches quite well. However, the best piece of music is a “Hawai’ian Medley” with no composer credit, indicated in the credits merely as “played by Andy Iona’s Islanders” (misidentified in the American Film Institute Catalog as “Hawai’ian Melody” and credited there to Warren and Kahn) and obviously the sequence of three traditional Hawai’ian tunes (though the middle one, a hula, is burdened with a schlocky chorus singing schlocky English lyrics) to which Powell gets to do her big dance number at the end. Eleanor Powell’s career has its frustrations; she was a great dancer and she got to make one film with Fred Astaire (Broadway Melody of 1940), but other than that she never got to dance with a male partner worthy of her talent and as a result most of her films end with big extravaganzae showcasing her alone. Here, at least, she gets to show off the liquid beauty of her body and her ability to use her hips and torso to evoke the Hawai’ian dances she’s trying to copy; unlike her MGM replacement, Ann Miller, Powell was far more than just a pair of legs capable of machine-gun tapping. — 8/9/03

•••••

I showed Charles a DVD I had got a few months ago of Honolulu, a 1939 MGM musical vehicle for Eleanor Powell that’s always been a special favorite of mine even though it’s not that good a movie. I remember having my curiosity piqued about this film by a still in Leonard Maltin’s book Movie Comedy Teams that showed Gracie Allen — she and George Burns are in this film and it was actually their last theatrical movie together, though they continued for almost two decades afterwards on radio and TV (their radio show was cancelled in 1941 and Burns got another radio offer at a much lower fee, whereupon he saved their careers by deciding that instead of playing two young sweethearts the new show would cast them as the long-time married couple they in fact were) — in the frame with four Marx Brothers impersonators: a Harpo, a Chico and two Grouchos. They were the King’s Men vocal group — Ken Darby, arranger & bass; Rad Robinson baritone; Jon Dodson, lead tenor; Bud Linn, top tenor — and whichever ones played Chico and one of the Grouchos were utterly convincing but the other Groucho and the Harpo were not (indeed, the “Harpo” looked more like a drag queen than one male performer impersonating another). They appear in a scene that represents a costume party on an ocean liner — “Come as Your Favorite Movie Star,” reads the invite — which also includes a Bing Crosby impersonator (considerably more adenoidal than the real one, with whom Burns and Allen had made We’re Not Dressing in 1934) and a conductor made up to look like Leopold Stokowski (apparently his successes in the films One Hundred Men and a Girl and Fantasia counted him as somebody’s favorite movie star!) who walks out on the band in mid-song, provoking the King’s Men in Marx Brothers drag to sing a song called “The Leader Doesn’t Like Music.”

I won’t pretend Honolulu is a great film, but it’s a charming trifle about romantic movie star Brooks Mason (Robert Young) who keeps ending up in hospitals after fans mob him whenever he makes a public appearance; and Hawai’ian planter George Smith (Robert Young) who looks astonishingly like him, so much so that when Brooks Mason decides to stay home from the premiere of his latest movie and Smith happens to go instead, he’s mobbed by fans and his clothes are torn off. The two meet when Smith is inadvertently taken to Mason’s home on his release from the hospital, and Mason asks Smith to double for him on a six-month personal appearance tour in New York while Mason will pose as Smith and go to Hawai’i to get six months’ R&R. Only while on the ship going over Mason falls hard for dancer Dorothy “Dot” March (Eleanor Powell, top-billed), who is traveling to Honolulu for a club gig with her performing partner Millicent “Millie” DeGrasse (Gracie Allen). Complications ensue when it turns out that Smith has a girlfriend, Cecelia Grayson (Rita Johnson, ill-used as usual), and she has a pissed-off father, Horace Grayson (Clarence Kolb), who’s convinced that Smith stole $50,000 from him under the pretense of using it to do a business deal and is determined to have him arrested for the theft. What makes Honolulu worth watching are Gracie Allen’s witticisms and Eleanor Powell’s production numbers — they even get to do a brief dance together on board the ship taking them to Hawai’i (though Powell pushes Allen out of the way too soon and takes over the spotlight herself — Gracie Allen and George Burns were both excellent dancers and in vaudeville they’d spent as much time in their act dancing as talking, but their later fame as radio stars led them to emphasize comic dialogue even in visual media like movies and TV, and in 1937 Fred Astaire had picked her as his partner for the “nut” or “runaround” dance in the film A Damsel in Distress; this had been a trademark for Astaire and his sister Adele in their stage shows, but Astaire hadn’t filmed it before because he didn’t think Ginger Rogers would be right for it).

While no one fed Gracie Allen straight lines as well as George Burns did — which makes it odd that the writers, Herbert Fields and Frank Partos, had them play in separate plot strands of the film and didn’t bring them together until the very end (though I suspect Burns and their radio writers had a hand in coming up with Gracie’s bizarre one-liners) — she’s still hilarious. And Powell is one of the most spectacular tap dancers ever filmed, even though MGM tended to drown her in spectacle; her big number in this one is an elaborate medley of three Hawai’ian dances, including a hula (and the Hawai’ian music is provided by Andy Iona’s Islanders, a real Hawai’ian band; there were enough authentic Hawai’ian musicians in L.A. that the Hawai’ian music you heard in classic-era Hollywood films was quite close to the real thing as it was being recorded on the islands, a far cry from the travesties of Latin American music you usually got in American musicals then!) that proves that she could dance beautifully with her entire body, not just her feet. It’s a film I’ve shown Charles at least twice before but he didn’t mind seeing it again, and after all the angst lately I wanted something ultra-light last night! — 6/27/13