Posted by Kimberly Lindbergs on August 18, 2011
During the month of August TCM highlights the work of a select group of talented performers as part of their annual Summer Under the Stars festival. The Movie Morlocks were asked to select one overlooked star from the Summer Under the Stars line-up to spotlight during a weeklong celebration of their work. Last year the Morlocks highlighted the accomplishments of Woody Strode and before that, Gloria Grahame and Fred MacMurray. This year the Morlocks are setting their sights on Joan Blondell with a blogathon that takes place August 18th – 24th.
I’ve never really considered the Oscar nominated Blondell to be an overlooked star. With her bright blond hair, big blue eyes and winning smile she seemed larger than life and many of her signature roles have a timeless quality that’s extremely enduring. She was sexy, sassy, smart and incredibly funny but she never achieved the same kind of success that many of her contemporaries did. Hopefully Joan Blondell will gain a few more fans and admirers during the coming week as the Morlocks take a look at her lengthy career in front of the camera.
Joan Blondell won a lot of critical acclaim while appearing on television shows late in life. She was nominated for two Emmys thanks to her recurring role on HERE COME THE BRIDES (1968-1970) and before that she guest starred on many popular television series including THE TWILIGHT ZONE and BONANZA. Prior to working on HERE COME THE BRIDES, Blondell shot a TV pilot on the Hawaiian coast that seemed destined to be a hit. KONA COAST was the brainchild of actor Richard Boone who is probably best known as the star of the successful series HAVE GUN – WILL TRAVEL (1957-1963) and he appeared in many westerns including THE TALL T (1957), THE ALAMO (1960), HOMBRE (1967), BIG JAKE (1971) and THE SHOOTIST (1976). After HAVE GUN – WILL TRAVEL was cancelled, Richard Boone moved to Hawaii and fell in love with the tropical islands. While he was living there he came up with the idea of producing and starring in another action-packed drama series for television called KONA COAST, which would feature many local sites and a cast of island natives. Veteran television actors such as Steve Ihnat, Chips Rafferty and Kent Smith were offered roles in the pilot. And Joan Blondell received top-billing alongside, Richard Boone and actress Vera Miles who was cast as Boone’s love interest. The show also gave celebrated guitarist Duane Eddy one of his few acting roles.
When Richard Boone showed executives the pilot they were mildly impressed but not enough to green-light further episodes. Instead they offered Boone the starring role in another TV show that was in development called HAWAII FIVE-0. Boone declined because he was angry about their rejection of KONA COAST and turned his attention towards scraping together some extra footage so he could turn his TV pilot into a full-length motion picture. But when KONA COAST was finally released with the tagline, “IT’S WHERE IT’S AT… The action, the adventure, the excitement of a turned-on world that can’t turn itself off!” it failed to capture moviegoer’s attention. KONA COAST didn’t have the production values of a feature length film and the choppy editing and thin script didn’t do the film any favors. Although the beautiful location was undoubtedly appealing, audiences in 1968 weren’t particularly interested in seeing a bunch of middle-aged actors solving crimes and hosting luaus while sorting out their romantic entanglements. But I think the film holds some appeal for potential viewers, including an incredibly groovy 7-minute opening that features the beautiful Gloria Nakea suffering a drug induced hallucination as well as a genuinely terrific score by composer Jack Marshall. Steve Ihnat (THE OUTER LIMITS, STAR TREK, etc.) is also memorable as a drug kingpin. KONA COAST plays like a vintage ‘60s travelogue that will make you want to hop on a plane and head to the Hawaiian Islands immediately.
Joan Blondell has very little screen time in KONA COAST but she’s extremely appealing as the aging Kittibelle Lightfoot, a tough talking Aussie dame (sans accent) who runs a recovery home for alcoholics and hosts luaus for visiting tourists. Kittibelle was once a heavy drinker herself but she managed to “crawl out of the bottle.” Now she struggles to stay sober while making enough money to keep her home open and available to others who are hurting with help from her nephew, Tiger Cat (Duane Eddy). She meets up with Richard Boone’s character named Sam ‘The Man’ Moran after her brother dies trying to stop some thugs from setting fire to Moran’s boat. You see, Moran blames local drug pushers for the death of his daughter (Gloria Nakea) and he’s trying to track them down and bring them to justice. The film follows Moran on his vigilante mission while he occasionally breaks to fondle hula girls and befriend surfer boys. During filming Blondell told her daughter, Ellen Powell (from her marriage to actor Dick Powell) that she thought Richard Boone was, “Crude, impolite and cruel.” Apparently there was no love lost between them but the animosity she felt towards Boone may have worked in her favor. The two actors play characters that are continually butting heads so Blondell’s genuine anger towards her costar and producer was put to good use.
It’s worth pointing out that Joan Blondell had a rough life and suffered some incredible hardships, including a brutal rape at the hands of a uniformed police officer in 1927. While watching KONA COAST I spotted a strange sign hanging in one of the tropical bars that caught my eye, which listed “fines” for particular crimes including rape. On the sign it lists the rape of a local as being worthy of a $2.50 fine but the rape of a tourist will only cost you 25 cents. I realize that this was considered crude humor back in 1968 but KONA COAST isn’t a comedy and one has to wonder what Blondell thought of the sign? It might explain why she thought Richard Boone was, “Mean and degrading.”
Although Joan Blondell went on to play Lottie Hattfield in the award nominated HERE COME THE BRIDES, I can’t help but wonder how she would have developed her character in KONA COAST if the original pilot had been turned into a weekly series. I tend to prefer Blondell in more modern roles where she’s playing a woman of her day. I think her bold personality and sassy attitude occasionally seemed out of place in costume dramas but she’s perfect for the role of Kittibelle Lightfoot and KONA COAST would have been an interesting predecessor to HAWAII FIVE-O if it had been given half a chance. The role of Kittibelle was a bold role for a woman of Blondell’s age to tackle. Playing a recovering alcoholic isn’t glamorous or particularly charming but the part could have provided the 62-year-old actress with the opportunity to really show of her acting chops. KONA COAST offers Blondell fans the chance to see the actress in a postcard perfect setting but she’s not given enough to do in the movie’s 93-minute running time. The Warner Archives recently made KONA COAST available on DVD and it makes for some entertaining late night summer viewing, especially if you have a few Mai Tai’s on hand. You can also catch it playing during TCM’s Summer Under the Stars festival celebrating Joan Blondell on August 24th.
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