South Pacific (1958)

Film Title: South Pacificsouth-pacific

Year: 1958

Studio: 20th Century Fox

Silent or Talkie: Talkie

Genre: Musical

Starring:

  • Rossano Brazzi
  • Mitzi Gaynor
  • John Kerr

Review

In 1947, James A. Michener, who had been a lieutenant commander in U.S. Navy stationed on an island in the south Pacific called Espiritu Santo in the group of islands now called Vanuatu, published a collection of sequentially related short stories called Tales of the South Pacific. These stories were based on his experiences during WWII. Tales of the South Pacific won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1948, and came to the attention of veteran Broadway director Joshua Logan. Logan in turned passed the book along to Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II, and all three began to collaborate on the musical that would come to be titled South Pacific. South Pacific opened on Broadway in 1949 and was an immediate critical and popular success, winning a passel of Tony Awards and eventually the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1950. Nine years after its Broadway opening, South Pacific appeared as a film, once again directed by Joshua Logan.

“Born on the opposite sides of a sea, we are as different as people can be.”

The story of South Pacific concerns two young Americans, Nellie Forbush (Mitzi Gaynor) and Joe Cable (John Kerr) who have been plucked from their normal middle class life, she from Little Rock and he from Philadelphia, and set down on a tropical island in the south Pacific. Neither is very experienced in life and both are soon caught up in romances that will test the American values upon which they have been raised. Nellie has fallen in love with Emile de Becque (Rossano Brazzi), a French planter she met at an Officer’s Club dance, who has also fallen deeply in love with her. Unbeknownst to Nellie, de Becque is also father of two mixed race children from his previous marriage to a Polynesian woman. Joe arrives on the island having been assigned a reconnaissance mission concerning Japanese troop movements in the region. He needs a civilian guide who knows the region and approaches de Becque. But because de Becque is so in love with Nellie he declines to put his life and happiness at risk. This leaves Joe with some time on his hands and he’s persuaded by Luther Billis (Ray Walston) to accompany him to the neighboring island of Bali Ha’I to view the boar’s tooth ceremonial. Once there, Joe is persuaded by Bloody Mary (Juanita Hall) to meet Liat (France Nuyen), a beautiful young Tonkinese girl. Unbeknownst to Joe, Liat is actually Bloody Mary’s daughter who she wishes to marry off to this “sexy lieutenant”. Joe finds himself falling in love with Liat. Soon both Nellie and Joe will be forced to confront their belief in the social segregation between races they have been carefully taught.

“You’ve got to be taught before it’s too late, before you are six or seven or eight, to hate all the people your relatives hate. You’ve got to be carefully taught.”

It is easy to forget that South Pacific was very daring and controversial in its day. A major Broadway musical of 1949 based on the theme of racial prejudice was not your standard everyday fare. Remember that this was almost six years before the Montgomery Bus Boycott would introduce Martin Luther King, Jr. and Rosa Parks to the American mainstream. Things were better, but only just so, nine years later when the film premiered. Carefully Taught, Joe Cable’s answer to Nellie’s lament, “I can’t help the way I feel, it’s something I was born with!” is still potent today.

“Still dreaming of paradise?”

Once plans to film South Pacific were announced, the buzz in Hollywood was all about who was going to play these already iconic roles on film. Mary Martin, who had originated the role of Nellie Forbush on stage, was deemed too old to recreate the part on film some nine years later. Metropolitan Opera star Ezio Pinza, who had created the role of Emile de Becque opposite Martin on Broadway, had passed away. After much discussion, Rodgers, Hammerstein and Logan settled on Mitzi Gaynor and Rossano Brazzi. Juanita Hall as Bloody Mary was the only original Broadway cast member asked to recreate her role. John Kerr, who had had some success in film in The Cobweb (1955) and Tea and Sympathy (1956), was brought aboard as Lieutenant Joe Cable. Ray Walston, who had appeared as Luther Billis in the London production (and subsequently had successes in both stage and film versions of Damn Yankees), was asked to perform the role of Luther once again. Newcomer Frances Nuyen was brought in to make her screen debut as Liat.

