“SOUTH PACIFIC” (1958)
(Originally posted on April, 15, 2013)
The 1958 Joshua Logan film of “South Pacific” is a perfect demonstration of the value of the movie soundtrack album as a preferable experience over a film. In the former, there is much pleasure to be gained aurally without the distracting aesthetic visual offenses of the latter.
Curiously, the film asserts the technological advances of widescreen Todd-AO and six-track sound, while simultaneously becoming a throwback to the aesthetics of the silent film; certainly a bizarre model for a musical film. In the process of producing the film, the inconceivable decision was made that the songs of Rodgers & Hammerstein were insubstantial in evoking an emotional response from the audience and therefore needed the assistance of color tinting, a common practice in the days of silent pictures with their monochromatic photography, but a supremely absurd when used in coordination with full color photography. The resulting filtering effect not only obscures the spatial clarity that is one of the hallmarks of the Todd-AO process, it creates a murky, muddy visual density that distances the viewer from what the actors are emoting, in both song and dramatic performance, as the suffocating distraction of the thermal hues- making those particular sequences look as if they’d been filmed on the surface of the Sun -exacerbate the artificiality of a film that is contradictorily shot through great logistical effort on actual tropical locations. What God has created as natural South Seas splendor, let the optical engineers at 20th Century Fox transform into the best impression of watching a film through cataracts.
There are further problems, also aesthetic, but outside of the realm of the technological. Director Joshua Logan directs as if an imaginary, oppressive proscenium arch were inhibiting his staging of both the dramatic scenes (the scenes in Capt. Brackett’s office are especially artificial) and, more disastrously, the musical numbers, which are already burdened with the appalling filtering. Despite the limiting “clothesline” compositions of actors that were necessary for spatial focus in the earliest Cinemascope features, the more refined anamorphic clarity of Todd-AO brings an enhanced sharpness to the cinematography that accommodates a greater opportunity for dynamic widescreen compositioning, an aptitude not readily evident in Logan’s visual vocabulary: his actors are continually placed playing directly to a consciously acknowledged fourth wall, relinquishing all illusion that they are not performing specifically to the audience and inhabiting their own three dimensional universe. However, this artificial staginess is enhanced with another yet distracting optical offense: ersatz iris shots as if the actors are swimming in a fishbowl of Vaseline, actually giving the illusion (in concert with the heavy color filtering) of a seriously deteriorated film element. Since these visual gambits are used reserved for those scenes where the romantic intensity is meant to be heightened, it appears as if the film makers lacked the confidence in their own material (an odd situation since Logan not only directed the original Broadway production, but co-authored the theatrical book as well) without bludgeoning the audience into submission. Unfortunately, the digressive techniques are so primitive, the opposite effect occurs: the audience is violently pulled out of the emotional core of the film.
The dilution of what should be the central relationship of the film, between Navy nurse Nellie Forbush and the French-born island plantation owner Emile de Becque, continues with an unfathomable restructuring of the original theatrical plot, with the film now opening with an original extended sequence featuring the aerial arrival of Lt. Joe Cable (John Kerr, accompanied by future “Billy Jack” star Tom Laughlin) and moving the original initial expository scene and songs featuring Cable, Bloody Mary (Juanita Hall), Luther Billis (Ray Walston) and the Seabees. This pushes aside the initial of the set-up with the film’s two lead characters until every major character- except for Liat (France Nuyen) -is introduced, making the central romantic plot secondary to Cable’s story which has already been developed both in establishing his mission on the island and the genesis of his haunted attraction to Bali Ha’i, a paradisiacal island on which he will find the love of his life in the form of Bloody Mary’s beauteous daughter Liat. The specter of racial bigotry soon makes its presence known in the fracturing of both romantic relationships: Nellie fleeing from Emile when she discovers he had been previously married to a woman of Polynesian descent and fathered two children with her, and Cable backing away from his love affair in anticipation of the frisson such a mixed race marriage might cause within his family and their elevated Philadelphia social circles. Heartbroken, de Becque agrees to assist Cable in a dangerous reconnaissance mission on a Japanese-held island, a mission that he had previously resisted due to his love affair with Nellie.
