Joan Rice in 'His Majesty O'Keefe'

I was thrilled to receive this exclusive copy of a photograph from Joan Rice's niece recently. It shows her aunt in Fiji during the filming of His Majesty O'Keefe in 1952.

Joan Rice in Fiji

Filming of His Majesty O'Keefe began in Fiji on June 21st 1952 (it was eventually finished six months later). Joan Rice (1930-1997) played the part of Dalabo aki Darbi alongside Burt Lancaster as O'Keefe. She had previously been personally chosen by Walt Disney for the role of Maid Marian in his second live-action movie The Story of Robin Hood and his Merrie Men, so this former Lyons waitress was experiencing a huge amount of popularity. But this would sadly be the pinnacle of her brief film career. Below is some interesting information about the making of His Majesty O'Keefe:

"According to Lancaster biographer Ed Andreychuk, initially Fred Zinnemann was slated to direct the film adaptation of His Majesty O'Keefe, with Frank Nugent and Laurence Stallings assigned to the script. Byron Haskin, the film's eventual director, recalls that the production encountered troubles early on. Warner cancelled the project at the last minute, after the crew had already arrived at the Fiji Islands, but Hecht somehow managed to rescue the situation. 

In order to take advantage of frozen film funds in Britain, Hecht brought in some British crew and cast members. Warner Brothers built a virtually self-contained studio on the main island of Viti Levu, Fiji, complete with a soundstage, sound recording studio (postsynchronization was done onsite), administrative offices, and a Technicolor lab. Since there were limited accommodations on the island, Warner took over the entire Beachcomber Hotel at Deuba and constructed additional rooms to house the cast and crew. They also rented the entire village of Goloa and constructed new buildings, which they turned over to the villagers once shooting was finished. 

Shortly before shooting began, Hecht brought in Borden Chase and James Hill to rewrite it at the last minute. Chase - a talented screenwriter who had worked on the script for Hawks' Red River (1948) - expressed frustration at the lack of organization and constant distractions, including story conferences during which Lancaster would wildly act out the scenes. Eventually Hill and Chase separated themselves from the rest of the crew and sent the finished script pages each day by messenger, after which Hecht would rewrite them. Shooting was interrupted almost daily by rain showers, and the crew encountered all sorts of problems from finding their clothing covered in mildew to fending off dengue fever. According to biographer Kate Burton, Lancaster later remarked: "There were times when the only thing idyllic about it was the Nadi airport where fast and comfortable planes took off constantly in a northeasterly direction for Hollywood." 

Ultimately the film's production costs totaled $1.55 million, well over the $1.1 million per film stipulated by the contract with Warner Brothers. (Similarly, The Crimson Pirate [1952] had cost $1.85 million). As a result Warner offered to renew the contract only for lower budget films, so Hecht and Lancaster decided to sign up with United Artists instead. Still, according to director Haskin, His Majesty O'Keefe turned out to be one of the most profitable films of his career, thanks to TV sales. Hecht-Hill-Lancaster Productions even proposed at one point to spin it off into a television series, together with some of their other properties.

Joan Rice during a break in the filming of His Majesty O'Keefe

And below is Joan Rice's own truly revealing article in Picturegoer Magazine of September 13th 1952 (sent in by Neil). It details her experiences of home-sickness, stage nerves, height problems, swimming, engagement, plans for marriage and the preparations for film production of His Majesty O'Keefe:

Fiji-bound, Joan Rice stopped off at Hollywood..... and found time to write 'Picturegoer' a letter....

“It was 8 a.m. when the big B.O.A.C plane circled over Idlewild Airport. I was awake and well. I am usually very airsick, but I took plenty of ‘anti’ tablets.

It was my first sight of New York. I had no idea there was so much water round it. One doesn’t think of New York that way.

The Press photographer who came to meet the plane was a very tall man. In the corner of his mouth he had the longest cigar I had ever seen. He kept smoking it, even while taking pictures.