Rossano Brazzi, like Ezio Pinza, was an Italian. He had been appearing in romantic leading man roles in Italy since 1939 and in Hollywood since 1949. Mitzi Gaynor had appeared in 14 films since her screen debut in 1949, most of them musicals. Her only serious contender for the part was Doris Day, who had apparently unintentionally snubbed Joshua Logan at a party once and was further burdened with a forceful, meddlesome producer husband. Both Gaynor and Brazzi deliver strong, emotional performances in South Pacific. They inhabit their roles perfectly and it’s difficult to think of any other Hollywood name actors of the period doing better. Kerr brings an appealing combination of emotional shyness and intensity to his portrayal of Lt. Cable. Juanita Hall is forceful and compelling as Bloody Mary. Walston’s Billis is appropriately the wheeler-dealer. Nuyen is heartbreakingly lovely and vulnerable as Liat. Additionally, several actors that would make names for themselves later, James Stacy, Doug McClure, Ron Ely, and Tom Laughlin, appear as sailors, pilots, and Seabees.

As strange as it may seem today, Mitzi Gaynor and Ray Walston were the only cast members who supplied their own singing voices in the film. It had been common practice in Hollywood since the dawn of the sound era for less musically gifted actors to be dubbed. Almost never did performers sing their musical numbers live before a camera anyway. They accompanied a pre-recorded voice track that was played back on the set before the camera. This practice of dubbing singing was commonplace well into the 1960s most famously by Marni Nixon dubbing for Deborah Kerr in The King and I, for Natalie Wood in West Side Story (every leading player in that film except for Russ Tamblyn was also dubbed), and for Audrey Hepburn in My Fair Lady. So for South Pacific, Metropolitan Opera star Giorgio Tozzi dubbed Rossano Brazzi, Muriel Smith dubbed Juanita Hall, and Bill Lee dubbed John Kerr.

“Bali Ha’i will call you.”

Thank God for television; it pushed the movies to actively compete by adopting new technologies that would expand the parameters of the film viewing experience. Thus we were treated to such widescreen processes as Cinerama, Cinemascope, Todd AO, Panavision, Super Panavision, Ultra Panavision, Vista Vision, and more. It took television over forty years to begin catching up to the movies with HD broadcasts and DVD and Blu-ray. As was Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma! (1955) before it, South Pacific was filmed in the 70mm process Todd AO. Todd AO was an extremely high definition widescreen film format, and South Pacific benefits greatly from its use. The island location (Kauai in the Hawaiian Islands), the sets, the costumes, the performers are all rendered on film in crystal clear clarity. If director Joshua Logan seems to be a bit more intimidated by its use (the cameras were big, heavy and bulky) than was Fred Zinnemann with Oklahoma!, he and cinematographer Leon Shamroy still manage to capture magnificent vistas and intimate moments equally well.

“When the sky is a bright canary yellow.”

A unique aspect of the visual style of South Pacific was its use of colored filters during the musical numbers. There have been a lot of pros and cons over the years about how successful this effect is. Apparently the idea was that as stage lights change to highlight the mood of musical sequences on stage, why couldn’t the same thing work successfully on film? It’s an intriguing notion, but it does not quite work. The filmmakers came to the same conclusion, but by then there was nothing that could be done as the effects were created in-camera on the film itself. They could not be undone. Having seen the film numerous times over the years, what had initially bothered me, I now have no trouble accepting. For me it’s just the way South Pacific looks. But those experiencing their initial viewing of the film be warned, the use of filters may (or may not!) detract from your enjoyment of the film.

“We are not alike, probably I’d bore him.”

The popular fortunes of South Pacific have waxed and waned along with popular tastes and attitudes over the sixty years since its Broadway debut. The film was well received by both critics and more especially by audiences in its initial release. As was the practice of the day, the film played road show engagements in larger cities across the U.S. and the world before being released to a wider audience. Unfortunately, the film was cut by about 14 minutes when it made this transition, more about that below. South Pacific had a theatrical re-release in 1969 and made its television debut shortly thereafter. Once relegated to television, its image would be badly compromised by the “pan and scan” presentations of wide screen films on television. The film just didn’t look the way it was intended to. Outside of scattered theatrical revivals, it would take nearly twenty-five years before it could be seen again in any semblance of its original glory.

