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As part of his deal with Warner Bros. to finance and distribute three films made by his independent company, Norma Productions, Burt Lancaster was obliged to appear in three WB productions. One of these was South Sea Woman (1953), a rambunctious farce about the unlikely adventures of a Marine sergeant during World War Two. According to Gary Fishgall's Against Type: The Biography of Burt Lancaster, Lancaster arranged for his friend Roland Kibbee to do an uncredited rewrite of Edwin Blum's script. The star also worked closely with former minor-league baseball player Chuck Connors, who, thanks to Lancaster's coaching before his test, was cast here in his first important role, that of Davey White, an AWOL Marine private. Davey, together with Lancaster's Sgt. Jim O'Hearn and showgirl Ginger Martin (Virginia Mayo), lands on the South Sea island of Namou. Despite having his hands full trying to recall Davey back to duty, Jim manages to foil a group of German agents visiting the island and also takes on the Japanese fleet.
The director was Arthur Lubin, who was best known for his work with Abbott and Costello in the early Forties and who had recently launched a new series featuring Francis, the Talking Mule. Possibly Lubin was chosen for his track record with service comedies in both those series: Abbott and Costello's Buck Privates and In the Navy (both 1941), and Keep 'Em Flying (1941) and Francis Goes to West Point (1952). The choice of Lubin as director indicates the level of Warner Bros.'s ambitions for South Sea Woman, as does the decision to shoot it in black and white rather than color. Lubin accepted the assignment with some trepidation, having heard that Lancaster could be tough on directors, but found that "working with Burt was a cinch," as he told interviewer Ronald L. Davis. Probably Lancaster wanted to get through the film with as little fuss as possible before moving on to his next project, From Here to Eternity (1953).
The island of Namou was assembled on a Warner Bros. sound stage, Kate Buford recounts in Burt Lancaster: An American Life, while sea sequences were shot at Catalina Island. Wrapping in March 1953, the film was released in June to critical bemusement but popular success. Edwin Schallert reported in the Los Angeles Times that audiences at the local RKO Hill Street theater greeted South Sea Woman as "a he-man laugh riot... Hilarity reigned as [the cast] took over the screen in a weird, wild melange of comedy situations." Perhaps viewers appreciated what was, for the Hollywood of the period, a more-convincing-than-usual simulation of profanity (including Connors's "freezin' foxhole" and "stow it") and a few risqu suggestions (such as the line "All we need is a preacher and a motel").
Farce mixes uneasily with life-or-death seriousness throughout South Sea Woman. As a WW2 film, the movie is not free to deal in sheer irresponsible fun and games but must turn soberly and patriotically to matters of duty. The attack on Pearl Harbor finds Jim and Davey AWOL; and desertion in time of war, the script reminds us, is punishable by death. Nevertheless, Davey's desire to kiss off Uncle Sam and stay in his island paradise with the lovely Ginger is almost too fervent for the movie's own good. And any pretensions at making a serious war movie vanish with the scene in which, to elude capture by the Germans, Jim joins a line of wedding dancers wearing a basket and a grass skirt, only to give himself away by his Oxford shoes. At this moment, South Sea Woman is clearly in Abbott and Costello (or Hope and Crosby) territory. The film also finds room for Lancaster's trademark athletics: in the middle of the climactic sea battle, he hoists himself by his hands from a lower to an upper deck, a feat imitated by Connors a few moments later.
Under Lubin's light direction, the film reveals not so much an uncertainty of tone as an indifference to tone, as if everybody involved, aware of the contradictions of the project, had given up trying to make it into one thing or another and decided just to let it all happen. Lancaster seems in search of a performance, Connors is somewhat unsympathetic, and the supporting cast (including Arthur Shields as a retired sailor and Strother Martin in an early bit as a courtroom spectator) has few opportunities to shine. Though removed from her natural habitat (Technicolor), Mayo stands out as the brightest spot in South Sea Woman. The actress is heroic in her commitment to the frail plot and her character's flickering emotions. She contributes the most interesting moment in the film when, acknowledging the mnage--trois aspect of the plot, she tells Jim and Davey, "Nothing means anything to me unless I'm with the both of you," only to backtrack immediately by explaining that the remark "just slipped out." Though the relationships among the characters, for the most part, carry little weight, this line hints briefly at the possibility of taking seriously the subversive implications of the story.
Producer: Sam Bischoff
Director: Arthur Lubin
Screenplay: Edwin Blum, based on an adaptation by Earl Baldwin and Stanley Shapiro of a play by William Rankin
Cinematography: Ted McCord
Film Editing: Clarence Kolster
Art Direction: Edward Carrere
Music: David Buttolph
Cast: Burt Lancaster (Sgt. James O'Hearn), Virginia Mayo (Ginger Martin), Chuck Connors (Pvt. Davey White), Arthur Shields (Donovan), Veola Vonn (Lillie Duval), Leon Askin (Marchand).
BW-99m. Letterboxed. Closed Captioning.
by Chris Fujiwara