Wednesday, 21 March 2012

Blue Hawaii (1961)

Dir. Norman Taurog
Starring: Elvis Presley, Joan Blackman, Angela Lansbury, Nancy Walters

1961’s Blue Hawaii was Elvis Presley’s eighth movie outing and his first to be set in Hawaii. The relationship between Presley and the Hawaiian Islands was a profitable one – he later set two more movies (1962’s Girls! Girls! Girls! and 1966’s Paradise, Hawaiian Style) here, as well as hosting his famous Aloha from Hawaii televised concert here in 1963. They were a perfect match. Hawaii, only admitted to the union two years previously, offered sun, stunning scenery, healthy youthful outdoor activities and a touch of the exotic and luxurious. Presley offered youthful good looks, the cutting edge of a youthful rock n roll movement, and a hint of sex appeal to set the hearts of the nation’s teenaged girls aflutter.

By this stage the basic format of Elvis Presley movies had been established: make him look good, surround him with beautiful girls, have him spend as much time as possible singing. From film to film only the name of his character and the situation he finds himself in that differs. In one movie he might be a serviceman called Tulsa Maclean (G.I. Blues), a boxer called Walter Gulick (Kid Galahad), a carnie called Charlie Rogers (Roustabout), or a Native American rodeo rider called Joe Lightcloud (Stay Away, Joe). The plot lines are all pretty flimsy. I read a review once that argued that out of all his films only Jail House Rock would stand on its own merits without Presley’s marquee name (something I tend to disagree with; I would add King Creole to that list too). But I agree that you do not watch a Presley movie for moving drama, great acting or a thought-provoking insight to the mysteries of life. You watch because you are a fan of Elvis Presley.

The plot here is similarly light. Presley stars as Chadwick (‘Chad’) Gates, returning from a two year’s stint as a G.I. in Europe. His well-to-do parents Fred and Sarah Lee (Roland Winters and Angela Lansbury) expect him to take up a management position in the Great Southern Hawaii Pineapple Company; following his stint in the army however Chad however refuses to walk into a position through family influence. He doesn’t just want to hang around on the sand with his surfboard, his girlfriend Maile (Joan Blackman) and his ‘beach boy’ friends – though he certainly has no objections to doing that. He wants to build a career through his own efforts. As a result he signs up to become a tour guide. His first clients are foxy school-teacher Miss Prentice (Nancy Walters) and her four troublesome teenage students (all female, naturally). What follows is an extended tourism advert for Hawaii’s lush beauty and exotic culture, interspersed with romantic complications and a rock-a-hula soundtrack.

What sells the movie is that it is an Elvis Presley star vehicle. He is no Lawrence Olivier but his acting is acceptable and his comic timing passable. The film plays to his strengths by ensuring that he spends the bulk of it either singing or bare-chested in a tight little pair of short-shorts or singing bare-chested in a tight little pair of short-shorts. He is perfect boyfriend material: he doesn’t drink, smoke or swear; even when arguing with his parents he calls his father ‘sir’; when changing into swimwear he and his girlfriend use separate rooms. He forces petulant brat Ellie (Jenny Maxwell) to become a better person – even spanking her in one fetish-fuel scene. He does get in to a fight, but that is to protect young Ellie from the advances of a drunken husband from Oklahoma. Even one of the aspects of his personality that his mother doesn’t like – his hanging out with “native boys” – reflects to his benefit I would say. It certainly means that he is able to give a good insider’s guide to Hawaii to his tour group.

And Hawaii definitely does star here. The action moves from Honolulu International Airport, to the hotels of Honolulu, to the fine sand and palm trees of Hanauma Bay and Waikiki Beach, Diamond Head looming in the background, to the pineapple fields of the interior and the lush vegetation of sister-island Kauaii. And, unlike in Pearl Harbor we do see native Hawaiians – even if all the stereotypes are exhausted. Here they come playing tom-toms in an outrigger canoe. Now Elvis is playing the ukulele while hula girls shake their grass skirts. Maile’s grandma has a luau to celebrate her birthday; later the tour group is taken to a hukilau where the group net the fish they are to eat. Chad finally gets married on a raft, and there are leis, mai tais and cries of ‘aloha’ aplenty. The film loses points for the Gates's houseboy however. He is called 'Ping Pong' for heaven's sake!

