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c. 1920s - 1950s

Hollywood Hula

Waikiki Wedding, Bing Crosby's 1937 romantic comedy, helped sell Hawaii to cinematic audiences everywhere

It wasn’t the first film set in Hawaii. But Waikiki Wedding, Bing Crosby’s 1937 romantic comedy, sold Hawaii to cinematic audiences everywhere. Which, ironically, was the plot of the film.

Waikiki Wedding saw Crosby cast as PR man Tony Marvin tasked with drumming up general enthusiasm for Hawaii, against somewhat farcical odds. (His PR company was called the Imperial Pineapple Company.)

And a great work of cinematic art it was not. But Marvin succeeded in selling Hawaii — and so did the movie. Like lava from a fake volcano, Waikiki Wedding let loose a torrent of red-hot (and sometimes luke-warm) Hawaiian and Polynesian movies on to cinema screens around the world.

Hollywood’s fascination with all-things Hawaiian was part of its wider love affair with the South Pacific, as exemplified by — well, by South Pacific. Here was a location that felt to many Americans exotic, beautiful, and, in some vague sense, dangerous.

What did that mean on the screen? A tick box list including (but not limited to) hula-girls; slide-guitar; thatched roofs; flaming torches; skulls; elaborate cocktails; bright shirts; and war-drums.

Such drums, of course, became real from 1941. After WWII, servicemen returned with their own real experiences to add to the Hollywood mix. The resulting synthetic Tiki mythology/style drew heavily on Hawaii. Elvis himself would make three Hawaiian movies — and said that, after Memphis, Hawaii was his true home. (He retrofitted a “Hawaiian room” into his Graceland mansion).

On August 21, 1959, Hawaii became the 50th state of the U.S., and was written about as “the nation’s newest and most exotic state”. One result: an almost 600% increase in visitors, from 296k in 1960 to 1.7 million in 1970.

And with that popularity, the sense of the exotic evaporated, at least for Hollywood. Hawaii and the South Pacific became somewhere your old man might have seen during the war. 

For the next generation, the exotic had moved on.

1927
Hula
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1937
Waikiki Wedding
LMPC / Getty Images
1938
Hawaii Calls
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1938
Hawaii Calls
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1939
Honolulu
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1940
South of Pago Pago
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1941
Honolulu Lu
LMPC / Getty Images
1942
The Turtles of Tahiti
LMPC / Getty Images
1943
Sarong Girl
LMPC / Getty Images
1952
Hello Aloha
LMPC / Getty Images

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