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South Pacific

South Pacific(1958)

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After the box office and critical success of the film version of TheKing and I in 1956, Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein scored aneven bigger hit with their widescreen rendition of South Pacific in1958. And though the film was far from their biggest critical success,with over $17 million in rentals it would remain their biggest box-office hituntil The Sound of Music shattered box office records seven yearslater.

South Pacific was born when Navy lieutenant James A. Michener foundhimself stationed on a small Pacific island in 1945. Out of boredom, hewrote a group of stories based on his wartime experiences, then compiledthem as Tales of the South Pacific, which won the 1947 PulitzerPrize. Joshua Logan, who would eventually direct the show, thought thebook had stage potential and suggested it to Rodgers. At first, they saw"Fo' Dolla," the tale of an upper-crust naval officer in love with a nativegirl, as the main plot. But when they learned that Metropolitan Opera starEzio Pinza was interested in trying Broadway, they focused instead on "OurHeroine," about the romance between a French planter and a Navy nurse,using "Fo' Dolla" as a subplot. For leading lady, they wanted Mary Martin,who was then starring in the national tour of Annie Get Your Gun,but first they had to convince her that she could hold her own vocallyopposite Pinza. Eventually, they created a score in which the romanticleads never sang together. But the songs and the intelligent treatment ofa serious topic, racial prejudice, were so strong, that hardly anyone noticed the lack of anyconventional romantic duets. South Pacific was a triumph that ranfive years, won a Pulitzer Prize of its own and generated intense interestin Hollywood.

Wanting to protect their work, however, Rodgers and Hammerstein decided toproduce the film versions of their great shows themselves, starting withOklahoma! in 1955. Since each film received their personalattention, by the time they started working on South Pacific in1957, they couldn't use the show's original leads. Although many thoughtMartin too old for the role by then, they would have used her if Pinzahadn't died. With his passing, they didn't think there was an actor strongenough to hold his own as her love interest. Ultimately, the only memberof the original Broadway cast to make it to the film was Juanita Hall, whohad won a Tony for her performance as Bloody Mary, the island con artistwhose daughter falls in love with an American officer. The only otherperformer who had done South Pacific on stage was Ray Walston, whohad played comic relief Luther Bills in the touring company and inLondon.

With Logan signed to direct, they started searching for the perfect leadinglady. Many in Hollywood thought Doris Day was ideal, but Logan was afraidthat she would simply play herself. When he turned up at the sameHollywood party as Day, he hoped he might see her spontaneous side,particularly when other guests urged her to sing. But her refusal to do animpromptu number convinced him she just wasn't right for the role.

Then entrepreneur Michael Todd suggested his wife, Elizabeth Taylor. Whenthe songwriters protested that she wasn't a singer, he told them she sangaround the house all the time. They arranged an interview, and Taylorshowed up looking fit, thin and freckled from time outdoors - exactly whatthey were looking for. But when they asked her to sing, she was sointimidated by Rodgers that she could barely squeak out a note. When Logantook her down to the lobby, Todd was waiting and she greeted her husbandwith a full-voiced rendition of "I'm in Love With a Wonderful Guy."Suddenly, she was wonderful, but Logan couldn't convince Rodgers to giveher another chance, nor did they want to have their female leaddubbed.

Finally, Mitzi Gaynor, a veteran of film musicals, put in a bid for therole and even offered to do a screen test. It took two tests -- for thesecond one, Rodgers changed the key of her song and slowed it a bit -- butshe won the role. Logan's friends warned him that he'd have to hold herback or she'd overplay the role and bury it in cuteness, but she turned ina solid, professional performance.

She was also the only one of the four leads to do her own singing. Afterlistening to Hall's pre-recorded songs, Rodgers and Hammerstein decidedthey didn't like the way her voice had changed since the Broadway run andinsisted on dubbing her with Muriel Smith, an opera singer who had playedBloody Mary in London. There was no question about dubbing John Kerr, whoplayed the lieutenant involved with Hall's daughter; he was a dramaticactor with no musical ability. But he worked so hard at matching thepre-recorded vocals that many viewers still insist he did his ownsinging.

The biggest vocal disappointment was Rossano Brazzi, cast as the Frenchplanter. Rodgers and Hammerstein had been enthralled with his performanceas Katharine Hepburn's romantic interest in Summertime (1955) and hadinsisted that he could sing the role. Brazzi was so excited that he evencut a record in his native Italy. But when the songwriters heard it, theyrealized they'd made a mistake. They hired another opera star, GiorgioTozzi, to record his songs. Only Brazzi was none too pleased with thedecision. When it came time to film his numbers on location in Hawaii, hekept making mistakes, complaining that he couldn't sing to "this god##mncheap sh#t voice" (recounted in Joshua Logan's biography, Movie Stars, Real People, andMe). Logan only got him to do the scenes right when he threatened tofind another actor.

Otherwise there was only one problem during the location filming. The Navyhad supplied extras, landing craft, trucks, jeeps and uniforms free ofcharge. But when Logan needed to film Kerr and Walston's arrival on BaliHa'i, with thousands of extras greeting them, the cutter the Navy hadsupplied was so decrepit it kept breaking down. They had to get a secondship and shoot an extra day that put the film thousands of dollars overbudget.

That was more than made up for by South Pacific's strongperformance at the box office, particularly in England, where it ran forfive years at one theatre. That engagement alone was enough to pay the $6million budget. But the critics were less than pleased. Many complainedthat Mary Martin should have been cast in the role she'd made famous onBroadway. Others complained about Logan's decision to use tintedphotography for some of the musical numbers.

And Logan agreed with them. He'd suggested the idea as a way ofvisually blending the musical numbers with the film's exotic, natural locations. Justin case it didn't work, he wanted to film them two ways: once with colorfilters and once with natural color. Producer Buddy Adler supported thatdecision at first, but then he told Logan that the lab could take out thetinting if they didn't like it. What he didn't tell him was that theprocess would take three months. Logan shot the whole film with tintedmusical sequences, then realized during previews that they didn't work.But when he asked to have them removed, he found out that it couldn't bedone in time to meet the film's bookings, so it went out with the tinting.In his memoirs, he would write that he wanted to picket each showing of thefilm with a sign reading, "I DIRECTED IT, AND I DON'T LIKE THE COLOREITHER!"

Producer: Buddy Adler
Director: Joshua Logan
Screenplay: Paul Osborne
Based on the Play by Oscar Hammerstein II, Richard Rodgers and Logan, fromthe book Tales of the South Pacific by James A. Michener
Cinematography: Leon Shamroy
Art Direction: Lyle Wheeler, John DeCuir, Walter M. Scott, Paul S. Fox
Music: Richard Rodgers
Cast: Rossano Brazzi (Emile De Becque), Mitzi Gaynor (NellieForbush), John Kerr (Lt. Cable), Ray Walston (Luther Billis), Juanita Hall(Bloody Mary), France Nuyen (Liat), Tom Laughlin (Buzz Adams), Ron Ely(Co-Pilot), Doug McClure (Pilot in Hospital).
C-158m. Letterboxed. Closed captioning.

by Frank Miller

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