But he didn’t ask me to “hoist the hemline a few inches, kid.” As I am told they usually do. I don’t consider myself the pin-up type-even though I have to wear sarongs for my half-caste role with Burt Lancaster in ‘His Majesty O’Keefe,’ the film for which I am making this trip.

America amazes me. On the drive to Manhattan from the airport I was impressed by all the labour saving devices in this country-even to the machines that wash your car in sixty seconds. And the roads! The city is so well planned that I found my way around quite easily.

Armchair Travel

But I wouldn’t swap an English car for an American. The U.S. jobs are too big and over sprung. You have no sensation of travelling, and might as well stay in your armchair and have removal people move you.

I had nothing but £. s. d. In my bag, because this is a Fiji and Elstree film and I am being paid in pounds. But Warners gave me fifty pounds and I made straight for a drugstore. Haven’t you always wanted to go into a drugstore? They’re just as we see them in American films

asked for a cup of white coffee. Without uttering a word the man gave me a cup of black coffee. I said: “No, I want white coffee.” He went away and put it in a waxed container so I could carry it away. I said : “No, white coffee. I want to drink it here.” He just looked at me. We just couldn’t seem to understand each other.

I said: “This is the first time I have done this. In England we ask for black or white.”

He put some cream in my coffee and when I paid, the man at the cash desk sold me nearly everything in the store. I bought colour films and a travelling iron and asked for a British brand of milk chocolate. But they had only American chocs., and I bought a pound; but they were not so good as ours. They just didn’t taste the same. At home I eat my month’s ration the first week, but here I had some of that pound left a week later.

I hadn’t anything to do that evening in New York, so I went to bed and watched television. The hotel people apologized for my room as “only temporary, Miss Rice,” But really it was palatial – lamps and television and everything. More like a big living – room.

There was wrestling on television and it kept me awake. Finally I had to turn off the set, or I’d never got off to sleep.

Landing at Los Angeles at eight o’clock the next night was unforgettable. There was still daylight, but the lights were coming on all over the city. With its coloured houses and the miles of neon lighting in such delicate shades, the town looked like a gleaming model.

There was some difficulty at the Roosevelt as they had no room ready for me; so the photographer who met the plane took me dancing in the hotel’s Hawaiian night club.

At first they wouldn’t let me in. They said I was under age. I’m only five feet four in my stockinged feet- I know because Carl Schafer, head of Warner’s international office in Hollywood, measured me against a studio door. I initialled the mark.

Next day I spent by the hotel swimming pool. I had only six days’ notice to leave London, but my bathing suit was one thing I wouldn’t forget!

I can’t swim, so I didn’t go in the water until the evening, when I could be alone. Then I dunked myself in the shallow end and tried floating. For a few seconds I actually stayed up.

I reported to the studio on Monday, and the week became a whirl, with fittings, hairdressing, still pictures, make-up, interviews and more fittings.

Model Of My Figure

Fabulous is the word for the way Hollywood production is organized. They had a model of my figure already made, and much of the clothes-making was already done. (Their sending to London for my measurements was the first tip I had that they might take me.)

‘His Majesty O’Keefe’ is a period picture, and as well as sarongs I am going to wear two lovely gowns. One is lavender lace and velvet wedding dress with a bustle.

I hadn’t seen the script then, but I knew there’s an amusing scene where I try on the dress and then refuse to wear it, because I have got it on the wrong way round and I don’t like that “hump” (that is the bustle) in front.

The studio hairdressing department is like a Bond Street salon. Even in the waiting rooms the appointments are magnificent. Hollywood really tries to make its stars feel good.

And the clips they used for waving hair are better than ours. They give a softer wave without risk of breaking or making a “line” in the hair.

I Sat On Stars

They had to build me up on the chair because I am rather short in the body. I didn’t quite reach the dryer. They piled cinema magazines under me, so I really sat on the stars. I noticed the picture on top was of Ava Gardner.

