The Wet Kiss revisited: An Oahu experience

Lancaster and Kerr, risque by 1953 standards

It was late afternoon and we were wheeling along on 72 east of Honolulu, bound for Sandy Beach.  We had just passed Koko Head when a long-repressed thought sprung to mind.  I had Nebra turn off into the parking lot at the Halona Blowhole.   There was something I had to see 58 years after the fact.

I wanted to see Halona Cove Beach, the beach where a famous kiss had taken place in the 1953 film From Here to Eternity.  The scene depicted the stars, Deborah Kerr and Burt Lancaster, lying in the sand in swimsuits, embracing and kissing as the surf rushed over them.   The kiss itself lasted only a few seconds, but was so wonderfully set up by the script that it became super-charged with eroticism and ultimately an iconic moment in film history.  Even if you’ve never seen Eternity, chances are you’ve seen a still photo of the kiss or one of the many cheap imitations, like in the Brando Mutiny on the Bounty.

Without the brilliant script from screenwriter Daniel Taradash, there would have been no kiss, probably no  beach scene and perhaps no movie. 

Harry Cohn, president of Columbia Pictures, acquired film rights to James Jones’s best-selling novel of 1952 by the same title for $82,000.  The movie industry scoffed.  The book was too long, 850 pages, and couldn’t be boiled down into a 2-hour movie, as Cohn demanded, not to mention being loaded with such risqué subjects as adultery, prostitution, sadism and, say some, homosexuality.  Also, set as it was in the days leading up to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Jones took dead-aim at a U.S. military flush with corruption and inhumane treatment of its soldiers.  Not good karma for a director, Fred Zinnemann, who wanted to shoot on location at Schofield Barracks and needed the Army’s permission.  For those controversial reasons,  the project was known around Hollywood as “Cohn’s folly.”

But Taradash, a 40-year-old with only one screen credit to his resume, came to the rescue.  He toned down the controversy, covered up the nudity and compacted the novel into a script of 1 hour, 58 minutes, all without compromising the author’s message.

The beach scene's setting at Halona Cove beach. The kiss took place on the sand just above large black outcropping of rock (center).

The kiss is only a small but integral part of the important and electric beach scene, as created by Taradash.  The scene begins 33 minutes and 45 seconds into the film, by the DVD version I saw, and continues for 5 minutes and 47 seconds.  It starts with the two illicit lovers, Karen Holmes (Kerr) and Sgt. Milt Warden (Lancaster),  easing down to the beach over black lava rock.  Karen is unhappily married to Capt. Dana Holmes (Philip Ober), who is Warden’s commanding officer at Schofield.  The captain is an irresponsible philanderer who has more interest in building up his unit’s boxing team than he has in his wife.  Karen has a reputation as being as sexually loose as her husband. 

What makes the beach scene so captivating is the viewers’ sudden realization that this is no tawdry romance after all, that the hard-bitten Milt and the cynical Karen are beginning to fall in love.  There first liaison, at Holmes’s house, is all lust and hurry-up.  On the beach we begin to see tenderness, understanding and deep affection taking over.  Milt lifts Karen carefully down onto the little “secret” beach and for a moment, as Milt strips down to his swim suit, Karen looks at him almost in awe.  I had to shake myself back to reality, thinking for that flicker of time I was looking at a near-perfect likeness of the vulnerable Marilyn Monroe.   It was uncanny.

It was the casting of Kerr (pronounced Car) that made the beach scene such a success. Kerr, a reserved Scottish actress, had played nothing but admirable and, as she put it, “lady-like roles”  up until then.   Cohn at first railed at the idea of Kerr as Karen Holmes, calling her “that virgin from Metro (MGM).”   Cohn wanted to type-cast the sultry and brash Joan Crawford.  Reluctantly he gave in to the wishes of Zinnemann and producer Buddy Adler.  It was Kerr’s aura of respectability that heightened the moment on the beach for viewers with the touch of naughtiness.  

It is Karen who first dashes playfully into the ocean with the athletic Milt following her.  A quick dip and then the kiss.  According to Zinnemann’s son, Tim, it was not the kiss itself that upset the censors at the so-called Breen Office.  It was “the surging water” as the kiss continued, a symbol, I assume, of sexual intercourse and climax.  The censors insisted the kiss on the surf could not be used in advertising.

The rest of the beach scene is much more important.  “I never knew it could be like this,” Karen says to Milt.  “Nobody ever kissed me the way you do.”  That leads to the rising jealousy in Milt.  He asks how many lovers she has had before him.  A spat develops in which Karen tells the story of her marriage:  A drunken husband who passed out and left her to miscarry their son and ruin her chances at motherhood.   The “confession” leads to an even stronger bond between the two. 

