Hula (1927) A Silent Film Review

Clara Bow goes Hawaiian in this Victor Fleming-directed rom-com. The target of Miss Bow’s affections is a very shocked (and very married) Clive Brook. The whole thing is pretty much an excuse to get Clara into grass skirts and wet frocks but she sells it.

This is my contribution to the Beach Party Blogathon hosted by Silver Screenings and Speakeasy. Be sure to read the other posts!

Home Media Availability: Released on DVD.

Dancin’ wearin’ nothin’ but a button and a bow…

Clara Bow really hit her stride in 1927. The poverty row studios were a thing of the past, she was the hottest flapper in Hollywood and she was about to deliver some of the most popular hits of her career. Bow’s biggest 1927 film was Wings, the very first Best Picture Academy Award winner but her fans only had to wait a few weeks to see their favorite appear in Hula, a Hawaiian-themed confection directed by Victor Fleming.

Bow plays the daughter of a wealthy Irish-American plantation owner and is given the cringe-worthy name of Hula Calhoun.

It was a narrow escape. They almost named her Freestyle Disco.
It was a narrow escape. They almost named her Freestyle Disco.

(Can we talk, Hollywood? You know, naming characters things like Hula, Ramadan, Patchouli and other such nonsense is making you a laughingstock. You can’t just take a random word from another language and use it as a name. How would you like a foreign company to make a movie set in America and name the characters Safety Pin, Kotex and Pie? Because that’s kind of what you’re doing.)

Whatever Hula wants, Hula gets and little Hula wants… him!

Yes, you!
Yes, you!

Yes, it’s the indomitable Clive Brook, Englishman extraordinaire and fresh off the smash hit Underworld. He plays Anthony Haldane, who is building a dam for some reason. Hula is one smitten kitten. She’s head over heels! He’s so beautiful! And he has a chin dimple! She always wanted one with a chin dimple! That’s it, she’s claiming him. He’s hers.

The problem is that Anthony is already married. His wife (Miss DuPont) is a real piece of work but he dare not divorce her. The scandal! What will the neighbors think? Granted, he’s thousands of miles away from his neighbors but the principle still applies.

Are you sure you want him, Hula? He seems like a bit of a rat.
Are you sure you want him, Hula? He seems like a bit of a rat.

Of course, he doesn’t tell Hula this at first. Nope, after their first bit of canoodling, he just snubs her and generally acts like a creep to try to chase her away. When Hula finds out his real reason for coldness, she springs into action. That’s pretty much the entire story in a nutshell. Hula is always springing into some action or another. She doesn’t really think any of it through but she is confident that it will turn out right in the end. And it usually does.

I love Clive Brook as an actor (and director) but is his character ever a jerk! I mean, he and his wife don’t get along and she’s cheating on him. Those are moral, ethical and legal grounds for a divorce to most people. But he gets all caught up in social convention and poor little Hula is the one who gets hurt.

Definitely wishful thinking.
Definitely wishful thinking.

And I’m not sure what the studio heads were about, consistently casting all these middle-aged men as the One True Loves of youthful flappers. Wishful thinking? Brook seems a bit uncomfortable with the whole thing and is a stiffer than usual. (For contrast, please note his performance in another 1927 film, Barbed Wire.)

Fortunately, Clara Bow has enough personality for both of them. Their meet cute scene is particularly Bow-ish, with Clara bursting into Brook’s room to catch her runaway dog and diving under his bed before he can gather his wits. Then she openly ogles at him and tries to show him the boo-boo on her thigh. If that doesn’t melt his icy exterior, nothing will.

Anthony doesn't want to see Hula's boo-boo. Spoilsport.
Anthony doesn’t want to see Hula’s boo-boo. Spoilsport.

Later in the film, Bow has a bit of fun reversing gender roles. Wifey has decided to deny Anthony his divorce because she thinks his dam project will make him rich. This is a blow to Hula (no fault divorces were just a gleam in California’s eye and both parties need to sign off to make the divorce a reality) and she once again, you guessed it, springs into action. Anthony isn’t sure what to do but Hula tells him not to worry his pretty little head about it. She’s going to take care of it with some brains, some pluck and some domestic terrorism.

