Monday, February 12, 2018

Kona Coast

In the mid-sixties John D MacDonald was approached by producers at Seven Arts and asked to come up with an idea for a dramatic television series. He had already been solicited by producers Mark Goodson and Bill Todman to sell the rights to the Travis McGee series for a television series, and he had a face-to-face meeting with four members of their production team in New York, where he told them no. Although it was never directly stated, the Seven Arts project may have been a sort of consolation prize for not getting McGee. The Goodson-Todman story, amusingly related by MacDonald to pal Dan Rowan in 1967, refers to the meeting taking place “two years ago,” so the time frame fits.

He responded with something he called Bimini Gal. In JDM Bibliophile 9 (1968) he explained a bit of the background:

The only thing I have ever done which could be classed as a 'screenwork' was to do a so-called styling of a possible television show. About fifty pages, I think, which included six outlines of sequences. I put the locale in the Bahamas, and called it Bimini Gal, and hoped they could get Mitchum to do it. (They being Seven Arts.) Well, that was a couple of years ago, and Seven Arts bought Warner Brothers, and they got Richard Boone to do it, and changed the locale to Hawaii, and changed the title to Kona Coast, and changed it from a series to a movie for first showing on CBS television.

There is no available information on why Mitchum turned the deal down. Perhaps it was only an idea in some producer's head to have him starring in a television series. Perhaps it was MacDonald’s idea. Back then there was a fairly strong demarcation between television and film, and actors and directors who did film rarely sullied themselves in the lower art form unless driven by necessity. The project lay fallow for some period of time before it was picked up by Pioneer Productions, a company founded by actor Richard Boone.

Boone was a journeyman television and film actor, born in 1917, who performed in a wide variety of different roles. He studied at the famed Actors Studio, starred in the 1954 TV series Medic and did scores of one-shots on series like Playhouse 90, General Electric Theater and Suspense. His big success came in 1957 when he began starring in the television western Have Gun -- Will Travel, where he played a character known only as “Paladin,” a gentleman mercenary who used brains more often than gunfire. The show lasted five seasons and was extremely popular, ranking high in the ratings and even spawning a dramatic radio series of the same name.

When Have Gun -- Will Travel ended in 1963 Boone shifted immediately to his dream project, a television anthology series titled The Richard Boone Show which used a repertory company of about 15 actors to perform in the various episodes. Boone hosed and starred in about half of the shows. It was highly regarded (I remember my mother loved it) and it won a Golden Globe award but lasted only one season due to the fact that it was programmed in the same timeslot as Petticoat Junction (!). The series was overseen by none other than Mark Goodson and Bill Todman, and this may very well have been the connection between Boone and the Bimini Gal project.

When The Richard Boone Show ended production in early 1964 the actor moved with his family to Hawaii, a dream destination for him ever since he had been stationed there during the war. He became a great proponent of the local acting scene and reportedly was offered the lead role in the upcoming series Hawaii Five-0, which he turned down. In another JDM connection, that role went to Jack Lord, a friend of the author’s and one of his early choices of actors to play Travis McGee. According to a local newspaper, Boone’s goal was to prove

that a first rate production company can be built and prosper in the Islands; that Hawaii and its people offer all the ingredients for success; that creation and production of films locally can mean exciting employment and a brighter future for many young people.

Toward that end he began searching for a project to prove his point, and somehow -- whether it was through Goodson and Todman or some other means -- he found the Bimini Gal treatment. Of course, the first thing he would have to do was change the locale and, hence, the name. It was originally to be titled Hula Gal (which, I suppose, would have been the name of the boat, as it was in Bimini Gal) but eventually came to be know as Kona Coast. Pioneer Productions received the financial backing of CBS, who agreed to support the project for theatrical release (a fact borne out by the widescreen aspect ratio the film was shot in) as long as they had the rights to air it afterward on television. And, if it was a success, a television series would follow. Pioneer submitted a budget of a mere $900,000 and CBS agreed to fund $750,000 of that amount.

Richard Boone as Sam Moran
Television writer Gil Ralston was hired to write the screenplay, very likely based on one of MacDonald’s “six outlines.” According to the book Unsold Television Pilots: 1955-1989 by Lee Goldberg, science fiction writer Harlan Ellison was originally hired to write the script but clashed with Boone and was replaced early in the writing process. Supposedly the only bit of Ellison’s input that survived was the opening scene. Boone’s longtime pal Lamont Johnson, who he had known since their Actor’s Studio days in New York, was selected as director. Johnson had directed probably hundreds of episodes of various television series by then, including several episodes of both Have Gun -- Will Travel and The Richard Boone Show, but had done only one theatrical film before, the now-forgotten thriller A Covenant With Death (1967).

