Dracula with music by Philip Glass and the Kronos Quartet at Arlene Schnitzer Center, Portland, OR

Saturday, January 28, 2017

South Pacific (1958)

It was my high school performing a musical during my sophomore year that made me realize that even in a small theater with uncomfortable seats one could be transported to Oklahoma or Siam or Paris for a couple of hours. My best friend Pete brought me to watch the Rodgers and Hammerstein classic South Pacific (Pete would perform in the musical The Music Man our junior year). I came away with a better appreciation for the live performance of a musical. Coincidentally, the song Bali Ha'i from South Pacific helped explain the name of the spring formal at my high school where the girls asked the boys to the dance. Bali Ha'i in South Pacific is a mythical island, mysterious and exotic. I can never get the song out of mind.  "Bali Haiiiii.   You will finddddd...."

South Pacific the musical premiered in 1949 but it took nine years for the film version of SOUTH PACIFIC to hit the big screen in 1958. Joshua Logan, who co-wrote the musical with Oscar Hammerstein II and Richard Rodgers, directs SOUTH PACIFIC the film from a screenplay by Paul Osborn based on the musical which is based on the novel Tales of the South Pacific by James Michener. Although SOUTH PACIFIC is (obviously) set in the South Pacific, Kauai, Hawaii doubles for the fictional Polynesian islands where the story takes place.

Lt. Joseph Cable (John Kerr) with the Marine Corps arrives on a PBY (sea plane) to a South Pacific island on a secret mission. While wandering on the beach looking for Captain Brackett (Russ Brown) with the U.S. Navy, Cable runs into a bunch of Seabees led by Luther Billis (Ray Walston). Billis is in a dispute with Bloody Mary (Juanita Hall), a local woman who's overpaying the Polynesian people to sell trinkets so the French plantation owners don't exploit them. When Bloody Mary sees the handsome Cable, she tries to cast a spell on Cable to lure him to her nearby island Bali Ha'i, supposedly inhabited by numerous beautiful women.

Cable finds Brackett and Commander Harbison (Floyd Simmons) and explains his mission. He wants to monitor Japanese ship movement surreptitiously from a couple of deserted islands called Maria Louie, reporting back intelligence to his commanders. Cable is looking for another man, someone familiar with the area to accompany him. He's interested in local French plantation owner Emile De Becque (Rossano Brazzi).  But De Becque's not interested. He's busy wooing Navy nurse Ensign Nellie Forbush (Mitzi Gaynor). De Becque has a mysterious past. Years earlier, De Becque murdered a bully in France and fled. De Becque also has two young children, his island wife deceased.

With De Becque turning down Cable's offer, Cable takes up Luther's invitation to go visit Bali Ha'i.  On the island, Cable falls in love with a young local woman Liat (France Nguyen) who turns out to be Bloody Mary's daughter. But Cable's prejudices get in their way of their relationship. Meanwhile, De Becque tells Nellie about his past and his young mixed race children which scares her away from committing to him.

De Becque reconsiders Cable's offer to take on the dangerous mission. Billis sneaks on board the PBY and inadvertently causes a diversion with the Japanese that allows Cable and De Becque to sneak onto the rocky island.  The two men spy on a Japanese convoy and provide other good intelligence for the U.S. to push the Japanese out of the area. But as the enemy pull out, they attack the small island. As the Navy activates Operation Alligator to rescue Cable and De Becque, only one of the men will return from the suicide mission to be reunited with his love.

Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals always surprise me with their serious themes disguised behind beautiful songs. CAROUSEL has domestic abuse and suicide. THE SOUND OF MUSIC (1965) touches on the fanaticism of Nazism. With SOUTH PACIFIC, it's prejudice. Nellie Forbush, raised in Arkansas, has issues with marrying a man who's been married before and has mixed race children. Cable loves Liat but faces his prejudices that she's a Polynesian woman and not white. These kind of topics would pave the way for future musicals with tough subjects like Les Miserables and Rent.