You two stay here. I'll just take my dynamite and go.
You two stay here. I’ll just take my dynamite and go.

Bow’s heroines are always active and Hula is no exception. When Anthony jumps into a river to save her dog, Hula jumps in too and saves his bacon. When a predatory older woman sets her sights on Hula’s man, our heroine employs every trick in the book to chase her away. Bow leaps and rides and swims and generally raises hell wherever she can. (Some reviewers have the erroneous idea that wearing pants is one of Bow’s marks of wildness. Nope. Ladies wearing trousers to ride was very much the norm. This is 1927, not 1827. If she had worn them to church or something, that would have been different but she always puts on frocks when she is out socially.)

Hula has other ways of thumbing her nose at society.
Hula has other ways of thumbing her nose at society.

If you came to this film for Bow (and you probably did) then you will not be disappointed.

Now for the downside. The film’s Hawaiian setting has almost no bearing on the plot and seems to have been chosen entirely as an excuse to pose Clara Bow in wet clothes and have her perform the hula. The story could easily have taken place in, say, Montana, South Africa, Vietnam, Alaska, Australia or any part of the world with rugged terrain and the need for a dam or other large construction project. (Though I did enjoy keeping my eye out for Olympic gold medalist and father of surfing Duke Kahanamoku.)

Hi, Duke!
Hi, Duke!

In another bit of dated and ill-advised storytelling, Hula has its native characters speak broken English in their title cards (oh lordy) but generally erases them from the story. This opens up a discussion about Hawaii and the appropriation of its culture. Of course, every viewer will have to make up their own mind but my opinion of Hula is pretty much the same as my opinion of Gunga Din. What do I mean?

Well, Gunga Din (1939) was set in India and had some pretty imperialistic notions about race and culture. However, while I wish more work had been put into humanizing the Indian characters, what I find more disturbing is that a film made over forty years later (Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom) was more racist and tone deaf toward Indian culture. Have we really become so backward?

Nothing like falling off a horse and into a sandpit to freshen one's makeup.
Nothing like falling off a horse and into a sandpit to freshen one’s makeup.

Do I wish that Hula had featured Hawaiian characters who were more than clichés and backdrop? Yes, of course. But considering that this is the year of Aloha, I think that 2015 has no room to complain.

Hula is very much a product of its time and that era has both good and bad elements. It’s not taking anything away from Clara Bow’s talent to acknowledge that Hollywood films had (and have) issues with race. Admitting that these issues exist does not preclude us from enjoying the positive aspects of a piece of entertainment. (And if anyone starts yelping about “context” just know that I have a bag of jellybeans at the ready and am fully prepared to start throwing them.)

Showcasing every bit of Clara Bow.
Showcasing every bit of Clara Bow.

So, what’s the verdict for Hula? The film is a success in that it accomplishes what it set out to do. It was specially designed to showcase Clara Bow’s pep and personality and it succeeds in that task. It’s a shame that more thought and work weren’t put into the script as it could have elevated the film to something more. Still, it’s an entertaining little film and is sure to please fans of Miss Bow everywhere.

Movies Silently’s Score: ★★★

Where can I see it?

Hula was released on DVD by Grapevine. It features an organ score.

17 Replies to “Hula (1927) A Silent Film Review”

  1. I’ve only fallen for Clive Brook in the last few months. I don’t think I’m ready to see him as a jerk. I don’t even see him as a total jerk in “On Approval” (though he is) because I’m so tickled that he directed and worked on the screenplay.

    1. I just loved him in On Approval! In that case, his character was fleshed out and sort of lovable in his awfulness. Plus, Brook was clearly in on the joke, as was Beatrice Lillie. (I’ve been trying to track down the TV remake with Jeremy Brett and Penelope Keith. What a cast!)