The premise, plot and characters are pure John D MacDonald. Sam Moran, a gruff, hard-fisted, hard-drinking, womanizing charter boat captain works out of the Kavala Marina in Honolulu, where he operates his own boat. His friend and fellow dockmate, an Australian named H.Charles Lightfoot, operates his own vessel, the Alika. One day, Sam receives a phone call from his estranged, illegitimate daughter Dee, who he hasn’t seen in ages and who he didn’t even know existed until a year ago. Dee calls from the home of a notorious playboy known only as Kryder, where a large group of drugged out hippies are having a wild party. Dee herself is drugged and is caught by Kryder’s men talking to Sam. For this impropriety she is killed by Kryder, taken out to sea in a boat and thrown overboard.

Boone with Chips Rafferty as Lightfoot
Sam begins looking for Dee only moments after the phone call and seemingly knows everyone in the city, so he only has to ask around about where a party might have taken place. From this thin plotting he is directed to Kryder’s, where he bursts in the following morning and finds nothing. Kryder, who loves “playing people through sick party games,” begins a game of pestering and hunting Sam.

Four days later Dee’s body washes up on shore and Sam begins his mission of vengeance, only he has nothing concrete to go on and Kryder is one step ahead of him. He spends the next few days moving around the neighborhoods of Honolulu, from bars to restaurants, to fishing wharfs to rundown residential areas, trying to get something to pin on Kryder. After a while he is beaten by Kryder’s goons in an alley and later warned off by a cop, who has an obvious past with Sam.

A few days later he is called back to the Kavala Marina, where finds his boat on fire and his friend Lightfoot nearly dead due to smoke inhalation while trying to fight the blaze. Lightfoot makes a request of Sam to pilot him home in the Alika where he can die in peace. And where is home? It’s in Kona on the island of Hawaii.

Boone with Joan Blondell as Kittibelle Lightfoot
They are met there by Sam’s sister Kittibelle, a gruff old dame who runs a retreat for recovering alcoholics called The Refuge. They give Lightfoot medical attention but it is obvious he is not going to make it. The Alika is owned jointly by Lightfoot and Kittibelle, and she relies on the revenue it generates to help support The Refuge. Realizing he is not long for this world, Lightfoot gives Sam his half of the Alika, something Sam is definitely not happy about.

Kittibelle tells Sam that the owner of a local bar, Akamai Barnes, would know if Lightfoot has any financial loose ends to clean up, so Sam heads over. Naturally the two of them know each other and have a long mutual past. And of course Akamai is more than just a shop owner: he has a PhD in Anthropology and was a sociology professor before giving it up to run the place he has named after himself. After the talk, in walks another person from Sam’s past: Melissa Hyde, or Dr. Melissa Hyde, a once-noted marine biologist who had a torrid love affair with Sam five years ago. The relationship was marked by heavy drinking on the part of both members and Dr. Hyde succumbed to alcoholism. She is in Kona drying out at Kittibelle’s Refuge. The fact that Sam knows both Akamai and Melissa but doesn’t know the sister of his best friend is never explained. Also a mystery is why Lightfoot speaks with a thick Austrailian accent while his sister speaks like -- well, like Joan Blondell.

Steve Ihnat (center) as Kryder, with his two goons
Meanwhile, Kryder has been keeping close tabs on Sam’s activities and discovers he has gone to Kona. He had his own “summer place” there, naturally, so he picks up and moves his entourage, dreaming up an elaborate plan to trick and kill Sam using a young girl named Mim as bait. But Sam picks up on the plot and begins devising his own method of getting to Kryder.

