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Rodgers and Hammerstein's South Pacific was one of the bigger film events of the late 1950s, and the polite answer about its merit as a film is that the music is sensational. Their movie adaptation of Oklahoma! received few compliments as great cinema but in all but a few scenes South Pacific plays like a leaden whale. Or, it would play terribly if it weren't for its nigh-perfect string of memorable, melodious and magical songs. This is a near-incompetent yet highly enjoyable movie.
Musical fans will flock to this Collector's Edition, which leaves the old non-enhanced DVD far behind. The two-disc set includes a wide range of interesting extras plus a must-see bonus, the original 70mm Road Show version, which contains a quarter-hour of additional material not seen in 48 years.
If the Broadway musical Oklahoma! presented an American ideal for servicemen at war, South Pacific was the musical statement of the war experience on the Pacific front: Young men and women performing dangerous duty away from home, most of them confronting foreign countries and exotic peoples for the first time. This was when Broadway musicals were "on point" in the American culture, and a song like My Girl Back Home reached into the deepest personal emotions of millions of ex-servicemen. 1950s tastes had drifted away from studio-bound musicals, and the R&H concept of opening up their plays to authentic locations took advantage of the giant screens of the day ... how better to show 'corn as high as an elephant's eye' than to put a camera in the middle of a glorious cornfield?
For South Pacific Fox and R&H's Magna company lugged their 70mm cameras to the Hawaiian island of Kauai and proceeded, with the non-direction of Joshua Logan, to film an almost completely unimaginative version of the musical play. For most of its running time the film just sits there, its camera pointing at a wall of characters posed against a travelogue background, most often the beach. You have to go back to the early talkie days of 'camera in a booth' filming to find visuals as stiff as this. Watching Broadway's words and dancing so crudely adapted to 'real' locations makes one miss MGM's lively and colorful string of screen-original masterpieces.
Except for some lifeless second unit military action -- a lot of it on fake-looking sound stages -- we're basically rooted to a beach, an office, and a manicured 50s-style patio on a hilltop. Mitzi Gaynor's exuberant Nellie Forbush is seen working in a hospital exactly once and we never see planter Emile de Becque doing anything remotely agricultural. Joshua Logan's camera stays rooted for most of the dialogue scenes. Wonderful character personalities like Ray Walston's Luther Billis and Juanita Hall's Bloody Mary might as well be acting in front of a curtain while scenery changes behind them; I don't know of any other location musical where the actors seem less a part of the setting.
The movie takes off nicely in the sections involving the Island of Bali Ha'i, mainly because the visuals (often accented with excellent special effects) contribute to the flavor of the music, with its 'heavenly' Ken Darby choral effects. The first view of the island in Bloody Mary's song is enhanced by not just one but a succession of changing matte paintings that evoke magic. The shifting clouds and light patterns transform normal scenery into a mysterious fairyland.
The notoriously unsuccessful addition of color filters to many of the musical numbers is South Pacific's final undoing. The red, purple and blue overlays are perfect for Bali Ha'i and shift excitingly with the weird moods of the song. When used elsewhere, the overlays are little more than a lame attempt to add visual excitement to material filmed with no creative plan whatsoever. There's no telling what demons possessed Joshua Logan to use these tacky color filters. The man was evidently a creative powerhouse on the stage but his record as a film director is not a good one.
Of course this doesn't explain the nostalgic reasons why we watch South Pacific repeatedly: It's the music with the grand Alfred Newman arrangements and superior audio recording and mixing technology. Divorced from other considerations, seeing Gaynor belt out her tunes is exhilarating, and even John Kerr lip-synching Younger than Springtime has a strong emotional pull. But that movie that plays in between is such a disappointment ...
The supporting cast includes future musclemen Ken Clark, Richard Harrison & Ed Fury, and Tarzan Ron Ely. Errol Flynn siren Beverly Aadland is one of the dancers and James Stacy is said to be in the show somewhere as well. But nobody yet has spotted James and Dorothy Michener in their reported cameos as missionaries, not even in the extended version.
Fox's Collector's Edition of South Pacific is presented in a strong enhanced transfer that stays sharp and at least makes the color tints look intentional; faded prints (as with a disastrous 1969 reissue) and bad video transfers made at least one yellow sky look like Nellie Forbush a la Andres Serrano. Savant saw an experimental video projection of the film last fall at the Digital Cinema Laboratory at the Warner Pacific Theater in Hollywood, and it was splendid.
Disc one of the set has the standard version of the film with an official R&H Organization-sanctioned commentary by Ted Chapin and Gerard Alessandrini. That's the commentary to go to for a rundown of the history of the play from stage to screen, all the casting details, etc. Savant isn't interested in the Karaoke sing-along menu selection, but the "Songs Only" option gives one the choice of just playing the musical numbers, as on a record album. It would be a potentially pleasing way to watch the film, if the selections weren't so tightly clipped. Now, if there were only a clean recording of the movie's impressive underscore.
The second disc has a couple of big attractions. The "Road Show" version of the film gives us fifteen expanded minutes of new material that will be an instant draw for the curious, or those who remember the film's original reserved seat run. The footage reinserted is quite faded, making it easy to tell what's 'new' and what is not. Actually, it's not that easy, as some scene extensions replace 'good' footage with the faded material. Richard Barrios' commentary also implies that a few scenes may be different takes than in the original. Barrios sometimes offers censorship as a possible reason why material was deleted, but to these eyes it simply looks as though the editors were told to yank out everything non-essential to the film's forward motion. Luther Billis & Bloody Mary's full antics and dancer Archie Savage's full Boar's tooth ceremony are the first to suffer. Featured players Jack Mullaney and Ken Clark's parts are hacked in two, and Tom Laughlin's (Billy Jack) participation is minimized as well.
Very often only a few seconds are lifted, but almost four minutes has been leeched from the visit to Bali Ha'i. The Boars' Tooth ceremony is mostly phony "Ooga Booga" stuff that went out with Frank Buck, but quite a few mood moments in the jungle with Liat and Cable are sorely missed.
I was told to expect an entire new section returned to I'm Gonna Wash That Man Right Outta My Hair -- the missing bars from the record album -- but of all the musical numbers, only a tiny part of Bloody Mary has been altered. Mr. Barrios tells us that the middle of Gonna Wash must have been yanked before the Road Show version was locked down. He mistakenly states that South Pacific was converted from 30 fps Todd-A0, when it was simply filmed at 24.
An hour-long Diane Sawyer 60 Minutes episode shows her accompanying author James A. Michener back to the island of Vanuatu, where he served in a non-combat role during the Pacific Campaign. Michener is open with his emotions and reflections on the war experience, and his later life with his Japanese-American wife.
From 1958 we get a B&W "making of" featurette, long kinescope excerpts from 50s television with Mary Martin and Ezio Pinza singing, and a pair of newsreels. The famous Mitzi Gaynor screen test is here, showing her as a near-perfect Nellie Forbush. The original trailer is missing a narrator, and plays rather oddly without it.
Thanks to Christopher Paulin for helping correct a major error.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
South Pacific rates: