You know you’re in for a wild ride when you decide to listen to the audio commentary about a movie to hear nothing but rationalizations and acknowledgments of the film’s flaws for near-three hours. I’ll discuss the bonus content when I present my final wrap-up of the box set, but suffice it to say South Pacific hasn’t aged well. After the massive success of Oklahoma! and The King and I, Rodgers & Hammerstein were able to write their own ticket, and they ended up biting off more than they could chew. South Pacific is certainly ambitious, but its ambition devours absolutely everything in its path, leaving a movie drowning in flashy camera techniques and exotic locations, but lacking story and characters to match.
The soldiers and nurses of a small island in the South Pacific during World War II, struggle to find love and other ways to survive. The main plot follows Ensign Nellie Forbush (Mitzi Gaynor), a nurse who falls in love with mysterious Frenchman, Emile De Becque (Rossano Brazzi).
South Pacific is at the mercy of its creation, furthering the allure of the Rodgers and Hammerstein canon, and cementing the musical as a genre whose appeal was so pervasive no discerning movie fan would ever turn their nose up at it. Everything about South Pacific is bigger, bigger, bigger! Unfortunately, its grandiosity swallows up everything, leaving a movie where you’re scratching your head at narrative/filmmaking techniques which must have appealed to the filmmakers at the time (and after the movie’s release and failure, they acknowledged those poor decisions), but leave the audience overly stimulated.
I’m talking about the color filters meant to induce a hazy dream-like quality, but rather leave you questioning if the color correction on your TV is broken. In some instances, it works; when Nellie and Emile sing “Some Enchanted Evening” for example. The deep yellows give off a hazy, steamy feel in unison with the exotic locale. You also see it used best in the “Happy Talk” number and similar scenes with Lt. Cable (John Kerr) and Liat (France Nuyen). Speaking of Cable and Liat, their underwater sequences are expertly filmed, and cited as one of the earliest uses of underwater photography in a musical. Unfortunately, these moments are exceptions to the rule.
Director Joshua Logan, who championed hard for the color filters, later stated he regretted using them, and I agree. Too often, the color changes are so abrupt, and contrast so starkly with the preceding scenes, it comes off like the director inserted outdated stock footage. The deep purples and blues, the latter horrendously showcased during the USO scene, leave you wondering if this lush Technicolor musical randomly included scenes from degraded 1930s films. It would have worked, tentatively, if there was consistently to these moments. Originally, the color filters were utilized for the musical sequences, but some moments they’re used with dialogue or long after the song has ended. It doesn’t help matters that the extended version-the box set includes the extended roadshow version and the theatrical cut-states the excised footage came from various prints, some highly degraded. The contrast between the restored footage and the rest of the movie is striking, and only looks worse when put through the color filters.
Fourteen additional minutes were restored for the roadshow cut, the finished product clocking in at just under three-hours. Nellie and Emile’s storyline is the best, and most predictably musical, of the group. The songs given for the duo-classics like the aforementioned “Some Enchanted Evening” and “I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Out of My Hair”-are fantastic! The audio commentator believes Doris Day would have played Nellie better, but Mitzi Gaynor holds the movie, as much as it can be held by one person. The role of Nellie is that of supportive woman and future mother to Emile’s two biracial children. Gaynor was better known as a dancer, and Nellie Forbush helped her flex her acting muscles. The highlight was Rossano Brazzi as Emile. He’s given the grist of the movie, going on a secret spy mission and almost being killed. Brazzi has an easy rapport with the two children, and plays well off Gaynor. Sadly, Brazzi (along with Juanita Hall and John Kerr) was dubbed, so the powerfully dominating rendition of “Some Enchanted Evening” that I adored didn’t test Brazzi’s vocal chords at all (that job went to Metropolitan Opera singer Giorgio Tozzi). With that, the dubbing is incredibly evident-another element Rodgers and Logan regretted. John Kerr and France Nuyen also have an interesting story arc with their controversial interracial romance, but, much like the romance in Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing, it’s not to be.
Mostly, South Pacific is about characters standing around talking. The excised fifteen minutes gives a few of the soldiers characterizations, but considering the focus is firmly placed on Nellie and Emile, followed by Cable and Liat, too much time is taken up with incidental characters. And some of these added moments of character enhancement are just odd. Case in point, one of the superior officers talking to others about why Nellie’s attracted to older men.
South Pacific’s songs are memorable in a way I thought was lost to me after watching The King and I. I’ve found myself continuously humming “Bali Hai” and “Some Enchanted Evening.” The songs are consistent toe-tappers like Oklahoma! but they’ve stuck with me more than anything in the previously mentioned King and I or Carousel. This is a big dumb musical, where, unfortunately, the director and musical collaborators never knew when to say when. The musical would slowly trend down after this, only to rebound with The Sound of Music, but too often musicals aspired to be like South Pacific. Unfortunately, one can have great songs, but without a strong backbone of plot and characters, it’s just a moving soundtrack.
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