March 19, 1958 Magna/Fox 172 minutes
It’s hard to overstate the impact of this R&H musical on American culture. The show was such a landmark; the music so famous; the record so ubiquitous; the subject matter so fresh and raw for its time—everything about it was epic. It’s the Gone With the Wind of musicals. And like that saga, it’s about War and Sex: epic passions with epic emotions. But unlike GWTW its story was immediate—of a time barely passed, reaching far and deep into the public psyche. Unlike today when so few Americans are really personally touched by the wars our country engages, “The Great War” united a nation like never before—or possibly since. To the pre-Baby Boomer populace—which was just about everyone over puberty in the 1950s—there wasn’t any other show so collectively, masterfully, unabashedly emotional. All this, and paradise too.
A decade earlier the South Seas had no more resonance than Dorothy Lamour in a sarong. But the sudden surge of Americans into these foreign waters lent a firsthand experience that brought the Pacific into mainstream consciousness. A navy lieutenant named James M. Michener put words to paper and Tales of the South Pacific ignited one of the most successful writing careers of the 20th century. It won the 40 year old, first-time author, a Pulitzer Prize. And within a year of its publication drew the interest of R&H who transformed the work into even greater, everlasting fame. As Allegro had proved, after Oklahoma! & Carousel it was unlikely that R&H could ever top themselves. But that was exactly what they did in April of ’49 when South Pacific arrived on Bway to universal rapture, and won itself a Pulitzer—for drama.
My own parents washed up on these shores during the show’s first year on Bway, when seats were equivalent to gold. I wonder were they even aware of this cultural bulwark? I doubt it, tho they were certainly no strangers to the ravages of war. They came separately—having only casually met earlier in Germany. In fact, my father was towing a German wife, Walborga—who went her merry way once she hit the pavement of Manhattan. He was in turn towed by his imperious mother, an imposing white Russian matron who slipped him, as well as her nearly blind sister, Vera, thru immigration—on documents she secured in Germany (in strictly movie drama fashion) christening their new identities: Anastasia Potemkina & her 25 year old son, Vladimir. My mother, arrived in February 1950, on her own name (Valentina), and was immediately shipped to Fresno, California where a farm couple mistook her for an Irish domestic slave. She was shortly back in Philadelphia, working in a hospital lab. Within a year my father would hear of her arrival, and begin a courtship commuting from New York. Of course this was but one of countless love & war stories which, whatever their particulars, could metaphorically be reflected thru South Pacific.
Like most Americans, even my parents were drawn into its orbit eventually—going so far as to drive into Hollywood to see the movie on its first revival at the gargantuan Egyptian Theater. Much like with King & I, the experience impressed me, but the film somewhat less so. I was entranced by the scenery but far too young to appreciate the sex, understand the racial conflict or comprehend the romance in the music. I had to grow into South Pacific. To those who were alive at the time it was a different experience—a gut level one. Our neighbor, the Brooklyn transplant, Gloria Milano had seen the show on Bway, and two decades later spoke of it still as one of the greatest evenings of her life. Quite a few people felt that way. It’s never been a favorite of mine; I’ll get that out right away. Even among R&H shows, I’ve favored several others above it. Yet its significance and artistic achievement is hardly lost on me. Certainly the setting has me at the title; and there are many gems in the score. So what’s my lack of passion about? As usual, the movie rather than the show colors the story—and in this case, quite literally. Being my introduction to the musical, I wasn’t as taken with it as I was with many others. But you sure couldn’t say that about the American public. It was the fifth highest grossing movie of the entire decade (in any genre); by a mile the most popular musical film Hlwd had ever seen. And another commercial triumph for R&H. But after all that, its lasting claim to fame is the egregious miscalculation of its camerawork.
