Retro Reviews: South Pacific (1958)

Romance, drama, comedy, race relations and memorable music. That’s South Pacific.

One of the best loved of Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II’s Broadway musicals, South Pacific became an extremely popular film in 1958. It richly deserved its initial success and the classic status it enjoys today.

Based on James Michener’s 1947 collection of interrelated short stories, Tales of the South Pacific, Rodger and Hammerstein’s musical tells the story of U.S. Navy Nurse Nellie Forbush (Mitzi Gaynor), who is stationed in the South Pacific during World War II. Nellie falls in love with a much older French plantation owner named Emile De Becque (Rossano Brazzi), but can’t reconcile the racial prejudices of her Arkansas upbringing when she learns De Becque is the father of two mixed-race children.

Meanwhile, in a parallel plot, Philadelphia blue blood Lieutenant Joe Cable (John Kerr) falls in love with Liat (France Nuyen), the daughter of Bloody Mary (Juanita Hall), a Tonkinese (i.e., Vietnamese) woman who traffics in black market goods. While Cable clearly loves Liat, he cannot imagine introducing her to his upper class family and friends back home. When Bloody Mary discovers that his intentions for her daughter do not include marriage, Cable loses Liat.

Both Nellie and Lieutenant Cable are forced to confront their prejudices. After Nellie leaves De Becque and Cable loses Liat, the two men volunteer for a dangerous espionage mission. Cable comes to realize how much he loves Liat and resolves to marry her if he can survive the mission. Meanwhile, Nellie finally overcomes her prejudices, develops a real affection for De Becque’s children and plans to marry their father if he makes it home alive.

Woven into all this romance, heartbreak and drama are moments of real comedy, often involving Seabee Luther Billis (Ray Walston), and some of the greatest songs in the Great American Songbook. “Some Enchanted Evening,” “Younger Than Springtime,” “Bali Ha’i,” “I’m in Love With a Wonderful Guy,” “I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Outa My Hair,” “There Is Nothing Like a Dame” and many other classics.

The film is in Technicolor. As you’d expect, it is visually stunning. If there is any flaw in the film, however, it is a heavy-handed overuse of colored filters during many of the musical sequences. This, however, is not the fault of director Joshua Logan, who wanted the filters used in a more subtle way, but was a blunder on the part of the 20th Century Fox studio brass who misunderstood what Logan wanted. By the time the director discovered the problem, the film was already pre-booked as a road show, making it too late for a correction.

The filters are, however, often very effective, as in the “Bali Ha’i” sequence, where the island in Bloody Mary’s song looks truly mystical and otherworldly, and in the ultra-romantic “Some Enchanted Evening” sequence.

There is, indeed, much to love in this classic film. And seeing the vastly inferior 2001 remake of this 1958 gem makes me love the original even more. Glenn Close, who plays Nurse Nellie , in the remake, is simply too old for the role. It is as though the May-December romance between a young woman and a much older man is somehow less acceptable now, in the minds of the Hollywood brass, than it was in the supposedly less tolerant 1950s.

And the most unforgivable thing of all in the 2001 remake was its removal of “Happy Talk,” one of South Pacific’s most delightful songs because some would-be social justice warriors claim it is racist due to its use of a kind of fake Asian pidgin.

It amazes me that anyone could possibly see South Pacific as anything other than a powerful statement against racial prejudice.

The 2001 version of South Pacific, indeed, reeks of political correctness and is to be avoided at all costs. Stick with the wonderful 1958 film. Unless you are the most mindless kind of social justice warrior, you’ll love it.

 

Image source:

Pixabay


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