Thursday, April 21, 2011

Honolulu (1939)

Eleanor Powell and Robert Young

Believe me, the last thing I want to do is say a harsh word about any of the paltry handful of films left to us by the great Eleanor Powell. When she retired in her prime in 1944 to get married, a terrible blow was dealt to the world of movie musicals, and I'm not sure MGM ever really recovered (although signing Ann Miller in 1948 was a solid step in the right direction). She matched an endearing girl next door charm with just a touch of Hollywood glamor and the fastest damned footwork you've ever seen. She starred in only nine films, plus a couple of supporting roles, far too few for a woman of her tremendous talent. While several of these films, such as Born to Dance and all three Broadway Melody titles, rank among the finest musicals ever made, others just don't make the cut.

Honolulu positively reeks of competence, but competence alone is not enough to make it stand out among the high caliber of musicals MGM was cranking out like clockwork. The plot is trite and predictable, but more than enough to carry a musical comedy whose audience doesn't demand a whole lot of realism from a movie, so long as it has enough catchy songs, flashy costumes and sets, and snappy dialog to while away an hour and a half pleasantly enough. Honolulu has all of these things, just not in high enough concentrations to be memorable.

Robert Young and Robert Young
Robert Young stars in the double role of movie star Brooks Mason and his pineapple magnate look-alike, George Smith. The movie star and the pineapple king switch places to try out each others' lives, and run into some girl trouble along the way. We've all been there before, and it was better then, too. Nine Prisoner of Zenda films, two Parent Traps, and god only knows how many Prince and the Pauper adaptations have proven the formula is at least an easy sell to movie producers, if not to audiences. George Burns and Gracie Allen lend their support, but this classic comedy duo don't have much room to work with a script that only puts them in the same hemisphere for the last ten minutes.

Powell is a vision as usual as Gracie's dancing partner who falls for the movie star half of the equation, but neither the role nor her choreography was particularly demanding. Her dances are interesting and well conceived--she does the hula in taps in a delightfully skimpy bikini and hula skirt--but they're far too low key to be the least bit impressive, at least not for those who have seen Powell truly exert herself. Her chemistry with Young is minimal, and at the end of the day I find that although the plot carried my interest and attention, it left my sympathies back at the starting gate, and I really didn't much care who married who at the ending.

Powell is so clean cut she makes even this costume look wholesome.
Certainly a fair chunk of the blame for Honolulu's lack of pizazz goes to the writers. This is supposed to be a comedy, after all, but it is never actually funny. Gracie Allen keeps up a steady stream of third-class wisecracks, but her character is of so little importance to the story that she mostly just seems annoying. Another handful of blame can be dealt out to master choreographer Bobby Connolly, who would at least have made the dances worth watching had he not been pulled off the project to work on The Wizard of Oz. Powell doesn't really act (not that she ever does) but all the part requires is that she show up. Young at his best is barely personable enough for one lead role, so casting him as two could only be someone's idea of a joke, one which, like Honolulu itself, just isn't funny.

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