Inevitably, any discussion of this film brings up the sorry use of color filters. Veteran Fox cameraman Leon Shamroy (who still holds a record 18 Oscar nominations—and 4 wins—for cinematography and whose previous nod was for The King & I) conceived a process to “heighten the mood”; to transform key scenes (mostly songs) into dreamlike states—as stage lighting could do. But what may have been effective—and even necessary—on stage, was entirely pointless when forced on the natural beauty of real locations. The tinted scenes produce the opposite of the desired effect, drawing attention to the gimmick—pulling us out of the moment. When Nellie starts singing “the sky is a bright canary yellow,” do you think Oscar Hammerstein actually intended us to see that literally? There’s a startling moment after the citron-saturated “Some Enchanted Evening” when the film suddenly cuts back to natural light to suggest Nellie snapping out of a trance. But what’s meant as a harsh return to reality instead comes as a welcome relief to the eye. Too often the filters in their jarring artifice disrupt our engagement with the story. The movie is blissfully free of such interference for the first quarter hour. The credits lull you in with their postcard views scored to Rodger’s sumptuous music, and after an establishing scene of the war effort, we get the whole Sailors Sequence in pure, unfiltered Technicolor, up until Bloody Mary begins her chant of seduction: “Bali Ha’i” when suddenly the world turns purple. As the song unfolds the filters wipe from gold to green to red to blue, suggesting nothing so much as those old-fashioned color-wheels that spun light on plastic Christmas trees that were popular in the early ‘60s. It’s so atrociously cheesy one can only surmise that R&H had no choice but to accept the dye-job short of re-shooting half the picture. They were in charge again, after letting Fox handle Carousel and King & I; under the auspices of their Magna banner—the company formed with Mike Todd to develop Todd-A-O. (Sadly, Todd was killed in plane crash three days after the film’s premiere.) R&H were quick to invest in new technologies, and their clout helped to quickly popularize the latest innovations. South Pacific was the first long-playing LP original cast recording, and Oklahoma! pioneered 70mm film. But their gamble on Shamroy’s concept was a serious blunder—an Edsel among their Cadillacs.
The show’s third co-creator, Joshua Logan was brought in to buttress R&H’s remedial Army experience (aside from his own service Logan had co-authored & directed Mister Roberts—another war-themed smash), but he gave a good deal more than some salty references. Logan’s staging of the show was radical in its continuous, cinematic flow; his contribution as important and revolutionary as R&H’s. Afterward, he rode a winning streak thru the ‘50s that few could match. By the time R&H got around to their movie, Logan had made three pictures in Hlwd, and received two Oscar nominations—for Picnic and Sayonara (based on another James Michener novel) so there was little question about his directing. Aside from his penchant for beefcake there is little evidence that Josh had any raging bent for the boys. Still, he was famously known for his liberal use of bare-chested men; to the point of signature. (He even got William Holden to shave his pelt for Picnic). But in truth Logan was equally happy to feature bodacious babes—but then who didn’t in the ‘50s? Beefcake was a bit subversive, but Logan thought fit bodies were appealing to look at on either sex. Of course he’s right, and we’re the happier for it. Logan nixed using a choreographer, staging all the numbers himself, on the pretext that these characters are roughhewn amateurs not performers. The seamen are like caged animals in “There’s Nothing Like a Dame,” pacing about the stage as they dream of sex—but on film it takes on echoes of Leni Riefenstahl, the camera glorifying a spectrum of American manhood; glistening tan bodies in various states of undress, singing their manly little hearts out. No color filters here, the vibrant flesh tones against the blues and whites of the skies and navy fatigues are all that’s needed. It’s an eyeful. There’s a hunk for every taste (including, improbably a lone Negro) And while this is easily the most homoerotic number we’ve seen since Jane Russell invaded the Olympic team in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, it’s interesting to note that both of these were made by hetero directors. The flesh pots are unabashed here; naked guys in the makeshift bamboo shower stand behind a sign that reads: Look, but do not touch—a far more inviting policy than Don’t Ask Don’t Tell. But any time the male figure is sexualized or admired it becomes suspect of a homosexual motivation. Perhaps we should take Logan at his word, and enjoy the show from whichever bent our road takes its curve. It’s democratic, after all.
This story is bristling with sex. At center is Nellie’s rebellious attraction to an older man, and a foreigner at that. But tho she has no problem with his Polynesian children, she can’t stomach his having had sex with a “colored” Polynesian wife. (I confess I’ve never understood the rationale in this.) Elsewhere, Bloody Mary pimps her own daughter to Cable. Their instant “love” is nothing more than pure carnal lust. Meanwhile, the island swarms with Seabees and nurses, all young and full of juice; even navy Capt. Brackett lets Cable know he may be over fifty, but he’s still planning on getting some. Bali Hai, revealed thru a mushy orange veil of tint, teems with tropic pulchritude and uninhibited enthusiasm. The War was a turning point for sex; never before had so many Americans mixed and dispersed beyond their local vicinities—under a common cause, and mutual fear. Urgency combined with uncertainty made for liberating times. In that way, too, it was a youthful show—but one that touched the eldest as well.
