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South Pacific: Collector's Edition

The Rodgers & Hammerstein Collection

By most conventional metrics, the 1958 movie version of Richard Rodgers & Oscar Hammerstein II's Broadway blockbuster South Pacific is one of the most successful movie musicals ever produced: a box office champion with a #1 soundtrack, and an enduring legacy alongside greats like Oklahoma, West Side Story, and The Sound of Music, among others. However, South Pacific received a mere fraction of the accolades afforded its peers, garnering only a few technical plaudits and overall critical indifference. And with good reason: South Pacific is easily one of the most disappointing major musicals of its golden era, and although its handful of well-sung classic songs still remain dear to many fans, director Joshua Logan's overall adaptation of his Pulitzer Prize-winning stage show is a near-disaster.

Adapted from stories by James Michener, South Pacific depicts parallel romances on an island in the Pacific theater during World War II: between chipper American nurse Nellie Forbush (Mitzi Gaynor) and middle-aged French plantation owner Emile de Becque (Rossano Brazzi), and serious Marine Lt. Joseph Cable (John Kerr) and the young daughter (France Nuyen — one of the few Asian cast members) of opportunist islander war profiteer Bloody Mary (Juanita Hall). While the lovers swoon, sulk, and suffer, bored Navy engineer Luther Billis (Ray Walston) desperately scours for action, including a forbidden trip to the mysterious nearby island Bali H'ai. Billis' misadventures are occasionally too silly, but they are also the one section of South Pacific that is not marred by Logan's more notable missteps, probably because Billis is involved in very few musical numbers, which is where Logan goes most horribly awry. His staging of South Pacific's many famous songs is weirdly inept, absolutely butchering the seamless narrative flow from dialogue to song that was Rodgers and Hammerstein's great innovation to the art form. In his ponderous musical transitions, Logan chronically leaves his fine performers lurching in long awkward pauses, as if waiting for the swelling music to nudge them into action, and poor Hall is frequently stuck in goony, unnatural poses for interminable periods. Logan continues this zombie-like aversion to activity during the songs themselves, sometimes forcing lively Gaynor and others to sing directly into the camera for long static takes as if at an unpleasant, impersonal audition. Perhaps Logan was attempting to counter his typical heavy-handed style via restraint, but it doesn't work. Worse still, during romantic numbers, Logan washes out Leon Shamroy's gorgeous Technicolor cinematography with aggressive tints, the most common of which suggests love is best served soaked in urine. It's a horrid visual miscue. Yet, on a couple of the livelier songs, "There is Nothing Like a Dame" and "I'm Gonna Wash That Man Right Outta My Hair," as well as the tender new song "My Girl Back Home," Logan shows that he's capable of producing a decent if unremarkable showpiece, making his wild failures even more mystifying.

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For a writer/director, Logan also seems oddly incapable of developing a narrative. The romance between Nellie and Emile, for example, is joined in-progress during one of the most listless and cold proposal scenes ever filmed. The weak chemistry between Gaynor and Brazzi would be fatal itself, but the lack of context for the scene (there is no sense whatsoever that these two are anywhere near contemplating marriage except in dialogue), coupled with the glaring awkwardness of the song stagings (the famous "Some Enchanted Evening" is downright silly, including the dramatic chugging of cognac as the music crescendos), is unnecessarily confusing and only weakly defines a romance that must serve as a catalyst for most of a long two-and-a-half hour movie. Logan aside, South Pacific faces other challenges: Its story of prejudice, as Nellie recoils in horror learning of Emile's mixed-race children, may have been powerful onstage in 1949 and deeply relevant onscreen 1958, but today feels shallow. But even that doesn't match the ickiness of Cable's affair with a teenage girl pimped out to the nearest whitey by her smarmy mom. When Cable rhapsodizes that Liat is "younger than springtime," the syrupy sentiments behind the song seriously fail the most rudimentary test of good sense. That South Pacific's final satisfying scenes somehow manage to surmount its many insufficiencies suggests what a powerful movie it could have made had Logan not been so intent on self-sabotage.

Disc One of Fox's two-disc "Collector's Edition" of South Pacific presents the original 157-minute "general release" theatrical feature in a gorgeous anamorphic transfer (2.20:1) with audio in Dolby Digital 5.1 and Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo. Rodgers & Hammerstein Organization President Ted Chapin and musical theater writer Gerard Alessandrini provide a commentary, and the feature can viewed in additional songs-only and karaoke sing-along modes. Disc Two features the longer, seldom-seen restored "Road Show" release of South Pacific — the version seen by audiences before 14 minutes of small cuts were trimmed for the film's wide release. The 172-minute "Road Show" version is also presented a mostly good anamorphic transfer (2.20:1) with some of the restored footage coming from inferior sources. Film Historian Richard Barrios discusses this rare version in a commentary, and this disc also includes the featurette "Making of South Pacific," a "60 Minutes" segment with Diane Sawyer and James Michener, excerpts from the stage production with Mary Martin and Ezio Pinza, the Movietone newsreel "South Pacific on the Screen: A Perfect Hit," Mitzi Gaynor's screen test, original theatrical trailer, and stills gallery. Dual-DVD slimline keep-case, or slimcase in Fox's "Rodgers and Hammerstein Collection" box-set.
—Gregory P. Dorr