Published by Douglas Messerli, the World Cinema Review features full-length reviews on film from the beginning of the industry to the present day, but the primary focus is on films of intelligence and cinematic quality, with an eye to exposing its readers to the best works in international film history.
Osborn (screenplay, based on the musical by Richard Rodgers, Oscar Hammerstein
II, and Joshua Logan), Joshua Logan (director) South Pacific / 1958
A few years ago I wrote a piece on New
York’s Lincoln Center’s revival of the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical, South Pacific, which I titled “Confused
by Paradise,” centering on the US Seabees’, sailors’, and nurses’ difficulty in
handling the very different values from their own they encountered in the south
pacific islands to which they had been stationed. The musical version, I
argued, was much more explicit in the sexual variances of its characters,
particularly in connection with the character Luther Billis, as well as the
sexual openness of the French and islanders as opposed to the Americans, than
was the film.
After hearing the other day of actor John Kerr’s death, I determined to
revisit that film, a movie I first saw the year of its creation, 1958, and
about which I have long had mixed feelings. Although I loved much of the acting
and singing, as a child, I felt from the beginning that Logan’s heavy reliance
of colored filters—although wonderfully theatrical—was distracting. And I have
always had difficulty with Ray Walston’s comically grouchy character, Billis.
This time, moreover, I felt even more ill at ease with the American
characters, who, in the film version, seem less “confused” than utterly tense,
unable to enjoy even those emotional states of which they sing and dance. And
it is this tension, it seems to me, which helps to make this film musical such
a discomforting and emotionally unfulfilling experience.
By beginning the film with the
on-the-beach Seabees’ and sailors’ “complaint,” “There’s nothing like a dame,”
Logan immediately sets up a series of problematics: the handsome and sweaty sexual
males of the island are segregated from the island’s women, from both the
nurses, who they can glance at only in passing, and the native women, who the
French have sent off to other islands for their protection. These men are not
just expressing their yearnings, accordingly, but voicing their absolute
frustration. They are lusty males without any hope of releasing their pent up
Only Luther communicates with Nelly Forbush and the other women. But
then, he is a special case. Luther does their laundry, sews grass dresses, and
does various other “womanly” things that permit him entry into their company.
In short Walston is asked to play the film’s only “gay” man while
simultaneously having to pretend to be just another of the guys—a slightly more
eccentric version of the desirous sailors—which helps to explain the actor’s
somewhat dislikeable snarls and growls. Without openly admitting this character’s
sexuality, the screenplay later asks him to have no interest in Bali Ha’i’s
women (he seeks out the male-centered Boars’-tooth ceremony), and finally,
requires that he dance in Forbush’s Thanksgiving performance in drag! Is it any
wonder that he attempts to escape the island with the handsome and stated “sexy”
Kerr (playing Lieutenant Cable), both by renting a boat and hitching a ride
aboard the latter’s plane?
Nelly Forbush, played with almost clueless romanticism by the ever-buoyant
Mitzi Gaynor, quickly allows herself to fall in love with the island’s handsome
Frenchman (Rossano Brazzi), without even
pausing to ask why, as he has told her, he has killed another man. Yet she
rises into an absolute panic when it is revealed the beautiful children she has
admired (later Los Angeles gallerist
and my friend Candace Lee and Warren Hsieh)
are de Becque’s own, fathered by a native woman.
As absolutely enchanted as he is by
Bloody Mary’s young daughter, Liat (France Nuyen), Cable cannot bring himself
to marry the girl, reminding himself in song of his Philadelphia girl back
home. But, at least, he clearly recognizes his hypocrisy, admitting the
tensions within himself quite clearly in the work’s most morally responsible
song, “Carefully Taught.” Kerr, however, doesn’t even get to sing that
important admission, since it’s lip-synched; and Emile de Beque’s great ode to
love, “Some Enchanted Evening,” is sung by Giorgio Tozzi, which may explain
some of Brazzi’s inexplicable grimaces. Even original Broadway performer Juanita
Hall’s wonderful Bloody Mary is sung by another. Only Gaynor and Walston get to
belt out their own predicaments.
In short, not only have the American figures of this work been “carefully
taught” their racial and social isolation by their parents and society, but their characters in this highly artificed film
are “carefully taut,” prudishly tense in their separation from the more open islanders.
In a film where no American seems at home in his or her skin—the writers going
so far as to punish Cable’s sexual and racial transgressions with his death—it
is perhaps appropriate that nearly every time anyone breaks into song, the sky
unnaturally turns into garish yellows, purples, blues and reds. In their up-tight sexualities these
figures, understandably are slightly queasy, ill-at-ease in this brave new
While the Broadway cast eventually came to comprehend the absurdity of
their perverted love interests, symbolized by the “hundred and one pounds of fun,
Honey Bun”—an absurd vision of fulfilled sexuality, the film’s actors know only
that they are “moving on” and away from this frightening world at film’s end.
Only Nellie remains, perhaps now more as a mother than a lover.