Saturday 26 January 2013

Thunder Over Hawaii (1957)

Director: Roger Corman
Stars: Richard Denning and Beverly Garland

With the ubiquity of modern culture and our increasing ready access to it, it might be something of a shock to some to realise that not everything is available. I'm not talking here about obscure century old material, as it's a relatively well known statistic that 90% of silent films are lost today. Less well known is the statistic that 40% of films released on VHS aren't available on DVD and it's expected that most never will be, often because the cost of licensing their soundtracks exceeds their commercial viability. Many others never even saw a VHS release and it's often surprisingly difficult to complete filmographies to watch. Nobody expects to be able to see all Lon Chaney's pictures, for instance, but it doesn't seem unreasonable to expect to be able to see everything made by recognisable figures still working today. Here's an example: Roger Corman, who was given an honorary Oscar in 2010 for his contribution to film. Well, it's rarely quite that simple.

While Corman's production credits continue unabated past the four hundred film mark, he's best known for the fifty he made as a director, mostly from 1955 to 1971, with the last coming in 1990 to round off that number. Some of them are in the public domain, such as She Gods of Shark Reef and The Terror, so you can buy them at corner stores everywhere for a buck each, of if you want even better value than that, in fifty film box sets from Treeline for under fifteen. As Corman well knows the value of anything with his name on it, some of the others are readily available for sale at Amazon, often in box sets. The Roger Corman Collection, for instance, collects eight of them together. The rest are well shared on torrent sites, often ripped from TV broadcast or VHS tapes, to fill in any gaps until an official release is announced. Well, all except one. I've had access to 49 of his films for a few years now but I couldn't find 1957's Naked Paradise anywhere.

Research soon showed that the rights belong to a lady called Susan Hofheinz, along with a dozen or so AIP properties like The Amazing Colossal Man, I Was a Teenage Frankenstein and Invasion of the Saucer Men. Initially she was a minor actress in the sixties under the name of Susan Hart, a decorative presence in films like The Slime People, Ride the Wild Surf or Dr. Goldfoot and the Bikini Machine, but then she married James H. Nicholson, who had co-founded AIP with Samuel Z. Arkoff. She inherited partial rights to 40 movies after his death in 1972 and later gained sole ownership of a quarter of them when they were split up between the various partial owners, who also included the Arkoff estate, Orion Pictures and Herman Cohen. These others have released all their titles to DVD, often as triple features and, in the case of the Arkoff owned titles, even produced remakes. Rumours suggest Hofheinz was poorly advised as to their value and is waiting for the 'right' price.

However, further research opens up a more sinister angle. Bizarrely, Hofheinz appears to see her rights less as an opportunity to earn money by releasing these films into the wild and more as a big stick with which to attack anyone with an interest. There are wild stories that suggest that she has spies roaming around at conventions, vehemently seeking out anyone who might possibly be infringing on her copyrights, not merely by illegally screening the movies but even by referencing them in some way, even if that way is clearly protected under copyright law. These stories sound so outlandish that I might not have believed them if I hadn't read some of the lawsuits that she's brought on hilariously flimsy grounds. Her current suit, against Funko, Amazon and Toys R Us for selling saucermen bobbleheads without a license, may well have validity, but she lost all the rest, which aimed to prevent clips from trailers being referenced in documentaries, clearly fair use.
Fortunately most of the films over which she gained sole ownership had been released before. In the early nineties, Sony and Columbia released many on VHS and I own some of these. Cinemax and AMC broadcast some on cable TV. Yet Naked Paradise is once again an exception, a stubborn gap for Corman fans who ache for the opportunity to see it. Attempting to track it down in some form, I discovered late last year that it was indeed available on VHS, albeit hardly on a wide scale. As Thunder Over Hawaii, the title under which it had been originally shot and under which it had been re-released to theatres in 1960, it was listed in the catalogue of a New Zealand video store. Now, one PAL VHS copy rentable only in person or to Kiwi mailing addresses may be a mere straw but I clutched for it nonetheless. I mailed the company to confirm that yes, they had it. An ex-pat Kiwi friend found a friend back home who could rip from VHS and my long wait is thankfully over.

And, with that long preamble done, on to the review. As it turns out, Naked Paradise is both more fun and more capable than She Gods of Shark Reef, which was shot on the same 1956 Hawaii trip, back to back with a day off in between. It looks great, using some of the same Kauai locations at which 20th Century Fox would shoot two years later for South Pacific. This includes the stunning Hanalei Bay, the largest on the north shore of the island, in which Corman shot his ocean scenes, having learned in only two hours never to shoot in the actual ocean. It has a better cast than its companion piece, with only Lisa Montell appearing in a major role in both. Richard Denning is an agreeable hero, with Leslie Bradley the villain and a string of Corman regulars filling the rest of the lead roles: Jonathan Haze and Dick Miller as the hoods and Beverly Garland, who had been with Corman from the beginning, as one of the title characters in Swamp Women, as the leading lady.