All of the beach scene was Taradash, not the novelist Jones.  In the book, the beach scene, or “moonlight swim”  is a farce.  The two lovers are nude, not in swimsuits, and a chilled Karen rushes out of the sea to wrap up in the blanket.  She is miserable and blames herself.  Milt thinks coming to the beach was a mistake. Nothing happens.  No kiss, no love-making.  And they leave the beach separately as they had come.

In fact, the novel’s beach scene does not actually take place but appears as a memory Milt has one day at the Barracks while he looks at a photo of Karen on the captain’s desk.  And there was no miscarriage for Karen. At the time of her affair with Milt Warden, she had a 9-year-old son.  Her husband had given her a venereal disease which ultimately put a bitter end to her child-bearing life.

You may forget a lot about this film classic but you never forget the beach scene.  It is one of those infrequent times when the movie version is better than the book’s.  And that scene had stayed with me all these years, and now I was going to see for the first time the actual beach where the scene was filmed.  

A group had gathered around the railing near the Blowhole.  It was a bad day for watching the plume of water come up through the lava tubes and rise high in the air.  Low tide, perhaps.  And if nothing else near perfect imagery for the mounting impotence of a great film’s hold on the public.

I walked alone by the railing over to the right side of the Blowhole parking lot and peered down onto a very small beach between two outcroppings of black rock.  A make-shift path came down from the highway to the white sand where a handful of sunbathers were stretched out on blankets.  I wondered if I would see a couple stretched out there in the small spit of sand that touches the sea, mimicking the Eternity kiss, someone with a camera catching the moment as the surf surges in.  But I was disappointed.  A young man stood by himself at almost the exact spot of the kiss, staring out at the vast Pacific. 

There was a time, Zinnemann wrote in his autobiography, “A Life in the Movies,” when tour buses stopped at the beach “to let people admire the spot where Burt and Deborah made love in the waves.”  But I saw no bus, no indication the little beach was anything more than that, a little hidden beach by the Blowhole. 

`What was sensational and extremely provocative a mere 25 years ago,” Zinnemann wrote, “seems harmless and friendly by today’s standards.”  The beach scene out-lived its stars.  Kerr passed awayin 2007 and Lancaster in 1994. 

Eternity was filmed in an amazing 41 days, half of it on Oahu.  It was a cast with many stars.  Frank Sinatra, Montgomery Clift and Donna Reed to name a few.  It garnered 13 Oscar nomination and won eight of them.  My guess is that few under the age of 30 know anything about the film or the most famous wet kiss in history. 

As I turned away I thought of the little beach as a ghost of a place.  And soon, I suspect, as the older generations die off, it will not even be that for there can be no ghost for something that never existed in the minds of the living. 

 The beach scene was a memorable moment only to those who grew up in a time of prudery, repression and hypocrisy in 1950s America.  If Eternity helped in any way to end those dreary gray days, I’m satisfied to let it go at that.   I had seen enough.  Sandy Beach beckoned.

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Unions and `Flower Funds’

Many Americans, like the misguided Wisconsin governor Scott Walker, seem to think there is no place in government for an unionized work force.  Maybe they would have a point in a perfect world, a world where commissioners and other government managers were not susceptible to corruption.   A world where fair wages are paid to all. 

But all too often the lack of checks and balances that a strong union would offer  lead to smarmy government practices.  Like the “flower funds” run by the Arizona Corporation Commission (ACC) and other state agencies in the mid-1960s.  

The 95 ACC employees, all without protection of a union, “voluntarily” coughed-up 2% of their gross income to a flower fund.   With no job security, the employees were too scared to complain.  Few if any said, no.  They could lose their jobs at the snap of the fingers of one of the three elected commissioners.  If you didn’t pay up, one secretary was quoted as saying, “They hounded you to death.”

Each department within the ACC had someone in charge of collections, usually a secretary.  The money from the flower fund ostensibly went to sick employees or to “poor families.”   But this was not the case in practice, as the great investigative reporter for The Arizona Republic, Don Bolles, wrote in November of 1963, just over a year after he arrived in town. 

Bolles found that the flower fund was used by the three commissioners for their own personal re-election campaigns and other illegal purposes.  In short, taxpayers were unwittingly funding  the seamy practice through the state-paid salaries of employees. And, Bolles wrote, the flower funds were fairly common in Arizona’s state government.  The Tax Commission, the State Auditor and Superintendent of Public Instruction also maintained similar scams. 

The Tax Commission at the time had an annual payroll of about $1.09 million, Bolles wrote.  Taking 2% of that gross payroll would bring in nearly $22,000 a year for fraudulent uses.   Apparently the flower funds had beenn operating for a long time.

The point is this.  If the employees had been union members, this form of criminality would never have taken place.  No one would have faced the loss of a job for failing to volunteer to the flower fund.  And indeed the flower funds would never have existed.   Unions can be a check on the excesses of government.   That’s not a bad thing.