Believe it or not, ukuleles and the musicians who play them have appeared on screens big and small for around 100 years now. While lots of popular contemporary movies deal in super-heroes, car chases, and fiery explosions instead of musical performances, a great many films made in the past century feature the music of the friendly little four-string from Hawaii.
The ukulele’s earliest screen appearances came during the silent film era, which began in the 1890s, not too many years after the very first ukuleles were created. “Appearance” is the key word here, as the audience saw, but didn’t actually hear, the instrument play because no sound was recorded with the picture. Typically, incidental music was provided by a piano or organ accompanist who played live in the theater during the movie. The accompanist varied the tempo and musical content to suit the action on screen. Ukes appear in a number of early silent films, typically in the hands of one of the film’s main characters. Screen legend Gloria Swanson strums a soprano uke while sizing up her romantic costar in the 1919 melodrama Don’t Change Your Husband. Likewise, silent cinema heroine Clara Bow noodles on a banjo uke aboard a yacht in 1927’s It, a film that coined the phrase “she’s an ‘it’ girl.” Noted physical comedian Buster Keaton—a very talented uke player in real life—woos his romantic interest with a uke in 1923’s The Balloonatic. In an odd scene late in the film, Keaton’s canoe appears to glide off the edge of a waterfall but is held aloft by a Zeppelin-like helium balloon affixed to the canoe. He also briefly serenades with a uke in the 1928 silent comedy Steamboat Bill Jr., in a failed attempt to soothe a crying baby.
The first sound pictures released during the height of America’s first ukulele craze in the 1920s often included prominent uke-playing vaudevillians such as Johnny Marvin, Jack Pepper, and Wendell Hall. Most early sound films featuring these performers were known as “shorts,” movies only ten minutes or so in length screened just ahead of full-length feature films. Some musical shorts, such as the 1929 Metro Movietone Revue series, were filmed just like live stage shows, with a celebrity emcee who told a few corny jokes, then introduced a series of different musical acts. One of the most impressive short films of this era, His Pastimes, features “Wizard of the Strings” Roy Smeck, who delivers a flamboyant ukulele performance. Released in 1926, this movie was one of the first shorts ever seen and heard by a movie-going audience. It was paired with Warner Bros.’ first feature-length talking picture, Don Juan, and released nearly a year before Al Jolson’s well-known landmark film The Jazz Singer.
Smeck may have given the greatest ukulele performances in early cinema, but no uke player had the style and on-screen charm of Cliff “Ukulele Ike” Edwards. Another vaudevillian who made it to the silver screen, Edwards’ first appearance was in the 1929 talkie The Broadway Melody, where he performs “Singing in the Rain,” which was staged like a Broadway musical, complete with a team of dancers prancing around on a rain-soaked stage. It was the first time this popular tune was featured in film.
Also a talented character actor, Edwards went on to appear in dozens of shorts and full-length features all the way into the 1950s, occasionally belting out a tune in his unique tenor voice accompanied by his signature Martin uke. My favorite of his performances is in the 1930 World War I film Dough Boys, a movie set mostly in war-torn Europe. In a scene that takes place in an army barracks, Edwards uses a pair of wooden drumsticks to tap out a tune on the strings of a taro patch (8-string) ukulele that’s held and fretted by co-star Buster Keaton. Another noteworthy Edwards musical performance is in 1933’s Take a Chance, where he plays and sings “I Did It with My Little Ukulele,” a song in which he fantasizes about charming a savage jungle tribe with his music. The scene is completed with a dream-like sequence in which Edwards’ character is made king of the tribe, but then escapes and sails away in a boat shaped like a giant ukulele! [For more on Edwards, see the cover story in the Winter 2019 issue of Ukulele.]
The soft and sweet tone of a ukulele made it the instrument of choice for many a movie’s romantic ballads. A classic is the canoe scene in the 1929 film Glorifying the American Girl, where actress Mary Eaton strums “I’ll Be There” to her boyfriend as he paddles. Just as often, ukes were featured on novelty songs that provided a film with some comic relief. Buster Keaton’s 1939 short film Pest from the West includes a hilarious scene where he’s trying to woo a maiden with his ukulele as her father keeps dropping things on his head from an upstairs balcony. English banjo ukulele player George Formby plays several comedic songs in every WWII-era picture he starred in. One of the best is his performance of “Ukulele Man” in the 1940 film Spare a Copper. After Formby follows his romantic interest into the music store where she works, he demonstrates how a banjo uke should be played amidst a group of children, then makes a shambles of the shop by accidentally knocking over dozens of musical instruments.
