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.
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.
What the F***
While shooting Pearl Harbor in 2001, producer/director Michael Bay was known to use the “F” word in just about every sentence during normal conversation. One day a camera operator started using the “F” word extensively when talking to his assistant. Everyone around him knew what he was doing. Soon, everyone on the set was using the “F” word extensively in normal conversation. Hundreds of people using the “F” word. An eyewitness told me, “You could see Michael Bay in the corner shriveling up … he looked like he was going to cry.” He stopped using the “F” word for about three days.”
Pearl Harbor note: In the movie, the “bullets” hitting the runway on Ford Island exactly match where actual bullets from Japanese zeros hit the runway during the 1941 attack. The original bullet holes on the runway were never filled in as a memorial to the attack. Filmmakers put special-effects explosives in the real bullet holes so that film segment matched real life perfectly.
The Clinch Felt Round the World
It’s called The Most Famous Scene in the Movies: Burt Lancaster and Deborah Kerr rolling around in the surf making love at Halona Cove in From Here to Eternity. But it almost didn’t happen. The scene originally had been planned to have the couple standing up. Lancaster apparently thought it was better to go horizontal than vertical, so he tackled Kerr like a linebacker and the beach has been smoking ever since.
From Here to Infirmary
In the movie The Godfather in which Don Corleone has a bloody horse’s head put into the bed of a studio boss to convince him to give his godson, crooner Johnny Fontane, a part in a Hollywood movie? A lot of people believed that Mario Puzo, who wrote the novel the movie came from, based Fontane on Frank Sinatra. Some people (apparently even Sinatra) thought that Puzo was suggesting that the Mafia helped Sinatra get a part in From Here to Eternity. When that movie was made, Sinatra was at a low point in his career and was even willing to work for free to get a part. He was eventually hired for the token amount of $8,000, but he won an Oscar and his career was reignited.
How did Sinatra get a part in one of the greatest movies ever shot in Hawai‘i? Jim Nabors told me Sinatra’s then-wife, Ava Gardner, asked the studio to hire him. But that’s not the end of the story. Nabors said he was having dinner one night with Carol Burnett and her husband at Chasen’s, a Beverly Hills restaurant favored by celebrities. Sinatra was sitting nearby with a group of people. Puzo, at another table, decided to go introduce himself to Sinatra, whom he had never met. Suddenly, all hell broke loose, with Sinatra going for Puzo’s throat yelling, “You son of a bitch!” Luckily, Sinatra’s friends held him back.
Tora! Tora! Tora!
It turns out that Tora! Tora! Tora!, the title of the 1970 Pearl Harbor movie, doesn’t mean “Surprise! Surprise! Surprise!” or even “Tiger! Tiger! Tiger!” as has been reported. It actually means “Hello Kitty! Hello Kitty! Hello Kitty!” Just kidding. It means “Attack! Attack! Attack!,” which, to me, seems like yelling, “Eat! Eat! Eat!” as you approach a buffet table. You’re attacking. We get it. If you are going to yell something, at least be sardonic, like “Howdy! Howdy! Howdy!” Or consider the potential for product placement: “Toyota! Toyota! Toyota!”
Where in the World is Duke?
All the harbor scenes in 1963's Donovan’s Reef were shot on Kauai with John Wayne and Lee Marvin, even though the story is set in French Polynesia. But the internal and external scenes of Donovan’s saloon were shot on a Hollywood backlot using the Bonanza set. Apparently, western saloons look just like French colonial buildings.
Anyone Lose A Tank?
Film aficionado Luis Reyes told me that, when the movie Beachhead was being made on Kauai in 1964 with Tony Curtis, an Army tank was needed for a scene. Producer Howard Koch somehow had a tank sitting in front of Fort DeRussy barged over to Kauai, shot the scene and got the tank back to Waikīkī before anyone realized it was gone. Obviously pre-Homeland Security.
It would be impossible to compile a list of Caucasian actors who played Polynesians or Asians in Hollywood films and TV productions. I think Charlie Chan was played by about 14 haoles alone. Dorothy Lamour appeared, I believe, in about 1,435 movies set in the South Seas as a “native princess” and, curiously, always in a sarong. But here’s a list of Caucasian actors who were cast as Native Hawaiians or part-Hawaiians.
Daughter of legendary Charlie “Kalanianaole” Chaplin, was the ironically named “Purity,” part-Hawaiian wife of Charlton Heston in 1966’s Hawai‘i. In the same movie, Elizabeth Logue played Noelani, Queen Malama’s daughter, using a fake Polynesian nose.
He was Hawaiian doctor Daniel Kulani in the 1989 TV show Island Son.
It's Not Nice to Mimic Mother Nature
Jurassic Park was filmed on Oahu and Kauai in 1993. The climax of the movie is when a hurricane hits the island of the killer dinosaurs. So, naturally, Hurricane Iniki had to hit Kauai while the movie was being shot. The cast and crew had to hunker down in the basement ballroom of the Westin Hotel. Producer Kathleen Kennedy said, “If you’re going to be stranded with anyone, be stranded with a movie crew. We had generators for lights and plenty of food and water.”
Hilo Hattie's Debut
Hilo Hattie first appeared in a movie in 1942 in Song of the Islands with Betty Grable and Victor Mature. She sang “Cockeyed Mayor of Kaunakakai,” the only song ever to make fun of a visually impaired mayor. Grable sang “Down on Ami Ami Oni Oni Isle,” which I believe is a historically correct account of the overthrow of Queen Liliuokalani.