Production for Kona Coast began in the summer of 1967. Cast in the role of Kittibelle Lightfoot was, of course, screen veteran Joan Blondell, who was 61 at the time of shooting and who seems to have used this part as a training ground for her future part of Lottie Hatfield, the role she would essay in the television series Here Come the Brides the following year. (In fact, had Kona Coast been picked up for television, she never would have had that role.) Dr. Melissa Hyde was played by the luminescent Vera Miles, an actress whose credits included some of the greatest films ever produced in Hollywood (The Searchers, Psycho, The Wrong Man, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance). At 38 she still retained her youthful beauty and figure, and she is a bright spot in an otherwise misbegotten venture. (She is also a member of the John D MacDonald film club -- an actor who has appeared in more than one screen version of a JDM work: she was later cast as Julie Lawless in the feckless 1983 made-for-TV movie adaptation of The Empty Copper Sea, titled simply Travis McGee.) Kent Smith, of The Cat People fame, was cast as Akamai Barnes and Chips Rafferty, the quintessential Aussie character actor of the period, was cast as Lightfoot. Steve Ihnat, an actor just coming off a memorable performance as Barney Benesch in the film Madagan the year before, essayed the role of Kryder, and early rock star (now in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame) Duane Eddy had a minor part as Kittibelle’s nephew Tiger Cat. He speaks no lines of dialogue but does get to play a bit of guitar. His casting was likely due to his association with Boone and Johnson: he had acted in a couple of episodes of Have Gun -- Will Travel.

The balance of the cast was filled out with local talent, including many members of the Kona Coast Players, a nearby amateur company that Boone had encouraged; he had recently directed a production of The Drunkard for the group. The one standout of this group is Gina Villines, a 21-year old making her screen debut. She plays the role of Mim Lowry, the young lady Kryder has sent to lure Sam to his doom. Except for a one-shot part in a subsequent episode of Hawaii Five-0 she doesn’t appear to have ever done anything else.

Due to the fact that there were no local film production facilities in Hawaii -- something Boone hoped to ameliorate with this film -- every scene was shot on location.

Boone had great respect -- and high hopes -- for his local actors:

Vera Miles as Dr. Melissa Hyde
"Give it a thought... maybe some of these kids have a reason for dropping out or withdrawing. A lot of them don't have a helluva lot to look forward to -- not too many places to go. After all, they don't ALL want to become chambermaids, busboys or cab drivers... Now here's a chance to be creative, part of something alive and growing -- not only the acting but the allied jobs. If we can get this industry going locally there'll be some fine opportunities for youngsters. Monty [Lamont Johnson] flipped when he saw some of these kids perform. It's hard to believe they've had no professional training... it's that natural, easy Hawaiian-style, I guess."

He was especially high on Gina Villines:

"The girl is really something. She bursts. She's good. The first time we read script together I watched her. There she sat -- her first big break -- across from two great actresses like Miles and Blondell. Her script was shaking like a leaf but she came on like Gangbusters."

The feeling on the set was upbeat and everyone involved thought they were doing good work. A local reporter overheard a veteran Hollywood crew member talking:

Gina Villines as Mim Lowry
"Two days into a picture I can tell you whether or not it's good. Two days into Hallelujah Trail I told them they had a flop -- a dog. But this one is gonna be good. Right cast, right director, good story... I got a good feeling about this picture."

The production was a boon to the local economy, with tourists arriving hoping to catch a glimpse of some famous Hollywood stars. Boone entertained the crew at nights at his the beach house where he lived, one evening reciting The Gettysburg Address while Duane Eddy played “Battle Hymn of the Republic” in the background. The autograph seekers were patiently accommodated, the local economy expanded and all seemed right in this little world, with a product soon to be submitted that would turn into an ongoing television series, bringing more money into Hawaii and attracting other, more permanent Hollywood productions. The film even came in under budget, at $877,000..

Kona Coast was released in May 1968 and opened in Los Angeles as the first part of a double bill along with Franklin J Schaffner’s The Double Man starring Yul Brynner. Kevin Thomas of the Los Angeles Times gave it a good review, calling it “"fast-paced, action-packed, well-acted entertainment... set against [a] colorful locale." He acknowledged MacDonald’s contribution of a “50-page outline for a proposed television series” and he liked Boone in the title role, calling him “splendid,” but ended the review on a note of reservation:

While Kona Coast is completely ingratiating, with much local color, it lacks the trenchant, thrusting style and pungent observations of MacDonald in print that keeps his strong sentimental streak in check.

An interesting observation from someone who had obviously read his John D MacDonald.

The few other reviews I’ve been able to find weren’t nearly so kind. A reviewer for a local Hawaiian paper didn’t slam it completely, but it’s obvious he wanted to and was just being kind to a local product. Variety called it “run of the mill,” which in and of itself was kind. Kona Coast played briefly throughout the country, in theaters and drive-ins, in places like Kansas City, Detroit, Indianapolis and Tampa, but it didn’t last long. It’s no surprise that CBS decided not to pick up their option to produce a Kona Coast series. And it took them four years to finally get around to airing the movie on television, which they did on the CBS Thursday Night Movie on April 27, 1972 at 8:00 pm. Five months later, on September 17 they ran it as the CBS Late Movie at 11:30, after which they released it into the wild, where it lived on late night television for many years.