Although ukulele performances were fairly common in films of the 1930s, ’40s, and ’50s, relatively few of these movies included songs performed in full. The uke was used more as a prop, sometimes absentmindedly strummed to lend a little color to a scene. A good example appears in the star-studded 1937 movie Stage Door, in which Ginger Rogers plinks out a few uke chords (which she’s really playing!) while complaining about food and men with her co-stars, Lucille Ball and Ann Miller. Among the films that include full ukulele numbers, one of the best is the 1939 shipboard romantic comedy Honolulu, in which comedienne Gracie Allen performs the film’s jolly theme song, “Honolulu,” which leads into co-star Eleanor Powell’s impressive dance number. Allen, who was normally paired with comedic partner George Burns, takes a solo turn here, singing and actually playing the song on a nice Hawaiian soprano ukulele. Although it’s not from the same era, another great uke song is in Woody Allen’s 1985 comedy/fantasy The Purple Rose of Cairo, in which Mia Farrow plays and Jeff Daniels sings “Alabamy Bound.”
Even in the ’30s and ’40s, most films employed a bit of movie magic to assure that every aspect of a musical performance was perfect. Typically, the on-screen performer wasn’t actually singing or playing during filming. Songs were pre-recorded and then played back over loudspeakers as the scene was filmed, with the actor lip-synching and “strum-synching” to the music. The pre-recorded music was then added to the film’s soundtrack. This playback technique allowed filmmakers to substitute uke playing and/or singing performed by professional musicians, rather than the actors themselves. This is the way Marilyn Monroe’s uke performance was done in the classic 1959 rom-com Some Like It Hot, co-starring Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis. Marilyn actually sings “Running Wild” as she shimmies down the aisle of a train, but only fakes playing her ukulele—a Martin style 3 that’s been painted white to show up better against her black outfit (Al Hendrickson did the actual uke playing). Then there’s the romantic love song “All I Do Is Dream of You,” performed in a canoe scene by Bobby Van and Debbie Reynolds in the 1953 film The Affairs of Dobie Gillis. The song features the actors’ real singing voices, but if you watch Van’s fingers, he’s obviously not really playing his uke.
Another technique was to dub (record) the actors’ voices and instrumental performances after the film was shot. In the beach scene in 1979’s The Jerk, Steve Martin and Bernadette Peters sing “Tonight You Belong to Me” as they stroll down the beach. Martin and Peters later dubbed in their voices for the scene, synchronizing their singing (and Martin’s playing) to their on-screen performance. But despite Martin being an accomplished banjo player, his uke part was dubbed by Lyle Ritz, an extremely talented multi-instrumentalist who was part of L.A.’s famous “Wrecking Crew,” a collective of select studio musicians (including Glenn Campbell and Leon Russell) who played the majority of instruments on hundreds of famous records.
Thanks to playback and dubbing techniques, many an A-list actor has picked up and played a ukulele in a film, with little concern for whether or not he or she could actually play: Arnold Schwarzenegger in Kindergarten Cop, Rock Hudson in Written on the Wind, Doris Day in Please Don’t Eat the Daisies, Cliff Robertson in Gidget, Bill Murray in Meatballs, and Kevin Bacon in Where the Truth Lies, to name a few.
Conversely, there are a few stars who are more accomplished ukulele players, including William H. Macy and Adam Sandler. Sandler is probably responsible for more uke songs making it to the screen than any other modern-day movie star. From the wacky tune “Grape Jelly” that his love-struck character croons to Rita Wilson in the 1994 comedic romp Mixed Nuts to the touching ballad “Forgetful Lucy” sung to Drew Barrymore in 2004’s 50 First Dates to “Lullaby to Mavis,” where his Dracula-inspired character plays for his baby daughter in the 2012 animated film Hotel Transylvania, Sandler’s performances are funny and sometimes unexpectedly touching.
Occasionally, too, movies feature uke songs played and sung live as the scene was filmed. While the playing or singing may not be perfect, it’s the sheer energy of such performances that can be so entertaining and inspiring. For an example, check out Jason Robards and Barry Gordon’s stirring rendition of “Yes, Sir, That’s My Baby” in 1965’s A Thousand Clowns. My favorite live screen performance is the duet sung by Doris Day and Arthur Godfrey in the 1966 film The Glass Bottom Boat. Godfrey, an accomplished ukulele player, executes a jazzy arrangement of the movie’s eponymous theme song on a custom cutaway baritone uke (his preferred instrument) as the couple blazes through a series of fast-paced lyrics about all the various fish and oceanic denizens visible during a glass-bottom boat ride.
Most ukulele songs in cinema are tastefully tied to a film’s theme or the particulars of a given scene. But there have also been a few really weird uke scenes in feature films. How weird? How about the 1957 post-WWII drama in which actor Dan Dailey sings “I’m Gonna Move That Toe” to a prone, paralyzed John Wayne in an attempt to encourage Wayne to get his limbs moving again. Then there’s The Green Pastures, a 1936 film with an all-black cast that presents biblical stories from the perspective of rural African Americans. In one scene, Zeba, the progeny of Seth, is chastised by God (referred to as “De Lawd”) for playing her ukulele—which symbolically represents carnal life—instead of attending church on Sunday morning. But I’m pretty sure the pinnacle of weirdness was achieved in the 1959 sci-fi B-movie The Giant Gila Monster. In one scene, actor Don Sullivan strums a banjo uke and sings an unfathomably odd tune called “The Mushroom Song/Laugh Children Laugh” at a teenage barn dance—just before a 40-foot monster lizard breaks through the wall and attacks the throng!