Handicapping a Guest Actor
Jazzman Jimmy Borges has appeared in a number of Hawai‘i-based TV shows. He told me how Tom Selleck dealt with a haughty guest actor on Magnum P.I.
“There was a scene with Tom, Larry Manetti, myself playing a cop and this Actors Studio-type chick, in a wheelchair. She goes off to get into character, comes back crying and gets in the wheelchair. But it doesn’t feel right to her so she leaves, holding up the shot. This happens a few times, so Tom gets a deck of cards and a clothespin and attaches a card between the spokes of the wheel. The chick comes back, weeping, they call action and she starts rolling the wheelchair forward and the chair makes a noise like a propeller. She jumps up, gets pissed off and walks off. It was pretty funny.”
Close Call No. 3
Famous big-wave rider Laird Hamilton was Kevin Costner’s double for many of the water scenes in Waterworld, shot off the Big Island coast in 1995. Other actors weren’t so lucky. Tina Majorino and Jeanne Tripplehorn nearly drowned on their first day of shooting after a trimaran tipped over and dragged them through the water. It didn’t get better for Majorino. The crew nicknamed her “Jellyfish Candy” after she was stung several times by jellyfish.
Larry Does Good
Little Larry Ramos (see photo at right) was only 5 years old when he played the ukulele in the 1950 musical Pagan Love Song. He grew up to perform with the group The Association (remember the song “Windy”?) and with the New Christy Minstrels (remember ANY New Christy Minstrels songs?).
Guess which movie the song "Blue Hawai‘i" was first sung in? Right. Waikīkī Wedding in 1937. Bing Crosby sang it. Now, guess which Hawaiian song won an Oscar that year? Right. "Sweet Leilani." Also sung by Crosby. Guess what role Crosby played in the movie? Right. A “singing press agent for a Hawaiian pineapple cannery.” You don’t see enough singing press agents in movies anymore. Elvis Presley discovered the song “Blue Hawai‘i” in time to sing it in the movie Blue Hawai‘i in 1961. How lucky was that?
Additional Elvis note: At the end of Blue Hawai‘i Elvis/Chad weds Joan Blackman/Maili on the little footbridge at the Coco Palms on Kauai. Six years later, after marrying Priscilla in Las Vegas, Presley renewed his vows with her while re-enacting the Blue Hawai‘i wedding scene at the Coco Palms. How cute is that?
Tropic Thunder director and actor Ben Stiller became upset when a trained water buffalo flown at great cost to Hawai‘i just for the movie would not budge on command from its handler during the creature’s big scene. It turned out the animal was pregnant and gave birth on the set. She was forgiven and the scene was shot later with the water buffalo and her calf.
Don't Call the Kettles Back
My vote for a movie that probably should NOT have been made: Ma and Pa Kettle At Waikīkī. I saw a picture of Ma Kettle in a grass skirt, black wig and fake flower in her hair and have had nightmares ever since. Hilo Hattie also was in this stinker, playing a tropical version of Ma Kettle named Mama Lotus, but she didn’t sing any songs about disabled city officials. (I think the studio agreed with me about whether this movie should have been made because it was shot in 1952 and wasn’t dumped on the public until 1955.)
Book 'Em, Cowboy
The first time Jack Lord was on television in Hawai‘i was on Tom Moffatt’s rock ‘n’ roll show on Channel 4 in 1962. A new TV series about a rodeo rider, Stoney Burke was just beginning to air from the Mainland and Lord happened to be in Hawai‘i. Moffatt agreed to plug the show and in walked Lord in complete cowboy garb, carrying a saddle and a lariat. After the show, Moffatt gave the relatively unknown actor a ride back to Waikīkī. Lord asked to be let out of the car so he could walk through Waikīkī and see the sights. “I’ll never forget seeing him walk off down Kalakaua Avenue in his cowboy get-up carrying a saddle on his shoulder,” Moffatt said. Stoney Burke lasted only one year and Lord was never heard from again.
Who Are You?
Owen Wilson, while shooting The Big Bounce on the North Shore in 2003, tried to rent some videos from the Sunset Foodland but was denied because he didn’t have any identification with him. The store clerk refused to rent anything to Wilson even after the actor went to the shelves and took down a couple of movies he had starred in and showed them to the clerk.
Sinatra Returns in Triumph
After having to beg for a part in From Here to Eternity, Sinatra made a heroic return to movie-making in Hawai‘i in 1961 in The Devil At 4 O’Clock. To create a French Polynesian port, the film used two plastic cannons (with plugged bowling balls as cannon balls), wind and lightning machines, 24 plastic palm trees, plastic outrigger canoes, 17,000 artificial flowers and a portable volcano. Why not shoot the movie at Newport Beach?
A Tall Order
While shooting Lord of the Flies on the Big Island in 1989, the director found a beautiful field of grass on the Hamakua Coast through which 10 or so boy actors would walk. But the grass was too tall and the boys too short. If the grass was cut, it would look weird, so the director sent out a call for body doubles between 6´4˝ and 6´7˝. Amazingly, within 48 hours they had found the tall “boys” they needed and shot the scene.
He was in one of his first film roles, played Kimo in Waikiki Wedding, in 1937.
She was Kiani in North Shore, in 1987.
Played Elvis’s Hawaiian love interest in 1961’s Blue Hawai‘i.
Portrayed Dr. Dean Kahana in 1963’s Diamond Head. In the same film, James Darren was cast as full-blooded Hawaiian Paul Kahana.
Was Lily Kilua in Ride the Wild Surf, in 1964.
Charles Memminger was a staff writer for Baywatch Hawai‘i. The show was canceled 15 weeks after he was hired. He thinks it was just a coincidence.