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:
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.
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.
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.
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…”).
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.)
(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.