It's Garland who shines from moment one, as the bitter and drunk Miss Mackenzie, better known as Max, and she owns the film throughout, even when she sobers up, not only because she gives an impressive performance but also because she's by far the best written character. In fact, she's the only well written character because the rest are sheer stereotypes, however capably they're played. She starts out sunning herself on the deck of Capt Duke Bradley's boat in a red bikini and sniping at her boss when he climbs on board after diving for lobsters. He's Zach 'King' Cotton, in the 'toy business' in New Jersey and she's his 'secretary'. I use quotes, because it's quickly made clear that he's really a gangster, she's his unwilling moll and they're not really in Hawaii to catch lobsters; they're here to rob a plantation. That night at the inevitable luau, his henchmen, Mitch and Stony, empty its safe of $120,000, stuff it into hollowed out pineapples and off they all sail.

The story isn't really about the robbery itself, which is only given a little attention, but what is to come after it. Bradley sails them on to Molokai, ostensibly for a holiday stay at a lodge there but really to wait for a schooner Cotton has chartered to take them to the Philippines. None of these details really matter as everything hangs on the tension and interplay between characters, which made it simple to recycle that core story again and again for future pictures. Originally written by Robert Wright Campbell, the script was re-written by Charles B. Griffith, who re-wrote it again to become Beast from Haunted Cave and Creature from the Haunted Sea, varying locales, character names and even the tones of the films but keeping the core story the same. He's suggested that he re-used it for Atlas and Ski Troop Attack as well and it could be argued that Quentin Tarantino, who dedicated Death Proof to Griffith, did the same thing for Reservoir Dogs.
And so we quickly watch our characters fall into their roles. King Cotton is the protagonist, having set all this up to rob the plantation. The only depth to his character is that he has a soft spot for kids, dishing out toys to the young islanders more than his cover warrants. While he clearly dotes on Max, she just as clearly despises him and would happily leave if only she could get away with it. Capt Bradley becomes her opportunity, as he's the perfect hero, built of power, freedom and honesty. He also spends much of the film topless and is very willing to stand up for a lady, as he does when Cotton slaps her on his boat. He may well be falling for her too, but if this love triangle isn't enough, Cotton's henchmen also build relationships that cause tension later on. Mitch lusts after Lanai, the lithe island girl who's with Keioni, Bradley's second mate, but clumsily woos her with threats. Stony is literally carried off by a large cook, for whom he develops a soft spot.

It's not difficult to see how a capable drive in movie could be conjured out of these dynamics and, as the original title suggests, there's Mother Nature to be factored in too. At precisely the wrong time, a hurricane descends on the islands to ratchet up the tension, flout the plans of both good and bad guys and set up the inevitable showdown, where all the merely human conflicts are resolved one by one. It works pretty well here because of the calibre of cast and crew, however new some of them were at the time, and the glorious scenery certainly doesn't hurt, but the picture doesn't stand a chance at escaping its clear status as a cheaply budgeted B movie, whatever the quality of the A movie hurricane stock footage that Corman spliced in and however relaxing the songs by Alvin Kaleolani, the original leader of the Royal Hawaiians. The combination of the seascapes, the music and Beverly Garland's red bikini is almost enough for me to book a ticket to the islands.

What's difficult is to keep much of a focus on anything beyond Garland. Richard Denning is good as Capt Bradley, reminding a little of a young Rutger Hauer, but the square jawed, pipe smoking, boat sailing, damsel rescuing hero was no stretch for him. He knew the islands well, later retiring to Maui and playing the governor on Hawaii Five-O. Miller and Haze are just what you'd expect if you've seen a Corman movie before, offering solid support and worth watching even if they're not tasked with much. Haze has fun with his character's background as a boxer, while Miller wears his belt really high, like it's the opposite of the modern gangsta trend. Bradley is the least of them, though he gets better as the story plays out and his real character shows. He's inconsequential as the toy magnate, which may be the point, but better as the gangster. That said, he's only in charge because he's written that way. It's not difficult to imagine him taken down.

In many ways they all play support to Garland, who's the standout. Unlike their characters, which are painted broadly and clearly from moment one, with very little growth room, hers is a constant battle of contrasts. She's good drunk, as she is for the first third of the film, but she's better sober. She's a lively character but she's mostly depressed. She's very capable, especially for a woman in a fifties B-movie, but she's stuck in the place her boss has put her. She's cowardly enough to stay there but heroic enough when it's called for. She's sure of herself, but unsure she'll ever get to be that person. While we're pretty sure that we know where she's going to end up, we're interested nonetheless in how she's going to get there, and she keeps us doubting throughout. I felt that she played Max roughly as Bette Davis would have back in the thirties as a Warner Brothers contract player and, however much Davis put those films down, I see that as a real compliment.


Unknown said...

Thanks for this detailed review. I'm writing a book about Dick Miller, as it happens, and am of course having trouble finding a copy of this movie to watch. So your write-up will be a big help.

Hal C. F. Astell said...

Thanks! I'd buy a book about Dick Miller.