The last time I screened the film adaptation of Broadway’s “South Pacific,” I was enlisted in the U.S. Air Force serving in the Pacific. With no Japanese war looming, the movie acted more as a nostalgic look backwards, painted with warm pastels that starkly contrasted anything seen around my military base at the time. It was escapism at its best.
Now its time, once again, to turn out the lights, crank up the stereo and get lost in “South Pacific” as a newly released Blu-Ray version hit stores this week. With a black screen, Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II’s musical surges to life as their beautiful overture cues up. While not the same experience audiences visiting Lincoln Center’s current Broadway revival experience each night, with the right speakers, the beauty of the Hollywood musical is captured with little effort.
“South Pacific’s” greatest asset will always be the nearly flawless music from Rodgers and Hammerstein. So many standards emerged from this musical, including the greatest love song Broadway has experienced, “Some Enchanted Evening.” And one can’t forget “There’s Noting Like a Dame,” “Bali Ha’i,” “Happy Talk” and nearly a dozen other classics.
Based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, “Tales of the South Pacific” by James Michener, “South Pacific” tells the tale of a simple American girl, Nellie Forbush, serving as a nurse in the Navy. She falls in love with an exiled Frenchman, Emile De Becque who is living on an island occupied by the U.S. military. With World War II blaring in the background, themes ranging from patriotism to racism and isolation run throughout the musical.
With the re-release of this 1958 classic, a rarely seen “road show” edition, which played in movie houses during its initial run, only to be cut down to a more digestible length for mass consumption, is once again ready to be fallen in love with all over again. Fourteen additional minutes have been added back in, although the quality of these extra scenes varies. Much of the unearthed treasures were lost or destroyed, leaving archivists to assemble the best bits they could find.
The first unearthed scene opens the film as Lt. Joseph Cable gets a lesson on the war from some disaffected pilot flying the young officer to his final duty station. John Kerr’s performance as Lt. Cable is reminiscent of James Dean, a slightly troubled young adult searching for life’s meaning through scowls and dirt kicking.
Surprisingly, the rousing number “Bloody Mary” had suffered from editorial cuts, as can be seen from the newly spliced in bits that now round out Mary’s character, re-created by Juanita Hall, who originated the role on Broadway.
Ray Walston, as the entrepreneurial Luther Billis, plays his role with a spot-on crusty sensibility. Billis is a sailor deprived of creature comforts, left to invent his own escapes from reality.
Audrey Hepburn and Doris Day were a few of the many leading ladies under consideration for the role of Ensign Nellie Forbush, but it was the spry Mitzi Gaynor that won out in the end. As the wonderfully cockeyed optimist, Gaynor is earnest enough to convince any weathered seaman that she could be right at home on a French plantation in the middle of the South Pacific. Like Nellie’s suitor, Emile De Becque (Rossano Brazzi), she sees this lonely island as a paradise, just as it once was before the tragedies of war invaded its shores.
Director Josh Logan reprises his own role as the leader of this production, having also helmed and staged the initial Broadway run in 1949. He remains quite faithful to the play, a fact that becomes clearer upon viewing the extended edition. Shooting on various tropical locations, including Tioman Island in Malaysia and Kaua’i in Hawaii, the lush scenery provides for a magical backdrop. Yet, Logan’s use of color soaked effects and partially blurred shots, to accentuate emotional cues, become tiresome halfway through the film. As do the constant day as night shots. Yet, the convention of shooting evening scenes with a dark filter so as to keep proper lighting was common practice at the time.
Where the film surpasses the Broadway production is when Cable and Billis travel to the mystical island of Bali Ha’i so they might attend a native ceremony and mingle with exotic beauties. The few dozen extras, sporting tribal masks and loincloths, come off as characters straight out of Disney’s Jungle Cruise attraction, but they accentuate the tropical nature of an island film. This scene is left to the imagination on stage.
The warm honey glow throughout much of the film inhibits it from dwelling on darker themes at work in “South Pacific,” something director Bartlett Sher rightly decided to highlight in the current Broadway revival. Racism runs deep amongst the white-bred Navy folk inhabiting this Polynesian land. De Becque’s mixed race children and Cable’s refusal to marry a dark skinned islander, France Nuyen’s Liat, get mentions in the film, but don’t resonate as they do at Lincoln Center. But, with that being the greatest criticism to direct at this film, there is little if anything to keep this from remaining a true Hollywood classic.
Had there been a mystical Bali Ha’i near my base in the Pacific, perhaps the events of September 11th would have driven me to seek escape in its promise of sweet dreams. Instead, I turned to the likes of Hollywood for relief. More specifically Rodgers and Hammerstein’s musical. This week’s Blu-Ray release of “South Pacific” is a gleaming pearl that should find a place into every home video collection.
Published on BroadwayWorld.com April 1, 2009.