The Strange Stories of Hollywood Filming in Hawai‘i
From plastic palm trees to on-set pranks, from fake languages to obstinate water buffalo, intrepid humor writer Charles Memminger uncovered the funniest, strangest tales of Island moviemaking.
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Illustration: Michael Byers 2010, Levy Creative Management NYC
For nearly 90 years, Hawai‘i has served as a glorified backlot for Hollywood where directors and producers—unencumbered by factual details of actual life in the Islands—could weave their unlikely tales of love, war and heat rash amid stunning tropical beauty.
In 1932, David O. Selznick reportedly told his director, “I don’t care what story you use so long as we call it Bird of Paradise and (Dolores) Del Rio jumps into a flaming volcano at the finish.” With some modifications, that’s basically how many movies filmed in Hawai‘i got their start.
“I don’t care what the story is as long as the title comes from some obscure Rudyard Kipling poem and Burt Lancaster and Deborah Kerr get pounded by waves while having sex on the beach.” (From Here to Eternity)
“I don’t care what the plot is as long as it’s called Jurassic Park and a lawyer gets eaten by a big, freaking dinosaur.”
“I don’t care how much it costs or what you call it as long as it stars Donny and Marie Osmond and they both get thrown into a flaming volcano in the end. The real Osmonds and a real flaming volcano. No stunt doubles. You got me?”
Of course, we all recognize that last movie as the 1978 cinematic epic Goin’ Coconuts, in which Donny and Marie, playing themselves, manage—to the great annoyance of movie buffs everywhere—to get out of the production unscathed even while being pursued by Oddjob and Wo Fat.
There have been some great movies made in Hawai‘i, but the fact is that for every South Pacific there was a She Gods of Shark’s Reef and for every The Hawaiians there was a Voodoo Island. (Voodoo Island, 1957: “I don’t care what happens as long as it takes only seven days to film it and Boris Karloff wears a grass skirt.”)
Voodoo Island did star Boris Karloff and did only take seven days to shoot, but that wasn’t a record. In 1913, the first Hollywood-produced film made in Hawai‘i, The Shark God was shot, I believe, in about 45 minutes and then they immediately shot another entire movie, Hawaiian Love.
That’s the kind of thing I’m interested in: strange, weird, sexy and unknown details. So I set out to gather little-known tidbits about movies and television shows produced in Hawai‘i or about Hawai‘i, and the actors who starred in them. This article—possibly destined to become one of the great Hollywood/Hawai‘i historical documents of all time—would not have been possible without the help of the following people and information sources: Luis Reyes, author of the book Made in Paradise; Ed Rampell, film critic, author and contributor to Made in Paradise; Matt Locey, film director and member of the South Seas Cinema Society; Eddie Serman, legendary celebrity columnist and author of the book Frank, Sammy, Marlon & Me, Tom Moffatt, radio personality, concert promoter and all-around great guy; Jimmy Borges, jazzman and occasional actor; Jim Nabors, TV star, singer and friend to the word, and Tim Ryan, editor of Hawai‘i Film & Video Magazine. They all took time out to tell me many amazing stories about Hollywood in Hawai‘i and their books were a wealth of information. And thank god for the IMDB (Internet Movie Data Base) website. I present my findings here in no particular order.
The Reel Hawai‘i
The movie Hawai‘i, shot in 1966, is considered one of the most historically authentic depictions of the Native Hawaiian lifestyle during the missionary period. To achieve that authenticity, producers had to import thatch from Japan for huts, rooster feathers from the Philippines, red-and-gold cloaks from Hong Kong, imitation tapa cloth from Ireland, straw matting from Mexico, silk from Taiwan and boar’s tooth necklaces from India. Other than that, it was completely authentic.
Watch Your Language
In 1992, Ray Bumatai, brother of comic Andy Bumatai, played an obscure Polynesian in a forgettable movie called Danger Island, starring Richard Beymore and Kathy Ireland. The plot involved a collection of people who get marooned on a mysterious island after a plane crash. Bumatai, playing one of the indigenous islanders, was asked by the director to invent a plausible-sounding native language. He did, by stringing together the names of Hawai‘i residents with Polynesian names. For instance, in the movie Bumatai would yell “Katamaduli!” which supposedly meant, “I’m going to kill you.” Kata Maduli is a Honolulu record producer and concert promoter.
Some Island residents noticed that in the movie Joe Versus the Volcano, the yellow cab taking Joe’s steamer trunks to the sailboat belongs to congressman Neil Abercrombie.
Close Call No. 1
In 1964, Frank Sinatra almost drowned on Kauai, where he was starring in and directing None but the Brave. Swimming one afternoon near the Coco Palms hotel, where Elvis made Blue Hawai‘i, Sinatra was caught in a riptide that took him 200 yards off shore. Fellow actor Brad Dexter went to his aid and held him until rescuers from the Kauai Fire Department reached the scene. Dexter said when he got there, it was ol’ Blue Eyes’ lips that were blue and his eyes were shut. “I’m sure if I hadn’t gotten to him when I did, they would have pulled out a dead man,” Dexter said. Ironically, the rescuers raced Sinatra to shore but left Dexter on his own to swim in. Thanks, guys.
Close Call No. 2
Talk about a tough movie shoot. In 1954, The Caine Mutiny, starring Humphrey Bogart, Fred McMurray and Van Johnson, was shooting at Pearl Harbor. In one scene, Johnson dives into the water to grab a rope line. When the actor hit the water, a real Navy rifleman on a camera boat noticed a shark just 10 yards away from the actor. He shot and killed it (the shark, that is) with his M-1 rifle and Johnson was hauled out of the water. Cut. Print. That’s a wrap.
Let it (Fake) Rain
It was raining so much during the making of Karate Kid Part II on a lavishly constructed, full-scale Okinawan village set in Kahaluu on Oahu’s Windward Side in 1986 that it interfered with the shooting of a Hollywood typhoon. Actors and crew were miserable as the rain turned the set into a muddy mess. Finally, at 3:30 a.m., they were able to shoot the typhoon scene but had to use “Hollywood rain” sprayed from a water tower because real raindrops are too small for movies. Hollywood rain drops are bigger so that they will be seen when the light hits them.