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George Burns and Gracie Allen made their last big-screen appearance together in the 1939 MGM musical, Honolulu. Although it was hardly the end of their partnership, which was one of the greatest comic teamings of all time, it certainly pointed to a decline in their screen fortunes; they only did one of their classic routines together in the movie and it was positioned near the film's end.
Yet Burns and Allen were a vital part of the film's success. Like most Eleanor Powell vehicles, Honolulu was designed to showcase its star in a series of elaborate tap numbers, this time adding a blackface routine and a hula tap to her repertoire. But nobody, Powell included, expected her singing or acting abilities to carry the movie, so MGM always surrounded her with top talent who could carry the plot and provide vocals where needed. Along with Burns and Allen, this film included Robert Young as her decidedly non-musical leading man, comic character actors Sig Rumann and Eddie "Rochester" Anderson, young singers Douglas McPhail and Betty Jaynes, who had prominent roles in the studio's Babes in Arms the same year, and three different musical groups: Andy Iona's Islanders, The King's Men and The Pied Pipers.
Honolulu had a stronger plot than most of Powell's vehicles, which usually featured a "let's-put-on-a-show" storyline. In this case, however, Young was the center of a mistaken identity plot as a movie actor who trades places with a look-alike plantation owner from Hawaii. Just as the incognito actor is falling in love with dancing star Powell, the relationship is complicated by the arrival of the plantation owner's fiance (Rita Johnson). The project had originally been planned for Robert Taylor, with Jaynes as his show-biz leading lady, before studio executives decided they needed a vehicle to bring Powell back to the screen after a two-year absence.
One member of the Honolulu cast was destined for better things. Although originally announced for a small supporting role, Ruth Hussey instead found herself cast in a glorified bit as Young's leading lady in a film-within-the-film called Women Who Say No. Unhappy with her status at MGM, she was considering leaving, but instead asked for a new screen test to focus on her sex appeal. She must have done something right, because she moved quickly into a scene-stealing, Oscar®-nominated turn as a newspaper photographer in The Philadelphia Story (1940), which in turn led to starring roles.
Burns's next film would prove to be a career breakthrough -- only he'd had to wait 36 years for it to happen. Immediately after making Honolulu, he retired from the screen, focusing on his and Allen's long-running radio series. Allen continued as a solo star in two mystery comedies, The Gracie Allen Murder Case (1939) and Mr. and Mrs. North (1942), then devoted herself to the radio show and its later television incarnation. Burn's would finally return to the screen in 1975, starring opposite Walter Matthau in an adaptation of the Neil Simon comedy The Sunshine Boys. His performance would win him an Oscar® and set him on a new career course as a character actor.
Producer: Jack Cummings
Director: Edward Buzzell
Screenplay: Herbert Fields, Frank Partos
Cinematography: Ray June
Art Direction: Cedric Gibbons
Music: Franz Waxman
Cast: Eleanor Powell (Dorothy March), Robert Young (Brooks Mason/George Smith), George Burns (Joe Duffy), Gracie Allen (Millie de Grasse), Rita Johnson (Cecelia Grayson), Clarence Kolb (Mr. Horace Grayson), Eddie "Rochester" Anderson (Washington), Sig Rumann (Psychiatrist), Ruth Hussey (Eve), Andy Iona's Islanders, The King's Men, The Pied Pipers.
by Frank Miller