That’s where I first saw it, on a late show on a Washington, DC television station sometime in the early 1980’s. My impression at the time was that it was a terrible film and a waste of the talent of everyone involved, with only a wisp of anything recognizably John D MacDonald. I quickly forgot it and passed up on chances to view it again when it was rebroadcast. Then, in 2011 Warner Brothers released the thing on DVD and still, it has taken me that long to bring myself to watch it again. Could it really be as bad as I recall?

Boone with Kent Smith as Akamai Barnes
In a word: yes. But this time I saw a lot more JDM in the finished product.

As I mentioned, the characters are all straight out of the John D MacDonald playbook, from the tough-but-flawed hero who lives on a boat, to the grizzled old dame who runs a retreat for alcoholics (she reminds me a lot of Alice Stebbins in The Beach Girls), the the highly educated slummers like Melissa Hyde and Akamai Barnes who have escaped from the rat race, the sociopathic, evil-for-its-own-sake villain, right down to the young, gamin girl with her head turned around, who seems to have jumped straight from MacDonald’s imagination onto the screen. Anyone who’s ever read even a little MacDonald can begin to fill in their own list of candidates from earlier role models.

And some of the dialogue sounds suspiciously MacDonaldean. I don’t know if any of those six "outlines of sequences" he wrote contained words coming out of characters’ mouths, but if they did I’ll bet Gil Ralston either copied or adapted certain snatches of it. Here’s Akamai Barnes showing his exasperation over Sam’s unwillingness to let the police handle the investigation of Dee’s murder.

“Sam, my PhD in anthropology and eleven years in sociology professorship never truly prepared me for the likes of you. Pathological, primeval, bloody Sam! How in hell you managed to live that rich full life locked up in that jumbled, destruction of body and soul beats me! You’re a fascinating cat, captain, with an infinite gift for collecting enemies. You know, if you just stay out of town our choleric friend [the cop] was convinced he could wrap up the situation, and I’m inclined to agree with him.”

Villines, Miles and Boone. Yes, Boone wears the same outfit for the entire film.
Dee’s drug induced call to Sam in the beginning of the film also sounds to me like JDM writing hippyspeak, and could have come out of the mouths of a character from Dress Her In Indigo:

Dee: I wanna speak to big daddy Sam Moran.
Sam: Sam Moran
Dee: Hello Big Daddy
Sam: Dee?
Dee. It's me, Dee, in the sky. All red and pretty in the sky.
Sam: Dee, now listen to me. If you want me to I’ll come and get you. I’ll come and pick you up.
Dee: It’s late. A little too late to be worried now. Pick me up? I’m up already. I know where you are, too. Right where you’re at. Nowhere. Sam, Sam, Sam the Man…

A later scene in Akamai’s bar has Sam dancing drunkenly with a group of young ladies. Mim arrives and he goes over to her with a drunken greeting, “Welcome, welcome, thrice welcome!” She joins the group of other girls as Akamai and Melissa (who hasn’t seen Sam in five years) look on:

Melissa: Are they all his?
Akamai: Probably. I’ve seen him come in after a week’s fishing, standing on the dock, sleepy as a lizard with that planter’s hat on the back of his head… In two minutes, some gal will pat her boyfriend on the head and come over to Sam and play with the grownups. But you know all that.
Melissa: Ohhh, yes!

That really sounds like MacDonald, and the line about “sleepy as a lizard” seems to have been written specifically with Robert Mitchum in mind.

Finally, there’s a love scene between Sam and Melissa late in the film where Sam begins by speaking Spanish, something that would have worked in a film set in the Caribbean but sounding way out of place in Hawaii. They kiss, then Melissa pushes Sam away.

Melissa: No! It’s beautiful making love… with you something… something goes wrong.

Sam: Words tore it the first time… you want to try for two?

Melissa: Help, Sam… help! You may be the same, I’m not the same. What do you think I’ve been since you? It damn well hasn’t been one big five year marine biological survey! I’ve loved a man since you. I married him. Then one day he killed himself. I’ve been trying unsuccessfully to kill myself ever since then. Oh Sam, I’ve waked up in drunk tanks choking on my own vomit. I tried to dry out… but I wake up in a straight jacket somewhere else. I'm worn out trying to make the world turn out right, the way I think it ought to be. That’s the way it was with us, Sam. It can’t be, it’s got to stop. I destroy everything…

Boone and Villines
On a technical level, the film looks gorgeous, no thanks to Joseph Lashell’s cinematography -- his compositions are sloppy looking and unimaginative -- but owing more to the fact that the movie was filmed in Technicolor, the best film stock ever used in Hollywood. The blues of the sky and sea, the greens of the mountainsides are simply beautiful, especially when seen in its original widescreen format.

