Angela Lansbury as the Ultimate Frivolous Woman in Blue Hawaii

As far as movies that are hard to watch for their overt misogyny go, Blue Hawaii is one of the ones that increasingly takes the (pineapple) cake. Starring that cad of a dreamboat (though his gut in a swimsuit doesn’t really make him seem that way), Elvis Presley as Chadwick Gates, Hal Kanter’s script is rife with many offenses, but mostly it’s Angela Lansbury’s portrayal as Sarah Lee that is especially egregious. Then again, the character of Sarah Lee was tailored for Lansbury, a woman who of late hasn’t exactly been gung-ho about the #MeToo movement, recently stating that women “must sometimes take the blame” for sexual assault as a result of making themselves too attractive to resist.

With this in mind, is it any wonder she wants her only son to avoid any further folly with the half-breed Hawaiian he’s been seeing, Maile Duval (Joan Blackman)? A girl who, by the way, Chad freely and in song form admits he was only “almost always” true to her while away in the army. And after she gives him a ride from the airport, to boot. But a girl like her isn’t good enough for Sarah Lee, Southern woman and therefore prone to believe in “pure” breeding. What’s more, with her expectations for her son to run the Great Southern Hawaiian Fruit Company when his father, Fred (Roland Winters), finally steps down (or dies, whichever comes first), Maile simply wouldn’t make an adequate co-heir as his would-be wife. Chad, naturally, has other ideas about his future in mind–and not just ones about girls in bikinis and surfing until the sun goes down. No, Chad wants to be a self-starter, to prove his worth on his own–by becoming a tour guide at the company where Maile works.

Rather than being proud or encouraging of his go-getting attitude, Sarah Lee balks at his willingness to consort with commoners, remarking, “Nonsense. Tourists aren’t people. They’re… they’re tourists.” Her desire to keep her son close only further propels Chad to abandon the house as often as he can; in fact, he doesn’t even inform his parents right away that he’s returned. And as Chad delves deeper and deeper into what Sarah Lee deems to be a crass, low-brow world, her hen-like qualities come out all the more. Being that Blue Hawaii has one of the most chauvinistic icons (and not just because he raped his own wife) ever to endure as its star, it should come as no surprise that all the worst qualities in women are played up and overly stylized. It isn’t even just Sarah Lee. Maile and one of the tween students Chad must show around the island, Ellie Corbett (Jenny Maxwell), a spoiled, oversexed rich girl, both reveal overly jealous possessiveness over Chad. Though Maile has more right to considering all the years of devotion she’s put in.

Again, Maile’s treatment of Chad as nothing short of a god means bupkis to Sarah Lee, who cautions, “Chadwick think of who you are. Remember you come from a fine family,” before one of the many times he storms out of the house in irritation. When she demands of her husband, who she disturbingly refers to as “Daddy,” “Oh Daddy, what did we do wrong?” the contempt not just for her brand of woman, but women in general reaches a fever pitch as he retorts, “Offhand, I’d say we got married.”

This notion of the female as the ensnarer to be avoided for as long as humanly possible until enough oats have been sewn is a consistent theme throughout Blue Hawaii. Sarah Lee, with her whimpering, sniveling and inexplicable sense of anxiety is the pinnacle of false perception when it comes to women. Tragically, just because it’s no longer “acceptable” to portray the female gender in this manner in cinema does not mean that many a man doesn’t still regard the archetype of “her” as such. And since it would be too grotesque to lay all the stereotypes of the feminine lack of mystique on Sarah Lee, we have Ellie to play the sordid underage minx who says things like, “Ever seen anything like this in a cradle?” after sticking her tits out when Chad calls her a baby. The uncomfortable gender dynamic doesn’t stop there though. Like Ricky Ricardo before him, Chad sees fit to eventually take Ellie over his knee and give her the “spanking she’s been needing.”

In spite of this subplot, Sarah Lee manages to triumph in her role as the ultimate frivolous woman, peppering the dialogue with non sequiturs and daft statements like, “I woke up when I heard our dog barking, and I thought Chadwick was coming in then. But then I realized that it couldn’t be, ’cause we don’t have a dog” and “Oh, it’s such a shame Captain Polk was a damn yankee.” Perhaps what’s most foul of all about this portrayal is the cliche of a mother who over pampers and over exalts her son–particularly if he’s the only son. It can make things get very Oedipal very quickly, hence Sarah Lee lamenting, “And he didn’t even give his momma any goodnight sugar.”

So all in all, if aliens landed on Earth and only had Sarah Lee Gates in Blue Hawaii to go on as a barometer for what women sound like and how they act, well, everyone with a vagina would most certainly be killed and/or used solely for their skin (body snatching, you know).

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