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ON JANUARY 5, 1929, URSULA BADE FAREWELL to Hawaii from the Port of Honolulu, where she boarded the luxury cruise-liner SS Calawaii bound for Los Angeles. This time she was sailing on her own; her previous shipmate and dear friend Elizabeth had left the Islands a couple months earlier. I wouldn’t be surprised if Ursula made some new friends along the seven-day journey home. Her fellow passengers hailed from as far as England and Australia and as near as Pasadena and San Francisco, and included a large group of polo ponies.
Like its sister steamship SS City of Honolulu, the Calawaii had an interesting history. Originally christened the SS Mobile, it was built in 1893 as a freighter for the African Steamship Company, and acquired three years later by the Atlantic Transport Line. The US Army bought it in 1898, renaming it the SS Sherman and intending to convert it for use as military transport during the Spanish-American War. Although the conversion was completed too late for wartime service, the Army still used it for transport after the war. According to a publication by the Baliwag Society International (page 595):
“The Sherman took an active role in the Philippine Insurrection, the Boxer Rebellion, and World War One. She sailed on one voyage to Vladivistok and Trieste in December 1918 to collect Czech prisoners of war who had marched across Russia with the Red army in hot pursuit and in 1920 she carried American athletes from New York to compete in the Olympic Games in Antwerp.”
In 1922, the Army sold the Sherman for $60,000 to the Los Angeles Steamship Company, which rebuilt it as a passenger liner for service between LA and Hawaii, spending $300,000 on the renovation. Rechristened the SS Calawaii (a mash-up of “California” and “Hawaii”) the steamship boasted electric fans in each of its 70 staterooms and three deluxe suites, along with running water and ocean views. February 10, 1923 marked the Calawaii’s first voyage to Honolulu.
The following year, a production crew and actors from Universal Pictures were among the passengers sailing to the Islands, filming many shipboard scenes for the romance drama “Dangerous Innocence.” In 1925, the Calawaii conveyed the entire University of Hawaii football team, which was allowed to exercise and practice in empty steerage spaces for its upcoming Thanksgiving game in Los Angeles.
In 1932—three years after it carried Ursula to Los Angeles and one year before it was scrapped in Japan—Warner Bros. Pictures chartered the vessel for six days to serve as a “floating studio” for cast and crew in the production of “One Way Passage.” In this comedy-drama, starring William Powell and Kay Francis, a dying woman and “a debonair murderer facing execution meet and fall in love on a trans-Pacific crossing, each without knowing the other’s secret.” (IMDB). According to the website Cruise the Past Travel the Now, three-quarters of the scenes were shot aboard the Calawaii, lending the film an air of authenticity.
That’s why I bought the movie DVD—I wanted to see the actual ship that Ursula sailed on back to California. (Well, that and I love William Powell, with whom I was familiar from the entertaining and smart “Thin Man” movies.) I enjoyed the film—it was amusing and poignant at times—but most of all, I loved seeing the onboard spaces—the deck, private suites, etc.—where Ursula would have passed time during her journey.
I wonder what Ursula was thinking and feeling as the Calawaii steamed toward California. Apparently, her sojourn home was intended to be temporary; she was planning to return to Hawaii and her work at the Honolulu Business College, according to a news item in the school’s column in the February 2, 1929 issue of the Honolulu Star-Bulletin:
Something changed Ursula’s mind. As far as I can tell from my research, she chose to stay in California. Why, I do not know, but I have a few ideas.
Sources for this post, in addition to those linked to above, include: Hollywood to Honolulu: The Story of the Los Angeles Steamship Company; The Ships List; and William Powell: The Life and Films