One hundred years ago this week, Grace Kingsley interviewed George Melford, who had just returned from directing the first feature film shot in Hawaii, Hidden Pearls.* Some of the stories he told her wouldn’t encourage others to try it:
On the island of Maui, where we took many scenes, we lived in native huts, which have only the ground for a floor. Here naturally we were pestered with the uncannily big centipedes and spiders, whose bite is not dangerous, and by swarms and swarms of mosquitos which nearly ate us up.
Film people were a hardy bunch. For one “sensational” scene, actress Margaret Loomis was set adrift in a canoe among a swarm of sharks, which she did “without a tremor.” Nevertheless, one of his stories strained credibility:
Members of the company took big chances when they descended with their native guides a goodly distance into the crater of the volcano of Mauna Loa, where on a ledge only twelve feet above the boiling lava a number of scenes were taken. “And hardly had we left the place,” said Melford, “when that ledge tumbled into the boiling mass below.”
Lava’s temperature is between 1,292 to 2,192 degrees Fahrenheit. While film crews often have little regard for their own safety, they and their equipment couldn’t have survived being that close. Furthermore, Mauna Loa is one of the world’s largest volcanoes and it was difficult to get there. People have very odd ideas about volcanoes, but Kingsley might have known better: her widowed sister with whom she was living had been married to a Hawaiian, and had lived there for several years.
Of course, there were compensations. They were able to shoot beautiful scenes that weren’t “beaten by anything ever shown on the screen.” Local people were hired as extras, and Melford said “never have I found such marvelous natural actors.” The company was royally entertained at several festivals, and they found the feasts and hula “lively.” It was an adventure.
The Hidden Pearls survives at the CNC French Film Archives. Now it’s mostly interesting as a document of what Hawaii looked like then.
Melford went on to have a solid career. He directed many films over the next twenty years, including The Sheik (1921) and the Spanish-language version of Dracula (1931). When he retired from directing, he became a character actor, and was part of Preston Sturges’ stock company.
Kingsley’s favorite film this week also featured a red-hot spectacle
A film story of unusual power and depth (despite its dime-novel title) is The Lure of Wanton Eyes…The plot has a number of threads, but all deftly woven into a most clear, colorful and entertaining plot pattern…A fanatical anarchist is a big figure of the story, and furnishes a highly dramatic moment when in a frenzy of one of his speeches to the millworkers, hurls himself to a spectacular death in the red-molten iron.
The studio changed this lost film’s name to Fanatics (somebody at Triangle must have agreed with her about the title). The story involved an unfaithful husband, murder and revenge.
It seems like December was a time when weaker films were released. Kingsley’s best line this week summed up one of them: “All the five reels of trouble between husband and wife in Alimony at Tally’s Broadway could have been explained away in about three words.” Unfortunately, the big misunderstanding trope is still alive and well. Second place for best line went to her description of Her Hour: “a story characterized by many sorrows and much wardrobe.” Back in the good old days, people knew the difference between a count noun and a mass noun!
She also reported on a new hit song:
Twenty thousand dollars seems a lot of money for one song, but it was the amount received by George M. Cohan for “Over There.” This lively composition is played as an accompaniment to the picture Over There at Tally’s this week.
This was just the beginning of earnings from that song for Mr. Cohan, which has stayed popular for much longer than the film (another recruitment tool about a young man learning the error of his pacifist ways). “Over There” was so significant that when it turned 100 years old, NPR did a story.
*Hawaii’s Film Office mentions some shorts that were filmed there earlier. You can find their list here.
Here’s another photo of Mauna Loa (see the comments):
The United States Geological Service has a FAQ page, if you’d like more fun facts.