Of course there are plenty of songs, from the big numbers that everybody knows (Can’t Help Falling In Love, Rock-A-Hula Baby), to classic covers (Blue Hawaii, Hawaiian Wedding Song, Aloha ‘Oe), to embarrassing space-fillers (Almost Always True and – most egregiously – Ito Eats). Ito Eats is a brief song about a character called Ito who eats a lot. Almost Always True is actually rather enjoyable – and not just for EP’s mugging – but tails off after two verses; I would have like to have heard more. Weirdly Can’t Help Falling In Love is directed not at his beautiful young girlfriend Maile, but rather at her grandmother. A definite opportunity for a romantic serenade lost there. The settings of the songs leave much to be desired in general, mostly just featuring Elvis standing or sitting there and singing. The two exceptions would be the partying and dancing during Rock-a-Hula Baby and the colourful Hawaiian wediing of (you guessed it!) Hawaiian Wedding Song. But the soundtrack album was actually one of Elvis’s most successful albums. In fact it was the second most successful album by any artist in the ‘60s in the US. The film too was one of Elvis’s most successful, despite its rather obvious limitations.

It's not the size of the instrument but what you do with it that counts

Elvis can handle comedy – witness his reactions when he keeps on being interrupted in his cottage on Kaua’i. But it is mainly the other characters who do the heavy lifting when it comes to laughs. As his mother Angela Lansbury (who was only nine years older than Presley) is melodramatic, referring to his military service as “the war” and his father is very dry. When Mrs Gates describes her son’s return from one night in jail as coming “back from the big house” her husband tersely comments “Sarah Lee will you stop watching those old movies?” One of the best bits of dialogue occurs when she wails “Oh Daddy, what did we do wrong?” His throw-away answer? “Offhand I’d say we got married.” This dryness contrasts favourably with the idiotic forgetfulness of Mr Chapman (Howard McNear). On one occasion the script does veer very near to Carry On territory, when Miss Prentice asks “Mr Gates, are you sure you can handle a teacher and four teenage girls?” Ooh Matron!

But frankly, unless you are a fan of Elvis Presley – or ‘60s kitsch – Blue Hawaii is not the film for you. Plot, dialogue and music are all rather humdrum. The setting is fabulous however. Just two years after Hawaii became the USA’s fiftieth state, this film is its coming out party, a big, bold, Technicolor tourist advert to pull in the punters.

What have I learnt about Hawaii?
Well firstly that as late as the ‘60s pineapples were seen as exotic in America. The Hawaiian climate was much in demand for pineapple agriculture as a result. And locals eat them with salt.

It is the local Hawaiian customs that most come out here. Mrs Gates may look down upon the “native boys” and their music, but there is clearly an attraction between the “malihini” (newcomers) and the natives. Maile has a French father and a Hawaiian mother. She and Chad carelessly slip Hawaiian phrases into conversations, and he is at home with Hawaiian friends and customs. He charms Maile’s grandmother, sings Hawaiian-flavoured songs and takes Miss Prentice and her girls to an authentic “hukilau”. A hukilau is a torch-lit beach party derived from a communal fishing trip. Everybody pulls in the net and everybody shares in the catch. Those who do not help, do not eat. It can be argued that these traditions merely add a bit of exotic colour to an otherwise dull plot; I prefer to think that Elvis and his writers celebrated these customs when the tendency would have been for white mainstream America to look down or ignore them (a la Mrs Gates).

Can we go there?
As befits Chad’s role as tourist guide, the entire film is like a travelogue of Hawaii – or two islands at least. We get to see Chad journey from Honolulu Airport, around the south coast of Oahu, and then across to Kaua’i. Chad’s beach hut lay at Hanauma Bay – this was where Maile lost her swimsuit and Chad first sings with his beach boys. A number of the beach scenes were shot on the property of what is now the Hilton Hawaiian Village; this was also used for Miss Prentice’s hotel. It is said that Chad’s parents live in the upscale suburb of Kahala, however the view of Diamond Head seen from their terrace during the party scene suggests a viewpoint from downtown Honolulu (Kahala is located on the other side of the hill). Chad and Maile have their abortive picnic atop Mount Tantalus.

The Kaua'i scenes were shot at the Coco Palms Resort in Wailua. This was the premium resort hotel on the island, much favoured by Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, the von Trapp Family Singers and the Japanese royal family as well as Elvis. The conch-blowing staff welcoming arrivals and the torch-lighting call to “chow” were all real ‘traditions’ that occurred at the resort. Largely due to Chad and Maile’s Hawaiian wedding taking place there, some 500 marriage ceremonies were hosted at the resort annual prior to its closure in 1992 after it was trashed by Hurricane Iniki. Nowadays I am sorry to report that the only way to see the resort is on a movie tour.

Overall rating: 2/5

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