Sunday, May 2, 2010

At the (old) movies: 'Waikiki Wedding'

Some notes from a recent gathering of the local cinephile society….

Paramount Pictures, like 20th Century Fox, had its own stable of performers who were perfectly suited for various permutations of whatever musical formula hadn’t been used lately. (And “lately” sometimes seemed to mean “in the last three months.”)

So, in “Waikiki Wedding” (1937), directed by Frank Tuttle, we have Bing Crosby (who, to be fair, was First Among Equals in the pecking order, unlike, say, Fox’s Don Ameche and John Payne, neither of whom had Bing’s status) along with Shirley Ross, Martha Raye and Bob Burns.

Shirley Ross is perhaps most famous for introducing two songs, both with Bob Hope – “Thanks for the Memory” and “Two Sleepy People” – in a couple of other Paramount films.

Martha Raye made 14 Paramount movies in the 1930s alone, beginning in 1936. Talk about overexposure – if moviegoers didn’t see her on the screen, they probably figured she was elsewhere in the building, making the popcorn.

Bob Burns, an Arkansas native, was a comedian who specialized in hillbilly characters – kind of a more mature version of Goober Pyle, which isn’t saying much, though I prefer George Lindsey. Burns was famous for a weird musical instrument he invented, called a bazooka – and yes, that’s where the military got its name for its handheld anti-tank rocket launchers during World War II.

In “Waikiki Wedding,” Burns is Bing’s sidekick. Bing, in turn, plays a PR guy for a Hawaii-based pineapple company. His latest bright idea is to have a Miss Pineapple contest, the winner of which gets a trip to Hawaii, during which Bing will ghostwrite syndicated newspaper pieces for her, extolling the island’s charms.

Problem is, the contest winner (Ross), who has arrived at the island with Raye, isn’t all that charmed. In fact, she’s bored. Which means Bing’s in hot water (or maybe even hot lava) if he can’t get her to change her attitude.

Actually, it’s hard to imagine why Ross would be bored by Hawaii, considering that her fianc√©, back at home, is a stolid and humorless dentist played by a singularly stolid and humorless actor, Leif Erickson.

A not-yet-famous Anthony Quinn is also around, playing a native.

The movie goes down relatively easily – a sly plot twist involving a volcano helps – and although the songs written for the movie by Leo Robin and Ralph Rainger are OK, most of them aren’t the types of tunes that you whistle on the way out, even subconsciously. (Your subconscious’ subconscious won’t even remember them.)

One possible exception: “Blue Hawaii.” (Though I haven't found myself whistling or humming it lately.)

Another song was added as an afterthought. (Specifically Bing’s afterthought, and at that point in his career Bing’s afterthoughts carried enough clout to make the amendments to the Constitution look like mere suggestions scribbled on a cocktail napkin.)

That composition, “Sweet Leilani,” by Harry Owens, won the Academy Award for best song and became Crosby's first gold record. But like the previous year's Oscar winner, Jerome Kern and Dorothy Fields’ immortal “The Way You Look Tonight” from “Swing Time,” it doesn’t seem to get much screen time.

Then again, in the long run, I doubt that Mr. Owens, and his heirs, minded very much.

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