For Reel

Honolulu (1939)
March 17, 2016, 12:04 am
Filed under: Reviews | Tags: , ,

Director: Edward Buzzell
3 Stars
HonoluluAnother recycling of the The Prince and the Pauper mistaken identity plot, Honolulu casts Robert Young in a dual role as both a wildly famous celebrity and the pineapple plantation owner who is his spitting image. Inevitably, the two will exchange lives, resulting in an increasingly complicated romantic situation. Though Young eats up the majority of the screen time, dancer Eleanor Powell received top billing and is the picture’s most redeeming factor. As promised by the title, Powell dances with hula skirts and leis, even if her technique is not so much traditionally Hawaiian as it is simple swing dancing with accessories. Her most memorable number, however, is a gender swap blackface number in which she emulates Bill Robinson. Three years after Fred Astaire’s “Bojangles of Harlem”, the performance can’t quite overcome its predecessor–the stage is an underwhelming minimalist design that pails in comparison to the surrealism of the sequence in Swing Time, and if Powell has some grace, she doesn’t match Astaire’s athleticism or control. Lending support to the leads are Gracie Allen and George Burns in the last of their screen appearances together, and unfortunately another wasted opportunity. The two aren’t even in the same hemisphere until the last five minutes of the picture, and MGM makes the baffling choice in the early-goings of putting Gracie in a Mae West costume and having her sing. If the number is the film’s highlight (it involves lookalikes of The Marx Brothers, Clark Gable, W.C. Fields, and more), it shows a remarkable failure to understand what audiences would have wanted to see from the comedienne. Burns is absent almost entirely from the picture, and he would not resurface on cinema screens for decades thereafter.

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