      In Hula, I think poor writing is more the culprit. The screenwriters had to think of some way to keep the romantic leads apart until the end. Also, Brook was clearly uncomfortable with the material and looked like he would rather be somewhere else. Barbed Wire and Underworld are the better 1927 Brook showcases.

  2. Oh boy. Not another one of those easily offended types. Just the latest epidemic sweeping the world, apparently.

      1. Apparently admitting something you like is problematic equals “easily offended.” Let us pretend there is nothing wrong with treating another group of people like two dimensional, stupid cutouts over and over again and pretend said groups never spoke up against it.

      2. Yes, even modern films have issues and openly and calmly discussing them is the best solution. Nothing is really gained by burying the past. In any case, I generally liked the film and the Duke Kahanamoku walk-on. If it had featured more Hawaiians and Hawaiian culture, it would have made the movie stronger overall. As it is, it’s a great Clara Bow vehicle but it could have been a lot more.

      3. Yeah, modern Hollywood might act like we have improved 100%, but things like The Lone Ranger, The Last Airbdender, Transformers, and many others prove that is not the case. At any rate, classic movie fans need to chill out with this; you can like problematic things. It’s okay, we’re not saying you need to write off everything that has these kinds of issues, jeesh. You can be as nice as a saint and you’ll still be deemed “an easily offended meanie.”

      4. But, but, but, but CONTEXT! 😉

        Seriously, though, I think chilling out is the best medicine. This whole “How DARE you be offended?” thing is beyond hilarious. They’re offended that someone else is offended. Hmm.

  3. This sounds like a terrific film, even though it is a shame it didn’t explore the Hawaiian culture. Movies that take place in interesting locales but could take place anywhere are always a bit of a disappointment. However, Clara Bow alone would be worth the price of admission. Thanks for bringing her to the Beach Party Blogathon!

  4. Who knew footage of Clara in a grass skirt existed? What a treat!
    I think your points about the racist elements were spot on – it’s certainly depressing to think that it’s still a Hollywood issue, because filmmakers can’t even claim to have learned from the ‘mistakes’ of their predecessors.

  5. You can see the Jeremy Brett/ Penelope Keith/ Lindsay Duncan ON APPROVAL on Youtube. Unfortunately, its in several parts, but half a loaf ….

  6. That gif is cathartic! Clara aside, you’ve gone all sociological on us, and you know…. It’s FABULOUS!!!!!!!! you can appreciate a film and the aesthetics, the acting etc. But… you can’t take an entire film in unless you recognize some of it’s short comings and relevance that addresses social-class, gender and ethnic sensitivity. It doesn’t mean you’re throwing the film out with the bath water, it actually should cause a constructive conversation about it. And that’s good right!. I would love to see this film, I’m not as familiar with Clara Bow, but she seems captivating with or without the grass skirt. So you’ll be turning me onto a some new actors- Your commentary on the use of the name HULA is priceless! Pie LOL.. Seriously I want to see HULA, and anything else Miss Bow has done. Thanks for sharing this for The Beach Party Blogathon- Aloha (insert sarcasm) Joey

  7. I’ve heard of Hula but haven’t had a chance to see the film as yet. Setting aside the racial attitudes (and I am sure that there were many contemporary Hollywood films with the same mindset), I would still love to watch it due to the talents and all-round gorgeousness of Clara Bow. There was a sparkle about Clara and, although it’s an old cliche, she really DID light up the screen. I’m thinking more and more that she was the silents’ answer to Marilyn Monroe, who had that same luminosity when she was on camera. You can’t take your eyes off her.

    1. Yes, the racial attitudes in “Hula” were pretty typical for the time (though there were films that tried to go beyond the tropes) but that doesn’t make them off-limits for discussion. What I find significant is how little things have changed. However, acknowledging problematic aspects of a piece of entertainment does not preclude the enjoyment of that entertainment. It’s like going on vacation and saying that it was great except for that one bad restaurant. The whole vacation wasn’t ruined but there was one aspect that could have been changed to make it better.

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