Nellie Forbush is often mentioned as Doris Day’s great lost role and it’s a wonder she didn’t get it. One legend has it that Logan was put off by her refusal to sing on the spot at a Hlwd party (the nerve!) Others cite her meddling husband/manager as the obstacle. And thus another bit of “dream casting” bites the dust. You can include me in the crowd that would have wished it so. But I’m no longer going to view Mitzi Gaynor as a second-rate substitute. She’s a bit too “show-biz-y” yes, but her acting scenes aren’t bad in the least, and she’s no less right for the role than Day. It was the pinnacle of her screen career, so let’s give Mitzi her due--Doris can pick from a list. Of course Gaynor wanted the role like nobody’s business, and landing the part was an achievement of its own. It could as easily have gone to Shirley Jones. Or Janet Leigh or Janet Blair (she’d even played it on tour.) No doubt Debbie Reynolds and Jane Powell were tugging at their agents’ sleeves. Elizabeth Taylor was keen for it as well, and was apparently seriously in the running. The idea makes the mind reel. One who was never considered was the original model: Mary Martin. She was 35 on Bway, and eight years later, well. . .
By then Ezio Pinza was more than too old--he was dead. The role of Emile DeBecque calls for an operatic bass, but on screen the voice (which can always be dubbed) isn’t as crucial as the charm and presence of the actor. Thus: Rossano Brazzi, Hlwd’s Italian silver fox; a bona fide American movie star thanks to Three Coins in the Fountain, The Barefoot Contessa, and David Lean’s Venetian valentine with Katharine Hepburn: Summertime. (Women—and not a few men—swoon over the way he ogles Kate’s ankle in St. Peter’s Square.) Here’s another prize hunk I missed in my youth. Honestly, I’m coming to think I was around women so much I scarcely had the tools, let alone the fascination, to take in the aura of men. At least not till puberty hit—and it hit very late. Tho Brazzi fancied himself capable of singing the score, R&H dubbed him with a genuine opera bass, Giorgio Tozzi. (Funny how this Frenchman is mostly played by Italians.) But Brazzi was a genuine middle-aged heartthrob, and trading silk suits for island mufti resulted in his biggest hit. His earthy Tuscan magnetism justifies his casting, tho it’s surprising that R&H, who were so careful to cast Oklahoma! with actors who could sing all their roles, would in South Pacific, acquiesce to so much dubbing. Even Juanita Hall, who played Bloody Mary, and sang the role a thousand times, was dubbed here (by Bway’s original Carmen Jones: Muriel Smith.) The film’s other, younger hero, Joseph Cable, was oddly cast with John Kerr—whose boyish sensitivity on stage in Tea & Sympathy wrote him a ticket to Hlwd. He’s not exactly butched up for Lt. Cable, tho he does look better as the story progresses—arriving on Bali Ha’i suddenly tanned and shirtless (they had to establish his arrival that way, so that later after being shirtless with Liat, we wouldn’t infer any impropriety. Who are they kidding? It’s clear they had coitus—that’s their entire bond.) Kerr is rather a blank canvas; his face a blend of Steve McQueen & William Holden, without being as attractive—or charismatic—as either. He’s capable enuf, but nothing in his performance justifies his casting in lieu of a true vocalist. His singing is dubbed by Bill Lee who later dubbed Christopher Plummer in The Sound of Music.
Whether it’s the actor or the role, I’ve never liked either when it comes to the character of Luther Billis. With his exposed, tattooed pot belly he’s meant to be “not sexy,” as Bloody Mary so bluntly informs him. But I always find him unpleasant and impatient to be rid of him. Ray Walston isn’t an actor of much charm. He’s best at zanies, which is where I weekly encountered him in my youth on TV in My Favorite Martian. But he also showed up in many of my touchstone movies (The Apartment for starters) and some musicals. I can’t stand him here. But I’ve never seen any actor bring this role alive for me in many a stage production. Cable’s “bride,” Liat, is nothing but a porcelain doll. She doesn’t sing, she barely speaks and all the camera can do is stare at her. On that account, the exquisite Eurasian beauty, France Nuyen fit the bill. Joshua Logan would take her front & center the following year, giving Bway The World of Suzie Wong. She’s had a long and varied, if not prolific, career but suffered from the realities of racial pigeon-holing and the limitation of Asian-themed properties on Bway and in Hlwd. The military brass in the story was represented by Russ Brown (Capt. Brackett) and Floyd Simmons as Commander Harbison. A two-time Olympic bronze medal decathlete, Simmons is strikingly handsome and would’ve served as a laudable rival to DeBecque for Nellie’s affections—an angle barely hinted at in the story, but far more intriguing than anything with Luther Billis.
