March 19 marked the 60th anniversary of the New York premiere at the Criterion Theatre of the film version of Rodger and Hammerstein’s South Pacific, which debuted on Broadway in 1949. It was one of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “Big 5,” whose other members were Oklahoma!, Carousel, The King and I, and The Sound of Music. Like Oklahoma!, South Pacific differed from traditional musical theater in its emphasis on story, even a hard-edged story. Racism was at the core as sailors, soldiers airmen, and nurses island-hopping across the Pacific toward Japan encountered and interacted with indigenous peoples or, in the case of American nurse Nellie Forbush (Mitzi Gaynor), expatriate French planter Emile (Rossano Brazzi, his singing voice dubbed by Ezio Pinza, Broadway’s Emile) who’d fathered children with a Polynesian woman, and Lieutenant Cable (John Kerr), who romanced Liat (France Nuyen).
The public made the film the highest grosser of the year. Unsurprisingly, critics, who rarely complimented Broadway director Joshua Logan’s films, belittled South Pacific. Complaints ranged from casting Gaynor as Nellie rather than, say, Mary Martin from the stage play or Judy Garland, to the curious color palette developed by Logan and 20th Century-Fox’s “house cinematographer” Leon Shamroy. Shamroy had helped develop CinemaScope and photographed The Robe (1953), the first movie in the process. Logan hated Technicolor and did not want to make a film that looked like a picture postcard. He took a still photographer’s advice to “Use filters, overexposure, shoot through a Navajo blanket or a Spanish shawl. Anything! Just don’t make it look as though you could turn it over and find written, ‘Having wonderful time in colorful Tahiti—wish you were here.’” Taking the advice, Logan “thereby made one of the major mistakes of my career.” Nevertheless, in The Musical Film, Douglas McVay complimented the rich score “and some at times slightly bilious but often strangely atmospheric use of colour films,…”
Mitzi Gaynor, who could dance up a storm and sing more than adequately, had been under Fox contract for her most of her career. That was a mixed blessing as Fox worked in MGM’s shadow in the musical realm, continuing to make backstage musicals rather than create art via spontaneous singing and dancing. Gaynor did get to do one good MGM musical, Les Girls, but like her work at Fox, it was mostly a backstage affair.
Like South Pacific, Gigi, which premiered on May 15, 1958 in New York at the Royale Theatre, was a reserved-seat roadshow and a smash hit, taking in $40,000 in advance, mail-order tickets before opening night. Unlike South Pacific, Gigi was one of the last Hollywood musicals whose score Lerner and Loewe wrote specifically for the screen and included such memorable songs as “The Night They Invented Champagne,” “Thank Heaven for Little Girls,” “I Remember It Well,” and “Say a Prayer for Me Tonight.” Gigi won a record 9 Academy Awards, including Best Picture.
There is a relationship between Gigi and 1951’s An American in Paris. Both were MGM productions, both were directed by Vincente Minnelli, both featured Leslie Caron as the lead femme, both were set in Paris. Both won the Best Picture Academy Award. One thing was radically different: Douglas McVay identified “virtually no dancing (the numbers frequently being shot in long, static takes with the singers sitting down).”
In fact, there wasn’t a tremendous amount of dancing in South Pacific either. (Of course it’s difficult to dance on sand.) Nevertheless, dancing or a simulacrum of it was part of “A Wonderful Guy,” “Honey Bun” “A Cockeyed Optimist,” and “I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Outa My Hair.”
Sidenote: In the mid-sixties South Pacific and Gigi were reissued, which was the only way audiences who’d missed them in ‘58 could catch up. There were no VHS tapes, RedBox, YouTube, streaming, or Turner Classic Movies.
Holston, Kim. Movie Roadshows. 2013.
Logan, Joshua. Movie Stars, Real People and Me. 1978.
McVay, Douglas. The Musical Film. 1967.