Not surprisingly, ukulele music has often been included in island-themed movies situated in Hawaii or other tropical locales. It’s hard to imagine the 1961 Elvis Presley picture Blue Hawaii without Elvis stumming a Hawaiian uke on at least one song. In a scene set just before a hukilau (beach party), he croons the beautiful ballad “Ku’u ipo,” which is Hawaiian for “my sweetheart.” There’s a lovely performance of the song “Hawaii Calls” in the 1938 film of the same name sung by child star Bobby Breen, accompanied on uke by his Hawaiian co-star Mamo Clark. And even if the uke isn’t part of a movie’s featured songs, it’s often included in the band that’s playing in the background, typically at a luau, bar, or special event. Examples of this include the bar scene in Gidget Goes Hawaiian (1961), the birthday party scene in Run Away Bride (1999), and the 4th of July performance at the resort in Forgetting Sarah Marshall (2008).
Although the majority of films featuring ukes are comedies or dramadies (dramas with some comedic elements), ukuleles have also found their way into films of other genres, including thrillers and war movies. Actor Caleb Landry Jones briefly plinks a few spooky notes in Jordan Peele’s mind-bending 2017 horror film Get Out, while the 2011 remake of The Thing includes a scene in an Antarctic outpost where a group of beer-swilling researchers sing “Samiid Aednana,” a Norwegian folk song, accompanied by a strummed Fender ukulele. It’s sung just as the film’s namesake alien creature breaks out of the block of ice in which it is entombed. The 1951 WWII film Go for Broke, starring Van Johnson and a mostly Asian cast, portrays Japanese American soldiers as they fought in Europe. It includes several scenes of soldiers playing ukuleles to pass the time and ease their frayed nerves.
Ukes are also featured in a number of animated movies: Jeff Bridges voices a wise old surfing penguin who plays a cool coconut-bodied uke in Surf’s Up (2007). An out-of-this-world animated character named Lilo plays a medley of Elvis songs on a beach in the 2002 movie Lilo & Stitch. The 2001 film Waking Life features colorful animation that’s been artistically generated from actual footage of the actors. In it, an animated image of actor/musician Guy Forsythe strums a dark wood uke while he waxes philosophical on issues of life and death.
As the third wave of ukulele enthusiasm swelled up in the early 2000s, a number of documentary films were released that celebrate uke culture. Mighty Uke (2010) explores the latest uke craze as it has grown and spread worldwide. It features, among other prominent players, James Hill and Jake Shimabukuro. 2011’s Under the Boardwalk: A Ukulele Love Story documents the musical and social life of the Ukulele Club of Santa Cruz, one of America’s first third-wave uke clubs.
So far, all the performances I’ve mentioned have been on the big screen. But as you might expect, ukes have also made quite a few appearances on the smaller screen: television. A generation of baby boomers grew up watching television star Arthur Godfrey, who hosted a number of shows on the CBS network in the 1950s, including a daily mid-morning show, a prime time variety show called Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Scouts, as well as a 15-minute program in which he gave uke lessons to his TV audience. Godfrey loved to play and sing on his programs and would occasionally spontaneously launch into songs that his backing band had not rehearsed. The iconic ’50s sitcom I Love Lucy featured Lucille Ball playing uke in several episodes. One of the funniest, titled “Ricky Loses His Voice,” has Lucy surreptitiously revising the program at husband Ricky’s Tropicana nightclub. During a corny vaudeville show in which she’s dressed as a flapper, Lucy belts out “Five Foot Two, Eyes of Blue” while vigorously strumming her concert-sized uke. Children of the ’60s who watched the groundbreaking and hip-for-its-time sketch show Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In likely can’t forget seeing ace uke player Tiny Tim perform “Tiptoe Through the Tulips,” sung in his signature falsetto voice; it’s the performance than made him a star (briefly). Even Muppets have played the uke on television: Jim Henson’s Kermit the Frog and Miss Piggy deliver a sweet rendition of “Ukulele Lady” on a 1978 episode of The Muppet Show. And much more recently, millions watched as a talented young Grace VanderWaal sang and strummed her way to winning the 2016 America’s Got Talent competition.
Nowadays, the phrase “screen time” refers to cell phones and tablets instead of movie and television displays. Hence, many contemporary uke enthusiasts now watch performances of their favorite instrument on much smaller screens. YouTube and other websites feature countless thousands of video uke performances and instructional guides that entertain and help people learn to play. Who knows what kind of screens we’ll be watching in the years and decades to come? Perhaps some day we’ll do away with screens altogether and view holographic images of our favorite ukulele performers as they appear in the room right in front of us. Can you imagine the fun of having the entire Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain playing in your living room? Maybe they’ll even want to jam with us!