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.
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.
(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, 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.)
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.)
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?
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.)
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.