OK, so what goes wrong?

Let’s start with the script. What probably began as MacDonald’s hour-long pilot idea establishing Sam Moran’s origin story has bloated into a 93-minute feature film, with very little substance added to justify that length. As a result, we are treated to lengthy sequences that seem endless, from the dreary montage where Sam’s goes around Honolulu asking for information on Kryder, to a deadly dull funeral-at-sea for Lightfoot, to a drawn-out ending sequence that has got to be one of the most unsuspenseful hunter-and-prey bits ever filmed. More time should have been spent writing organic scenes that expanded on the plot.

The dialogue, which I attribute in part to MacDonald himself, doesn’t sound authentic to the ear and is stilted in many places. That love scene conversation between Melissa and Sam reads like MacDonald on the page, but sounds embarrassing when heard coming out of the mouths of a real person. Like James M Cain before him, MacDonald’s dialogue could look magnificent on the page, but unrealistic when actually spoken.

Lamont Johnson’s direction is lackluster and seems phoned-in. There’s no electricity in any of the scenes, they are drably staged and all look like something out of an episode of a sixties television show. The acting, especially by the locals, is -- understandably -- amateurish to the point of embarrassment, and Boone himself is completely one-note in his performance of Sam. The only actors who seem to bring any energy to their roles are Miles, Smith and (especially) Villenes. To top everything off, the music score, by Jack Marshall, is awful and makes the film sound like every bad TV show you ever watched growing up. He even interjects bars from “Waltzing Matilda” during Lightfoot’s funeral scene. The effect is to make an already borderline effort seem cheaper than it already was.

And the film has not aged well. A collection of viewer review titles on the IMDb give an accurate idea as to how the movie has held up: "An Amiable Mess of a Movie," "Hokey," "Dreck," "Relentlessly Bad," and "Perhaps The Worst Film I've Ever Seen."

MacDonald was famously ill-served by Hollywood, although not as badly as he always claimed. Part of the blame, I think, must go to the author himself, who clearly didn’t understand the medium and at times wore that misunderstanding like a badge of honor. In cases where talented film artists were willing to take the time to interject their own sensibilities (J Lee Thompson with Cape Fear, Victor Nunez with A Flash of Green) real works of art were produced. But most of the time, when directors and screenwriters let the material lead the way, the results ranged from the unremarkable (Man Trap, Darker Than Amber) to the really, really bad (Condominium, Travis McGee).

In April 1986, the year MacDonald died, he again recalled the project, this time for TV Guide in an article titled “The Movies of My Books? Dumb, Listless, Inept.”

I began to get more insight into the movie process when, long ago, I was induced to write a "treatment." No matter what they tell you, a treatment is a very short non-book written entirely in the present tense: "He then hits the woman in the face and jumps out the window." Rambo and Rocky feed entirely on treatments.

I called mine Bimini Gal and that was the name of an old rust-bucket freighter operating in the Bahamas and Florida. Robert Mitchum was to be the hired captain, and Joan Blondell the owner. It disappeared from human view and popped up again a couple of years later as Kona Coast, a story about Richard Boone operating an old sailing vessel [sic] in the Hawaiian Islands. I never found out who owned the ship, and I never saw the movie.

But MacDonald was well paid for the effort, despite its failure. For the rest of his career he continued to be asked about the project, and he usually had a witty response ready. The best one was quoted by Hugh Merrill in The Red Hot Typewriter: "The few people who have seen that pilot on the tube -- in random places, usually very late at night -- have thrown up."


  1. Steve, have you ever come across any mention of McGee screenplays drafted by Jim Harrison (Legends of the Fall, Warlock et al;)? Harrison was a big John D. fan and I remember reading an interview with him years ago where he mentioned an unproductive stint in/with Hollywood where he had drafted several screenplays based on the McGee series, all unproduced.

    1. That's new to me, Fred. I knew Harrison was a JDM fan but have never heard of him scripting a possible McGee film.

  2. Found the reference in Harrison's memoir. There's apparently some material in the Harrison archives at Grand Valley State University