Some of the Warners stars very kindly came to say “hallo” to me as I spent those long hours in the make-up and hairdressing chairs. I couldn’t talk to them (ever tried to talk with your head in a dryer, or while a man’s painting your lips?), but it was all very friendly. Steve Cochran was particularly charming.

Kathryn Grayson and Joan Rice in Hollywood in 1952

Friendliness is one of the things about Hollywood. Leroy Prinz, the director, said I was to come back to Hollywood and he’d put me in musicals. I don’t know about that. I only know I’m booked for four months on this film, in Fijii with Burt Lancaster, whom I’ve met only once – at a Royal Film Performance. (I was very nervous-it was my first stage appearance. Afterwards he grinned and said: “Well, it wasn’t so bad, was it?”) I think the really surprising thing about Hollywood is that it’s just what you would expect. If you’ve seen it in the pictures-you’ve seen it. People do just the same things, in the same way, as on the screen. Of course, the sunshine is indescribable-there just aren’t the words. It’s sun, sun, sun. You almost expect it to blaze all night.

And remember I was there for only eight crowded, busy days. I went to a few night clubs-they’re rather like ours, but with more stars about. I tried Mexican food, made especially not-to-hot for me. Those beans of theirs-grand! Little brown beans in brown gravy. I couldn’t eat enough of them.

I tried driving a left-hand drive car- an English model, I’m glad to report!-and nearly rammed a big American thing on a turn. But in a couple of hours I got used to it, even on their eight-lane speed- highways.

I think it takes time to understand Hollywood. I want to go back-even though one can be hopelessly homesick there.

I was like that one evening that first week. It was so bad I just had to talk to somebody at home. I phoned Joan Rees, my friend and first agent who got me into films. It took until 3 am. to get through. The transatlantic circuits were always “out” or something. I told the hotel operator it didn’t matter how late it was, she was to connect me.

Just talking to somebody in England was a relief. I asked about my cat (A tabby) and things like that.

When I hung up, the operator rang back. She said: “Are you feeling better now, dear?” I know how it feels. I came out alone twenty-three years ago, I’m from Guildford.”

She sent me up a pot of tea. The waiter wouldn’t take my money. He said: “It’s on the house.”

Yes, I’d like to see Hollywood again-maybe on my honeymoon. Martin Boyce-he proposed to me over the phone just before I left Britain-and I plan to marry as soon as I get back, perhaps in the little old church at Denham.”

Joan Rice as Dalabo aki Dali in His Majesty O'Keefe

Joan Rice sadly passed away on January 1st 1997. This blog is dedicated to her memory. To read more about her life, please click here.

The image of Joan Rice at the top of the page is private property. 


Clement Glen said...

Joan Rice (1930-1997)

"His Majesty O'Keefe" (1954)

Special thanks to Joan's niece for the use of the photo.

Neil said...

She didn't marry Martin Boyce in the little church at Denham. In fact I never heard him referred to again but after she got back she VERY quickly met her future husband and very quickly married him. Everything about Joan Rice's story happens in a very short time space - her discovery, her starring roles, her worldwide travelling - probably around the world at that time - her marriage, birth of her child and her fall from grace in the film world. Astonishing, incredible, sad, fascinating - all these words could apply.

Neil said...

That is NOT Ava Gardner in the caption with Joan Rice. It is in fact the lovely Kathryn Grayson beautiful operatic singer from Kiss Me Kate and one of my own favourite musicals Showboat the 1950 colour production. She sang After The Ball in that emotional scene where she is reunited with her father who had spent years searching for her - he was played by Joe E.Brown. Just of interest Ava Gardner also starred in Showboat but the picture definitely shows Kathryn Grayson with Joan Rice.

Clement Glen said...

Yes, the error has been rectified. Thanks Neil. That will teach me to check through before posting!