Kahanamoku first achieved Olympic glory in 1912 in Stockholm, Sweden, but because of the cancellation of the 1916 Olympic Games, Kahanamoku had to figure out how to remain an amateur for 8 years until he competed again at the 1920 Olympic Games in Antwerp, Belgium.
Only a few months after the 1912 Stockholm Games, gold medalist pentathlete and decathlete, Jim Thorpe, was stripped of his medals and amateur status because he took home pocket change for playing semi-pro baseball in 1909 and 1910.
Kahanamoku, who considered Thorpe a friend, was crestfallen, and was reported to have said, “Jimmy Thorpe was the greatest athlete there ever was. He could do everything. And what happened to him was a bad break for sports and for everyone.”
When Thorpe was stripped of his medals, Kahanamoku and his backers had to be cautious. So, according to author David Davis, when the citizens of Hawaii raised money for Duke Kahanamoku after his gold-medal winning performance at the 1912 Stockholm Games, they weren’t sure how to provide it to him lest they risk Kahanamoku losing his amateur status. And if Kahanamoku lost his amateur status, and could no longer compete in AAU events or the Olympics, then Kahanamoku’s ability to draw tourists and opportunities to Hawaii, it was thought, would diminish. Eventually, a house was bought by a trust company, and Kahanamoku was able to move into a new home. The trust was set up so that he could never re-sell the home. The flip side of the deal is that the powers that be in Hawaii probably kept this transaction under the AAU radar.
While it is possible that Kahanamoku received cash very quietly for appearances at exhibitions all over the world, as well as for low-key advertising campaigns in a pre-television, pre-internet world, Kahanamoku did not financially benefit from his immense celebrity while he was an athlete. This was true even after Kahanamoku had surrendered his amateur status and tried to make it in the world of film. His Hawaiian “otherness”, however, got him typecast as the quiet pacific islander surfer, or native American Indian chief. He was never able to rise to the easy heights of fellow swimmers, Johnny Weissmuller in the Tarzan films, or Buster Crabbe in the Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers films.
Kahanamoku is credited with appearances in 14 feature films, including the WWII naval classic, Mr Roberts, with Henry Fonda and James Cagney. But one film that is not mentioned is The Beachcomber, a film made shortly after Kahanamoku’s triumph in Stockholm. It never got distributed in the US, as it was seen as a threat to Kahanamoku’s amateur status. Here is how David Davis explains it in Kahanmoku’s biography, Waterman: The Life and Times of Duke Kahanamoku:
Before returning to Hawaii, Kahanamoku made his motion picture debut in The Beachcomber, shot on an unidentified beach in Southern California. The one-reel silent film was directed by its star, Hobart Bosworth, a pioneer in Hollywood’s nascent movie industry. (Bosworth also was a friend and business associate of the author Jack London.) Duke did not have to stretch much to play a native islander who swims out to rescue Bosworth’s character from drowning. Publicity shots showed him wearing nothing more than a sarong. Bosworth had to delay releasing the film, however, after it was discovered that “the champion might lose his right as an amateur if swimming for money,” according to Motion Picture News. It is unclear whether The Beachcomber was ever shown or distributed in the United States, although foreign audiences reportedly were able to view the stirring flick.