Mistaken identities and dead ringer twins are at the crux of Edward Buzzell's Honolulu (1939); a charmingly obtuse musical comedy: heavy on the comedy – but light on the music. Very light, in fact, especially for MGM, the studio that practically invented and certainly would go on to perfect the musical genre during the next two decades. Inspired by stories of doppelgangers, the screenplay patched together by Herbert Fields, Frank Partos and Harry Ruskin is an effortless trifle, easy on the eye and ear but unremarkable in virtually every way...well, almost. Because Honolulu’s ace in the hole is undeniably its leading lady – Eleanor Powell: her supple, sultry dance routine near the end, four and a half minutes of spectacular entertainment.
The film stars Robert Young as movie matinee idol, Brooks Mason – a harried leading man to whom the perks of stardom have decidedly begun to wear very thin. Mobbed at every turn by his adoring fans Brooks desires nothing more than peace away from the fray of adulation. So, when Honolulu pineapple plantation owner George Smith (also played by Young) - a man who could pass for Mason's twin - is practically torn limb from limb after one of Brooks' premieres it gives Brooks a great idea that is soon to become a colossal headache. Brooks and George will trade places and lives for a spell so that Brooks can get away from life in the fast lane.
Unhappy circumstance for George who quickly finds himself caught in a revolving door at Manhattan's Memorial Hospital after he is throttled by yet another flock of sycophants. Brooks' agent, Joe Duffy (George Burns), who isn't in on the gag thinks his meal ticket has clearly lost his mind and feverishly works to sedate George until a cure for his 'condition' can be ironed out by the doctors. In the meantime, Brooks - masquerading as George - is having the time of his life. Aboard a luxury liner bound for Honolulu Brooks meets winsome dancer Dorothy March (Eleanor Powell) and her travelling companion, Millicent DeGrasse (Gracie Allen). Millicent rightly pegs Brooks as the Hollywood star of her dreams - a truth he vehemently denies, all the while pursuing Dorothy during their shipboard romance.
But once on the mainland of the Hawaiian islands, Brooks has to face George's fiancée Cecelia Grayson (Rita Johnson). Mistaking Brooks for George, she is briefly startled by George's transformation from congenial pineapple grower to charming lady’s man. Brooks sweeps Cecelia off her feet for George's sake. But this creates a rift in Brook's relationship with Dorothy. After some cleverly timed delays Cecelia's father, Horace (Clarence Kolb) finally forces Brook's hand in marriage. In the nick of time George turns out for his own nuptials. Dorothy forgives Brooks and the two are married. Millicent takes a shine to Joe and introduces him to her sister (also played by Allen). Utterly bewildered at seeing 'doubles' yet again Joe faints in the lagoon.
Honolulu is a fairly effervescent comedy. The musical program is scant at best. Gracie Allen sings a delightful ditty that Powell dances to briefly aboard ship. Powell also does a 'black face' routine that is meant as homage to her dancing idol, Bill 'Bojangles' Robinson. But the standout routine in the film is undoubtedly the Hawaiian chant that comes at the tail end of the film's third act. Powell, in grass skirt and bare feet performs a fresh and sultry dance before donning a pair of heels to tap out the final act. Robert Young is quite good at playing twins. True enough, there's very little difference between Brooks and his alter ego, but Young and some clever split screen work make the rouse hold up. Enough cannot be said about Eleanor Powell, a gorgeous and gifted performer who, sadly, has largely been forgotten today except among die hard classic film fans. Her legacy endures as the lady who is tops in taps. But we need to remember her more.
Warner Home Video's MOD DVD transfer is solid, if flawed. No attempt has been made to clean up age related artifacts. They are present and on occasion distracting. Thankfully, Warner has 'remastered' the transfer to eliminate the ton of edge enhancement that has always plagued TV broadcasts of this film. The image is fairly solid with only a hint here and there of those nasty edge effects. The gray scale seems a tad 'thick' with fine detail frequently less than what one might expect. Nevertheless, the image is reasonably sharp throughout, showcasing Ray June's slick and stylized cinematography to good effect. The audio is mono but quite aggressive, particularly during the Hawaiian chant dance routine. The drums are clear sounding and loud. There are NO extras. Recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)