I can’t think of another stage musical that has such a soft opening; a children’s nursery tune—in French, no less, sung by two tots peripheral to the action that follows. The number meets none of the requirements of an opening: setting the mood, establishing the locale, introducing the characters, swaying the ear with an assertive melody. I see what Oscar Hammerstein intended, beginning this tale so small, and then slowly broadening out to the full scope of war. But on screen this felt out of kilter, so either screenwriter Paul Osborn, or Logan reshuffled the story to open with Cable’s arrival to the island (which remains curiously nameless—unlike Bali Ha’i), Starting up front with the war—the American troops waiting out their call to action in a tropical paradise—announces this film as an epic. Thus, the first song in the movie is the raucous, choral “serenade,” “Bloody Mary is the Girl I Love.” This leads right into “Nothing Like a Dame,” and shortly afterward, “Bali Ha’i.” It’s almost 40 minutes before we meet DeBecque, (Nellie is introduced earlier with the nurses during “Dame.”) and their date—a Tropical Bench Scene, if you will—is better set further into the story. “Cockeyed Optimist” is tinted in off-putting yellow (by the way, how does saying “life is just a bowl of jello” make one “appear more intelligent & smart”?) “Twin Soliloquies” is blissfully allowed natural, unfiltered light, but we’re back in a tangerine haze for the deep-purple sentiment of “Some Enchanted Evening.” My favorite song, “I’m in Love with a Wonderful Guy,” is alas, also washed in jaundice tones. And so it goes. . . the “enhancements” intrusive, the au naturel lens, exotic and breathtaking.
Amazingly the entire score is used in the film—including reprises—and even R&H hadn’t done that before. They even added a song that was dropped out of town (Cable’s “My Girl Back Home”). There’s a full overture before the film begins, with Alfred Newman conducting the lush Fox orchestra. (Curiously it reverses the song order from the Bway overture, adding “Younger Than Springtime” in lieu of “Bali Ha’I” which is rightly saved for the opening credits of dramatic island views). The movie also had the luxury of showing us some wartime action that could only be crudely suggested onstage. But Logan goes over-the-top with Billis & Cable’s arrival on Bali Ha’i, which rivals Mutiny on the Bounty for excess—you’d think it was a steamship coming to shore; it’s merely a dinghy. The boars-tooth ceremony that follows (which was drastically cut from the Roadshow version for broad release) suggests the natives’ sacrificial stomp from King Kong rather than anything remotely authentic. It’s a rather ghastly sequence; the only music in the movie not written by Rodgers and at odds with most everything else. (Jitterburg-icon, Archie Savage appears here as the tribal chief, a native wildman, unrecognizable from his sweet, brief presence in Carmen Jones.)
The central racial conflict is felt in different ways by our two young Americans. Cable’s lust dissolves any prejudice, but he knows Liat is a hopeless fit among the gentry back in Philadelphia—What happens in Bali Ha’i, Stays in Bali Ha’i. Nellie’s trouble isn’t bringing home this cultured fox but his colored children—tho she gushes over them like they were darlin’ pickaninnys. Both get over their racism, tho Cable, of course, is sacrificed in the spoils of war. A daring message, apparently, at that time of racial strife in this country: Get Over It! But no doubt coming sugar-coated by R&H made the medicine go down a lot easier. Peter Filichia rightly points out a jarring note in DeBecque’s turnabout to join Cable on his suicide mission: Nellie’s rejection makes him feel he has nothing to live for. But what about his children? Is he so self-obsessed that he doesn’t consider their welfare? It’s a valid point, and one that’s rarely brought up in discussion of the show. In a way it does illustrate an enormous shift of public sentiment regarding children—who over these last fifty years have become more central in parents’ lives. I think they had less prominence among adults then, a part of, but not the focus of their lives--certainly not as fetishized as they are today.
South Pacific seems so much a product of its time that it feels futile to revisit it. But that’s not what Glenn Close felt when she produced a revisionist remake for TV as a starring vehicle for herself, back in those innocent days of spring 2001. Half a decade after playing the over-the-hill Norma Desmond in Lloyd-Webber’s Sunset Blvd, Close at age 53 takes on Nellie Forbush. Whatever else you say about it, making Nellie and Emile similar in age changes that dynamic entirely, and not in this context, beneficially. But Close is a good actress; she makes some interesting choices and has some laudable moments (including a jolly romp with “Gonna Wash that Man” that greatly improves on Logan’s version). Emile is played by Croatian actor, Rade Sebedzija as a sort of Grizzly DeBecque; and Harry Connick Jr. as an Abercrombie & Fitch Cable, whose friendship with Nellie, now reeks of motherly guidance—instead of two kids confused by their expanding consciousness. (Connick’s buffness aside, the Seabees are far less displayed or sexualized here.) The idea was to go for a grittier South Pacific, putting the war more up front, giving some M*A*S*H-like feeling; something to pump up the urgency and tension that audiences once brought to the play themselves, having it in their veins. But even as time puts ever more distance from the show’s original impact, the musical continues to be regularly staged. The recent Bway revival at Lincoln Center is about as good a version as we’re likely to see in our generation. Bartlett Sher’s fancy production was exquisitely cast, beautifully staged, and treated like an Event; but was it really necessary to falsely insist this was the show’s first Bway revival—ignoring the ’67 mounting with Florence Henderson & Giorgio Tozzi because it played Lincoln Center? (That revival was even recorded, so Tozzi sings on two versions.) The RCA soundtrack album with its cover of Brazzi & Gaynor in seated embrace was on universal display in every record shop or music department in America. Released a few months before the movie, the disc wasn’t just the #1 album in the country for 31 weeks., it was the top selling album period of the entire decade. It stayed on the Billboard Top 100 for just over five years.