U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War and the counter-culture social upheaval that the war spawned changed the way many young people looked at their parents’ pop culture. Hair and a number of other Broadway musicals that followed changed the public’s perception of musical theatre. Popular music did not often draw from the world of musical theater anymore. By the time that the movie adaptation of the Broadway show Hello Dolly! hit movie screens in 1969, the movie musical was virtually extinct. Big budget Hollywood musicals were looked on as relics of another generation, overly sentimental and irrelevant. Of course, there were and are those of us who never lost their affection for movie musicals. And the recent successes of Chicago, Hairspray¸ Dreamgirls and even High School Musical I, II and III show that all may not be lost.

On Video

There have been a few DVD releases of South Pacific. For the purposes of this review I am basing my opinions on the “50th Anniversary Edition” 2-disc set released to Blu-ray in March of 2009 as viewed on a 1080p high definition television. I have seen the film in every incarnation that I know of: I saw it on the big screen more than once subsequent to its 1969 theatrical re-release, I saw it on broadcast television, laser disc, and regular DVD.

“I’m in love, I’m in love, I’m in love, I’m in love!”

South Pacific finally looks appropriately spectacular again. This disc renders the film more vividly than I’ve ever seen it, including viewing 35mm theatrical prints. It is absolutely stunning. The previous regular DVD release looked pretty darn good, but this one is even better. This is a full restoration from the original 65mm negative and Fox Home Video has done itself proud. For me right now this disc is my standard reference for how good Blu-ray can look. The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio is equally impressive.

Disc One contains the “general release” version of the film presented in HD. An optional audio commentary by Rodgers and Hammerstein expert Ted Chapin and Musical Theatre Historian Gerard Alessandrini is also included. The commentary track is very good with both gentlemen very knowledgeable about the topic. A ”SINGALONG Karaoke Subtitles” feature is also offered as a well as a “Songs-Only Option”. Disc Two offers an “Extended ’Road Show’ Version” of the film. After South Pacific had completed its road show Todd AO engagements, about 14 minutes were cut from the film before its general 35mm wide release. These 14 minutes were considered lost until recently when an original release print was located with a collector. For this version those excised scenes or bits of scenes were reinserted into the film. Unfortunately you’ll have no problem recognizing these lost scenes as the color has faded considerably on them. What was cut was mostly action having to do with Luther Billis. Some ends and beginnings were trimmed on a few scenes, and the boar’s tooth ceremonial sequence was truncated. No musical number or part thereof was cut. But personally, I like the general release version of the film better. Audio commentary by Richard Barrios is also included. It too is very enjoyable and concerns itself mostly with the excised footage.

Several additional features are also included: Passion, Prejudice and South Pacific: Creating an American Masterpiece (1 hour, 30 minutes) a truly all-encompassing documentary hosted by Mitzi Gaynor. It takes the project from book to stage to film and back to stage with director Bartlett Sher’s 2008 Broadway revival. Many people are interviewed including veteran Seabees who talk about the veracity of the characters depicted in South Pacific. I have read that this documentary is only available on the new Blu-ray release. The Making of South Pacific Featurette (14 minutes) is a contemporary short about the filming. Much, if not all, of this footage is seen in the longer documentary. Diane Sawyer Interview with James Michener Author of “Tales of the South Pacific” (15 minutes) Diane Sawyer follows James Michener back for the first time to the island where he was stationed and that served as the inspiration for Tales of the South Pacific in this segment from a 60 Minutes television program. Fox Movietone News clip, Still Gallery, and Mitzi Gaynor’s Screen Test are also included on this disc.

Conclusion

For as many times as I’ve seen this film over the years I was never a huge fan. I always loved the score and growing up in the fifties and sixties it was just part of my pop culture zeitgeist. It was comforting and I returned to it from time to time. But maybe because I’ve gained some maturity and life experience, I now find the film lushly romantic and heartbreakingly sad. I understand the plight of the two sets of lovers in a way that I hadn’t before, and I am moved. Perhaps also as our WWII veterans are now all in their eighties and beyond, we as a culture have gained a new perspective on this conflict and the personal sacrifice involved. This is represented in works like Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan, Tom Brokaw’s The Greatest Generation, Ken Burns’ The War, and the television mini-series Band of Brothers and so many others that have appeared in the last ten years or so. I understand more about the experiences of our very young men and women who left the security of what they knew for a strange and frightening unknown world. Just like Nellie and Joe. I highly recommend this film and more specifically this Blu-ray version of the film to anyone who doesn’t hate musicals.

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