Technicolor-soaked South Seas trifle, with plenty of songs and, um... "comedy." 20th Century-Fox's Cinema Archives line of hard-to-find library and cult titles has released Song of the Islands, the 1942 musical comedy romance starring Betty Grable, Victor Mature, Jack Oakie, Thomas Mitchell, George Barbier, Billy Gilbert, Hilo Hattie, and Harry Owens And His Royal Hawaiians. Paper-thin, tune-filled island shenanigans with an ample supply on hand of cheesecake (Grable), beefcake (Mature), and ham (Oakie), Song of the Islands was precisely the kind of escapist fare war-shocked Americans wanted in the spring of 1942--a favorable context for this sort of assured piffle that wouldn't be entirely out-of-line today (watch Song of the Islands after reading today's horrific headlines--it works a lot better that way). An original trailer is included here--a rarity with these Cinema Archives releases--for this only-okay fullscreen color transfer.
On the pinprick tiny Hawaiian island of Ahmi-Oni, Dennis O'Brien (Thomas Mitchell) anxiously awaits the return of his daughter Eileen (Betty Grable), who's been away at school for three years. O'Brien owns a small section of the island, and lives there in indolent splendor with a passel of adoring natives. During Eileen's luau celebration, cocky rich boy Jefferson Harper (Victor Mature) and his sidekick Rusty Smith (Jack Oakie), land on the island. You see, Harper's father (George Barbier) owns the cattle ranch that takes up most of the rest of the island, and he has sent Jefferson there to see if he can't make some headway with buying up O'Brien's spread, to better facilitate the off-loading of Harper's cattle in O'Brien's better-suited bay. Jefferson is immediately smitten with the lovely Eileen--who initially pretends to be a native--and the two hit it off. Rusty, on the other hand, isn't too wild about the amorous intentions of Eileen's childhood nurse, Palola (Hilo Hattie). When it looks like Jefferson has forgotten his mission on the island, word is sent to his father, who shows up (for the first time) on the island, where he alternately spars and drinks with the recalcitrant O'Brien. Will the two families decide to work together? And what about those two mixed-up, love-sick kids?
No need to write a book about such an inconsequential--but no less entertaining--frippery like Song of the Islands. Scripted by (at least) four credited screenwriters--Joseph Schrank (Cabin in the Sky, The Clock), Robert Pirosh (A Day at the Races, Hell is for Heroes), Robert Ellis (Tin Pan Alley, Sun Valley Serenade), and Helen Logan (Iceland, Pin Up Girl)--Song of the Islands was one of countless Hollywood projects from this time period that started at a studio first merely as a title...with a story subsequently dreamed up to satisfy the provocative moniker. And just as typically, it bounced around for a few years, with numerous producers and performers attached to it at certain points along its pre-production history--including comedian Joan Davis, The Ritz Brothers, and a slew of male leads such as Don Ameche, John Payne, and Robert Cummings opposite Fox's then top-attraction, Alice Faye--before the final cast of Grable, Mature and Oakie was firmed up. Grable, having herself jumped around from studio to studio (almost quitting the biz in 1939 out of frustration with her lack of success) before landing at Fox, was by 1942 clearly the heir-apparent to reigning Fox lot queen, Alice Faye. Replacing Faye in the 1940 hit, Down Argentine Way, and getting better notices when costarring with Faye in Tin Pan Alley, Grable was racking up hits and respectable misses (Moon Over Miami, A Yank in the RAF, the noir I Wake Up Screaming), before three major successes in 1942--Song of the Islands, Footlight Serenade, and Springtime in the Rockies--led her to being voted the world's top box office attraction the following year, with box office smashes like Sweet Rosie O'Grady and Coney Island.
Grable's entrance here in Song of the Islands--perfectly coiffed and made-up...and still dry as a bone in a Hawaiian outrigger, singing the title tune to her island friends as her native bearers paddle furiously to shore in front of that rear projection screen--is a classic bit of Hollywood kitsch (in the best sense of that word) that on the whole, perfectly sums up the movie. It's completely unselfconscious, un-ironic, and yet delightfully playful (the people making this weren't any more dumb or naive than moviemakers today--they knew this stuff was ultimately very silly, but they approached the material with utmost professionalism). Fox studio director Walter Lang, who worked so well with Grable in the previous Tin Pan Alley and Moon Over Miami, frames one pretty postcard visual after another while staying out of the way of his performers (not a difficult thing to do, since the script is so thin). If there's a message lurking somewhere beneath all those songs and chaste, discreet grab-ass--Mitchell's "enjoy life and don't work so hard" eventually wins over money-grubbing whinge Barbier--it's in no way obtrusive or even important to the overall flow of events. The, um... "comedy" is a little too broad where I didn't want it be (anytime cannibal Billy Gilbert showed up, or grinning, abrasive Jack Oakie...whom I'm really beginning to dislike lately), and a little less prominent where it should have been stronger (Grable and particularly Mature were natural comedians...but they're too busy with the singing and the mooning around--lucky funny Hilo Hattie is here for the movie's biggest laughs). As a wrap-up, there's a big Hollywood-style luau (where did all those chorines come from?), where lush, prime Grable, with considerable skill, shakes her ass in a grass skirt and sings a hilarious boogie woogie hula-type number, which no doubt sent the wartime ticket buyers out of the theaters a little lighter, perhaps, in spirit--even for just a brief few moments. Song of the Islands still works that trick today, and that's nothing to sneeze at over 70 years later.
Paul Mavis is an internationally published movie and television historian, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, and the author of The Espionage Filmography.