SOUTH PACIFIC came from taking slices and characters from James A. Michener’s 1947 Pulitzer Prize winning debut “Tales Of The South Pacific’, based off his WW2 experience in the Navy around such far-flung places as the Solomons and Vanuatu. Two years later Rodgers & Hammerstein adapted it as a musical, with a good deal of help from Joshua Logan; it was a tremendous success, winning another Pulitzer and 10 Tony’s. The $5,610,000 film version, directed by Logan, was the biggest box-office hit of 1958, grossing $28,100,000. It was also huge in Britain, playing at one theater in London for four and a half years. The soundtrack took #1 on Billboard and stayed there for seven months. Critics liked the music, but knocked the direction and raised a ruckus over the mis-fiddle with the cinematography: the public disagreed and lined up for the star-crossed romance, tropic island locations, and the irresistible R&H tunes, supervised and conducted by Alfred Newman and Ken Darby. The critics are gone, the movie lives on.
WW2, somewhere out there in the blue, beneath the palm trees and caught up in the sweep to peril, Marine Lt. ‘Joe Cable’ (John Kerr, 26) is assigned to a dangerous mission that needs the help of local planter, French ex-pat ‘Emile De Becque’ (Rossano Brazzi, 41). The middle-aged widower isn’t interested in the war, but has fallen for young Navy nurse ‘Nellie Forbush’ (Mitzi Gaynor, 26), who is likewise smitten. Cable’s prerogatives get tangled, thanks to mischief-making Seaman ‘Lester Billis’ (Ray Walston) and local Tonkinese wheeler-dealer ‘Bloody Mary’ (Juanita Hall), who steers Cable to nearby “special island” Bali-Ha’i and Mary’s comely young daughter ‘Liat’ (France Nuyen, 17 in her debut). Love conquers all—but, there is a war on.
Before relaxing with the scented breeze, warm lagoon, Mai Tai’s and smiles, let’s first own up to duty and bonk it on the head with coconuts. It isn’t directed with much élan by Logan and the artistic choice with tinting scenes mostly backfires. The Kerr-Nuyen pairing doesn’t spark, the oogah-booga ‘ceremony’ business is absurd, and the insipid “Happy Talk” number is just an excuse for a refill. Logan had come off three hits in a row—Picnic, Bus Stop and Sayonara (another Michener story), but he’s slack here. His intent to heighten emotion by subtly filtering the color during key musical passages was compromised by the studio making the tints too extreme, and release timing/booking didn’t allow for correction. In his memoirs, Logan wrote that he wanted to picket showings with a sign reading, “I DIRECTED IT, AND I DON’T LIKE THE COLOR EITHER!” Oddly, the maligned Cinematography was Oscar nominated, as was the superb Music Scoring; the film won for Sound. *
At high tide—SP boasts 16 numbers, and they include the intoxicating “Bali Ha’i”, “Some Enchanted Evening”, “Younger Than Springtime”, and the rousing “I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Outta My Hair”, “Bloody Mary”, “I’m In Love With A Wonderful Guy” and “There Is Nothing Like A Dame”. Gaynor did her own singing, but Brazzi was dubbed by Giorgio Tozzi, Kerr by Bill Lee, and Hall by Muriel Smith. **
The tint fizz to the side (and it’s really not a big deal), the location shooting is hard to dismiss unless you’re the sourest of pusses: Hanalei Bay on the Hawaiian island of Kauai, with some added aerial shots of Fijian islands. Brazzi is passionate, Gaynor charming, boisterous Hall and sly Walston a lot of fun. Besides the worry of war, the crucial underlay to the story is defeating racial prejudice, with the nurse having to deal with her ingrained attitudes when she finds Emile has half-caste children from his deceased Polynesian wife. Most movies, let alone musicals, just didn’t tread on hot coals like that back then; the song “You’ve Got To Be Carefully Taught” drew fire from bigots (much of the U.S. was still segregated), such as on the 1953 tour in Atlanta, when two Georgia state legislators sputtered that the number “contained an underlying philosophy inspired by Moscow”, adding “Intermarriage produces half-breeds. And half-breeds are not conducive to the higher type of society. … In the South, we have pure blood lines and we intend to keep it that way.” Frankly, moron, we don’t give a damn.
Some clunky staging and iffy camera tricks matter little: it’s a great story and worthy message, with attractive and talented performers in a stunning backdrop with some marvelous music, themes and lyrics that, as with West Side Story, go beyond lilting, clever and catchy; they carry emotional power that has a deep and lasting reach into spirit, heart and soul.
On the beach: Russ Brown (also on deck with Walston for 58’s hot Damn Yankees), Floyd Simmons (former Olympics athlete, decathlon), Tom Laughlin (mugging with a cigar, 13 years before he’d turn mumbo-jumbo into big bucks as Billy Jack), Jack Mullaney (familiar face from 60s TV) and Ron Ely (future boobtube Tarzan). Screenplay by Paul Osborn. 157 minutes.
* Gigi, the year’s most critically gushed-over musical (and 4th biggest hit) swept the Academy awards. It’s better directed, with splendid costumes and art direction, but it’s dull as dishwater, the spoiled Parisian fops have zip for emotional payout or relevance and the limp music can’t come close to the soaring score for South Pacific.
** Hall played the role of ‘Bloody Mary’ 1,925 times on Broadway; her voice was dubbed in the movie because of—depending on the source—either copyright issues or that Rodgers & Hammerstein thought her voice had changed since she’d done it on the stage. Hall was African-American (on her father’s side), playing an Asian. Muriel Smith, who dubbed her, was also African-American. Had the bigoted types in a tizzy about Polynesians held the intellect to look up the background of the ladies, they would have lost their minds, or the empty space brains would normally occupy.