SOUTH PACIFIC might be my second favorite Rodgers and Hammerstein musical next to THE SOUND OF MUSIC in regards to its songs. 'Bali Ha'i, 'I'm Gonna Wash That Man Right Out of My Hair' and 'Some Enchanted Evening' are all fantastic, memorable songs. Except for Mitzi Gaynor and Ray Walston, none of the actors in SOUTH PACIFIC sing with their own voices, not unusual for film versions of musicals. Actor Ken Clark who plays Stew Pot has his singing parts dubbed by Thurl Ravenscroft whose deep voice people will recognize as Tony the Tiger from Frosted Flakes commercials and who sang 'You're a Mean One, Mr. Grinch' in the TV Christmas special THE GRINCH WHO STOLE CHRISTMAS (1966).

I have to admit the only parts of the play I remember from high school were the scenes with the Seabees and nurses singing to each other.  If there was a suicide mission subplot or themes about racism, it went over my head as I was too enthralled with the romantic aspects of SOUTH PACIFIC. One scene not in the musical version of SOUTH PACIFIC is an unbelievably corny sequence involving Luther Billis stowing away on the PBY taking Cable and De Becque to the rocky island Maria Louie. Billis is caught and accidentally falls out of the plane (with parachute). He then proceeds to draw the attention of the entire Japanese Navy it seems. It is too far fetched and out of place for the story.

Director Logan also fusses with colored filters in SOUTH PACIFIC to illicit moods and emotions from the audience based on different songs.  Purples, oranges, greens, and yellows fill the entire screen.  It's an interesting idea that never quite pans out. Logan would later admit he made a mistake using the filters. But I did find Logan's staging of some of the songs and dancing very naturalistic and un-Broadway like. And he uses the lush tropical location to its utmost potential.

Mitzi Gaynor is perfect as the All-American girl Nellie Forbush. I wish the perky, effervescent Gaynor was in the film more to be honest. Rossano Brazzi is handsome as the older Frenchman De Becque even though Brazzi is actually Italian. Brazzi would star with Katherine Hepburn in David Lean's romantic film SUMMERTIME (1955) and even appear in OMEN III: THE FINAL CONFLICT (1981). John Kerr as Lt. Cable is the epitome of the supporting male actor in the 1950s. Good looking, a decent actor but stiff, following in the footsteps of other 1950s actors like Jeffrey Hunter, John Agar, and Farley Granger.  All were fine actors but cut from the same mold and never broke out as big stars.

I got to know actor Ray Walston a little bit when I worked with him on OF MICE AND MEN (1991). I only knew Walston from the TV show MY FAVORITE MARTIAN or as Mr. Hand in FAST TIME AT RIDGEMONT HIGH (1982) but Walston's career took off in the1950s and 60s in films like SOUTH PACIFIC, DAMN YANKEES! (also1958), and Billy Wilder's THE APARTMENT (1960). In a small but enjoyable role, Tom Laughlin plays Lt. Buzz Adams, devil may care pilot of the PBY called The Bouncing Belch. Never heard of Tom Laughlin? Laughlin would later make a career as Billy Jack, an half Indian, ex-Green Beret hakido expert fighting motorcycle gangs and Washington D.C. in films like BORN LOSERS (1967), BILLY JACK (1971), and BILLY JACK GOES TO WASHINGTON (1977). Juanita Hall who plays Bloody Mary is the only cast member in the film who performed the same part in the original Broadway production (although her voice is dubbed for the singing parts in the film).

When I compared the musical film LES MISERABLES (2012) to the non-musical 1935 version a few years ago, I liked the non-musical, literary LES MISERABLES version better.  With SOUTH PACIFIC, I think I enjoyed the high school performance better than the big budget Technicolor version which shocks me. I thought the exotic live locations would win me over.  But it didn't. Television would remake SOUTH PACIFC in 2001 with Glenn Close as Nellie Forbush and Harry Connick, Jr as Cable but that version didn't win over many fans.  SOUTH PACIFIC the film isn't terrible but if you want to really enjoy the musical, my suggestion is to catch it on the stage where the songs and characters and their dramas can be enjoyed more intimately.

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