On an Hawaiian island—“a land of singing seas and swinging hips…where volcanoes are often active and maidens always are”—rancher Bill Calhoun (Albert Gran) celebrates his daughter Hula’s (Clara Bow) twenty-first birthday with this title card that is now in my top five favorites:
Hula has been raised since her mother’s death by an elderly half-Hawaiian ranch hand named Kahana (Agostino Borgato), who adheres to a simpler, more austere lifestyle (despite living in a nice manse with all the conveniences, Hula takes a nice skinny dip at the beginning of the picture—though admittedly that might be for our benefit). He’s warned her off the advances of a rotter named Harry Dehan (Arnold Kent) and advised her to wait for the right man to come along…and he does, in the form of Anthony Haldane (Clive Brook). Haldane is an engineer who’s been hired by “Old Bill” to construct an irrigation project on the island.
Hula sets her cap for Anthony from the moment she meets him…and though she has a bit of competition at first from the appropriately-named Mrs. Bane (Arlette Marchal), she soon explains to Tony that’s she mahd for him, and he returns the sentiment. The only trouble is—Haldane is already manacled, trapped in a loveless marriage to a woman (Patricia Dupont) who resents the fact that he’s not made a success of his career. The attraction between Hula and Anthony is too powerful to push aside, however, and he asks Mrs. H for a divorce…prompting her to make the journey in order to confront her hub and check out her competition.
Paramount head Adolph Zukor once purportedly described Clara Bow as follows: “She danced even when her feet were not moving…some part of her was always in motion—if only her big rolling eyes.” I’ve not changed my position on the fact that my favorite silent film actress remains Louise Brooks…but with every Clara Bow film I see, Lulu gets some stiff competition. Hulu (1927), adapted from a novel by Armine von Tempski (Hula, a Romance of Hawaii), was one of six films featuring the “It Girl” released that year by the studio; in fact, it hit theaters shortly after the New York premiere of Wings.
Clara Bow films are not complex films…and I think that’s part of their charm. Hula tells a pretty simple story: girl meets boy, girl can’t be with boy due to some complication, girl is determined to work around that. It’s Bow’s show all the way; her marvelously expressive face (shown to great effect by director Victor Fleming, who later had his name on Gone with the Wind and The Wizard of Oz) always lets the audience know just what she’s thinking, and watching her dance (she performs a little number in honor of her name…but mostly to try and seduce Brook) gives new meaning to the phrase “poetry in motion.” There’s even a bit of titillation as the movie gets underway with Clara undergoing the previously mentioned skinny dip; lip readers will be amused at her reaction when she’s stung by a bee (and I’ll give you a hint—her reaction ain’t “Oh, sugar…”).
Innocent and voluptuous, Hula is also an interesting character in that she’s not a particularly admirable individual—she’s a bit pouty and petulant at times, particularly when the object of her affection (Haldane) doesn’t return that fondness to her satisfaction. Fortunately, Hula scenarists Doris Anderson and Ethel Doherty (with uncredited help from Frederica Sagor) wisely make the remaining characters in the movie a bit one-dimensional so that we don’t pay particularly close attention to this (Mrs. Bane and Haldane are your stock villainesses; Dehan the token suitor who’s only there for jealousy’s sake; Kahana the wise native who speaks as if he’s a graduate of the Tonto School of Elocution). Some of the title cards by George Marion, Jr. are pretty hooty, however: in the sequence where Haldane arrives at Rancho Calhoun to introduce himself he spots Hula exiting while riding her horse. “May I come in—without a horse?” Anthony asks his would-be father in law. (Well, it tickled me and that’s all that matters.)
Hula is considered by some Clara Bow fans to be one of her best films—I certainly enjoyed it; it’s uncomplicated and is done in just a skosh over an hour; Grapevine Video released a DVD version of the movie in February of this year and the Hardy family have done a nice job with both a good-looking print and fine score by organist David Knudtson. (I’ve heard a few people say that an earlier disc—released by the sadly defunct Sunrise Silents—was a tad better in quality, but you won’t hear me complaining.) In Hula, Bow demonstrates just why everyone said she had “It”—she was undeniably the living embodiment of effervescence onscreen.