When you settle in to watch a film called “Honolulu,” you might expect to see a lush, expansive musical with plenty of opulent sets and numbers, perhaps a sequence or two in Technicolor to highlight the natural beauty of the island and to wow the viewer’s imagination. But, lest you start to think that all of 1939’s films were big epics, that’s really not the case for MGM’s 1939 Honolulu—it’s a very small-scale movie, set mostly in the interiors of passenger ships and homes instead of tropical jungles and pristine beaches. Instead, we’re treated to some fun trick photography and several Eleanor Powell dance numbers, which may be a fair enough trade for some people.
Brooks Mason (Robert Young) is an incredibly popular movie star who is becoming increasingly tired of his nonstop lifestyle and the demands his adoring public puts upon him—which includes ripping apart his jackets every time he dares set foot outside. He hires George Smith (also Robert Young) to stand in for him at the premiere of his new film (previously popular films include The Lady Said No, The Lady Said Maybe, and, worst of all, The Lady Said Yes). When Brooks realizes that his double has fooled even those people closest to him, he arranges to make a switch with George: Brooks spending a few weeks in laid back Hawaii as George; George filling in for Brooks’ fast-paced and comparatively exotic life in Hollywood.
Brooks sets off on a ship for Honolulu, where he’s immediately recognized by big fan Millie De Grasse (Gracie Allen) and her friend Dorothy March (Eleanor Powell). When Dorothy accidentally hits Brooks with a tap shoe after an invigorating performance onboard, she sacrifices her potential meet-cute so her friend can meet the actor—though he’s tipped off by the fact that Millie’s foot is about two sizes too small for the supposed shoe. He denies that he is Brooks Mason though, insisting that he is George Smith, simple Hawaiian pineapple farmer and businessman. He becomes smitten with Dorothy, but since he’s temporarily in charge of George’s life as well, he has to maintain George’s relationship with his fiancee, Cecelia (Rita Johnson)—which to Dorothy’s untrained eye, of course looks like he’s playing her. When Cecelia fast-tracks their wedding date, Brooks has to juggle between his real and adopted identities.
A few cute moments perk up the mostly straightforward story: Brooks’ agent attempts to shuttle the double out of the hospital using a coffin to avoid the grips of crazy fans; Dorothy asks Brooks to describe Hawaii to her, though he’s never been, so he reads aloud the copy of a nearby travel poster; a party onboard the ship is “Come As Your Favorite Movie Star” themed, so we get some fantastic examples of 1939 costumes, like Mae West, Night Flight-era Clark Gable, the Seven Dwarves, the Marx brothers, and more; Brooks mistakes Cecelia’s huffy father for the butler, and so on. And my favorite joke in the film, when Brooks is wondering if he and Dorothy can sneak off without Millie noticing, spelling out the important words like parents discussing a young child:
Brooks: Is it ok to walk out on M-i-l-l-i-e? She won’t get m-a-d?
Millie: Oh, of course I won’t get drunk!
The film boasts a couple of classic Eleanor Powell numbers, including a jump roping dance on the ship’s deck, and a Hawaiian-inspired hula when they arrive in Honolulu. It’s not really a traditional hula, as we’d expect to see one today, mostly just “hula-inspired” by the choice of costume and a few swaying arm and hip motions. Otherwise it’s very swingy, with free spins and leaps and even some tapping. I don’t think grass skirts are typically meant to flare out in rotation, but it’s a great way to show off Powell’s signature athleticism and quick feet.
The filming of the Brooks and George doubles is pretty well-done, and though they’re mostly relegated to one half of the frame, or over-the-shoulder double work, there are a few shots that I, in 2014, am still not quite sure how they did—with both Robert Youngs interacting with each other within the frame. There’s also a fun gag at the end where we learn that one of the other characters also has a twin, so we get a couple shots with two sets of twins. So, while the photography is not particularly stunning for most of the film, these inventive techniques do work pretty well.
I will warn that they managed to fit in a fair amount of different styles of racism into a relatively short 83-minute run time… I’d thought Brooks’ befuddled black butler was bad enough, but George’s help in Hawaii is played by Chinese actor Willie Fung (from Red Dust, with the same amount of stereotype). Plus, at the aforementioned Celebrity costume party, Dorothy chooses to do a dance number as Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, in full, minstrel-style blackface. Finally, despite being set primarily in Honolulu, we see hardly any native Hawaiian faces throughout the film. So… something to keep in mind before watching.
Honolulu is a familiar story, borrowing quite a bit from classic stories like The Prince and the Pauper, as well as Cyrano de Bergerac and some Cinderella, when Brooks fits a not-quite-perfect shoe on Millie’s foot. These familiar, universal themes are made more specific by the modern film references, though, sadly, the more negative elements of ’30s culture also kind of cement the film within its own era.