Logan shot the majority of the picture on the island of Kauai, in what was still just U.S. territory: The Hawaiian Islands. It’s not outlandish to suggest the film assisted in pushing them to statehood the following year. (James Michener, already synonymous with Pacific literature, too, would acquaint the American populace with Hawaii—a massive bestseller that painstakingly begins with the geological origin of the islands). It’s a shame the natural beauty isn’t trusted on its own terms; for in addition to filters there are often smoky wisps nipping at the screen edges; and even obvious matte paintings to depict a distant Bali Ha’i—surely a real island could have been found, every bit as mystical and all the better for looking real. But all the same it was a great advance on location shooting for musicals, as we shall soon see.
The movie premiered at the Criterion Theater in Times Square on March 19, 1958, in a reserved-seat Roadshow engagement. These were now regularly coming from the studios; prestige, big-budget epics that people attended like live theater. Another three were currently running: Bridge on the River Kwai, Search for Paradise (a Cinerama travelogue) and in its 75th week, Around the World in 80 Days. Cecil DeMille’s Ten Commandments had just vacated the Criterion after 70 weeks. Other screens had Witness for the Prosecution, The Long Hot Summer, and Teacher’s Pet with Clark Gable & Doris Day—moving into urban comedy roles, with apparently no damage to her career for losing out on Nellie. Playing on Bway were no less than eleven plays that later became movies, including the latest arrivals: Sunrise at Campobello and Two for the Seesaw. Of musicals, West Side Story and The Music Man were the season’s gifts and triumphs, but the clamor for My Fair Lady showed no signs of slowing down. South Pacific played 54 weeks with reserved seats at the Criterion (and in other major cities) before it was withdrawn, cut down by 15 minutes and sent out in general (non-Todd A-O) release for several years. Unlike say, the way they butchered Cukor’s Star is Born, Logan’s film was carefully edited—and tho the Roadshow version is happily available to us now, much of the restored footage proves the cuts were judicious.
Eventually the movie racked up $16,300,000—nearly twice the record screen musical gross of Guys & Dolls. It is hard for us to convert the idea of what $17 million meant in 1959—somewhere in the range of $300 million today—which places South Pacific as the biggest hit musical of the 1950’s. (Perhaps here’s as good a place as any for a word about grosses. Nowadays Variety reports film earnings strictly by what they gross in total—giving no account of what the exhibitor’s take is. Before the ‘70s, Variety’s estimates of films earnings took in “rentals,” or the actual amount the studio earned for the picture. These rentals are the earnings I’ve been citing—as they are the figures most readily available. The general public was neither privy to, nor as interested in actual dollar-line accounting prior to Wall Street’s cultural takeover in the ‘80s.) With the care and effort R&H put into this latest film adaptation, and after the unprecedented respect & awards accorded the recent King & I, there must’ve been great disappointment when the picture met so little love from the Hlwd establishment. The film and Mitzi Gaynor got Golden Globe nominations, but the Academy was shockingly stingy: barely doling out 3 nominations: for scoring, sound (which it won for that Todd A-O technology), and most laughably ironic, Leon Shamroy’s cinematography—the film’s single greatest detraction. Being an independent production (tho released thru Fox), undoubtedly was a factor, as studio support often determined the Academy’s choices; to wit: Best Pic nods for Separate Tables and Auntie Mame. Not to mention the factory that was MGM throwing its entire weight behind another musical, one that quickly followed South Pacific, and was praised to the skies; a screen original, without a Pulitzer Prize-winning stage show to compare with (and find lacking). Gigi dimmed the luster—if not the grosses—of South Pacific, but R&H weren’t ready to relinquish their status to Lerner & Loewe, and would climb yet to greater heights.
Next Up: Gigi
Next Up: Gigi