Based on James Michener’s collection of stories “Tales of the South Pacific”, Rodgers & Hammerstein’s South Seas wartime musical is a truly schizophrenic piece of theater, containing perhaps the famous duo’s score of most consistent excellence while being weighed down with an unnecessarily clunky book. The Pulitzer Prize winning show certainly grabbed the attention of the awards committees for the worn-on-the-sleeve obviousness of it’s plea for racial tolerance ( that it takes place in a war zone, a model of global intolerance, is an irony that often escapes critical assessment), a structurally wobbly plot line with its painfully forced, intrusive insertions of the “Big Theme” in the midst of sappy romance and service comedy hijinks, as if the notion of an important message dutifully pasted in the middle of the plot at certain intervals elevates all of the material to a prestigious state of profundity. However, the insoluble mixture created by the awkwardly assembled variant story elements form a narrative that stalls and restarts at regular intervals (not helped by the movie’s truly awkward segues into the songs- among the most clumsy in memory -which introduce the numbers by the foolishly incohesive decision to have the performers simply stand inertly and wait for the lengthy orchestral intros to finish cuing their songs), none of which is relieved by the blandness of casting.
Rossano Brazzi provides no heat as Emile de Becque- his Italian accent betraying a lack of Gallic origins -who spends so much screen time absently brooding to the horizon, it is unclear whether he attempting to recall his lines or is merely posing for Easter Island statuary. Ironically, Mitzi Gaynor has the opposite problem: as Nellie Forbush, Gaynor is so full of gee-whiz effervescence she fails to engage on any deeper, mature level of complexity, reducing her role to that of a vacuously immature but smitten post-adolescent, and this leads to an almost palpable vacuum between the two lovers, who huff and puff mightily in their respective songs (given the suffocatingly saturated atmosphere, one wishes they had the aid of oxygen masks), but fail to connect: the powerful expressions of longing in their song lyrics wouldn’t possibly emanate from either of these (as portrayed) characters; Gaynor is far more effective in her energetic rendition of “Honey Bun” (one of the few numbers that actually works, perhaps due to the fact that it is performed on a stage and therefore not subject to integration with more the problematic non-theatrical settings), her lightweight charm finding firmer ground in flirtatious giddiness rather than grand high passion. In the important role of Lt. Cable, John Kerr delivers his best impersonation of a banyan tree: both unmoved and unmoving. Only Ray Walston and Juanita Hall rise to the occasion, enlivening their respective roles with a proper nuanced balance of both humor and drama whatever the needs of the scene; both, perhaps not coincidentally, are veterans of the theatrical productions- Walston in London and Hall on Broadway, though in another of an apparently unceasing string of dubious creative decisions, her vocals are needlessly dubbed.
I was taken to see this by my parents. I was only around seven years old, maybe younger.
Unaware of the awful dubbing. Oblivious to the garishly-painted, false-looking sets, and too young to appreciate the racial patronsing of the South Sea islanders. I recall we walked home singing ‘Happy Talk’ as a family, and doing the silly hand gestures, all in a grimy South London back street.
Years later, I thought it was crap, and wondered why I had ever liked it. Age was no excuse, after all. Bad is bad, at any age, if you are an embryo film buff anyway.
Then it dawned on me. It was just escapism. The South Pacific, blue seas, exotic attractive people in exotic attractive locations, wonderful weather, and everyone singing. We still had houses in the street that had not been rebuilt since being destroyed by bombs in WW2. Relatives doing National Service in places like Kenya and Malaya, coal fires, and one outside toilet.
Anything looked good, compared to the life we were walking back to.
Best wishes, Pete.
This is very rewarding to get such interesting and profound commentary. This sounds like it could be the seed for another of your compelling and evocative short stories, eh?