Some enchanted evening, you may see a stranger. You may wash him out of your hair shortly thereafter, if you are carefully taught. That is the message of South Pacific, the great ’50s Rodgers and Hart musical with one big, glaring flaw—and a few smaller ones, too.
Our story (based on James Michener’s “Tales of the South Pacific”) begins begins with young Lieutenant Cable (John Kerr), who’s been assigned a secret mission to that same island in order to spy on Japanese ship movements through a nearby channel. He seas a bunch of navy guys lazing around the beach, including the head rat, Luther (Ray Walston), and none of ’em have seen any action for months. They assure all of us that “There is Nothing Like a Dame,” in one of the best numbers of the movie.
They’re held in thrall by “Bloody Mary,” an island woman that provides various things and to the men, and (from what I can tell) also uses the men (through Luther) to get things to sell to her own people. There was some sort of unauthorized commerce going on. Meanwhile, she tantalizes them all with stories (and a song, of course) about Bali Hi, the forbidden island—basically where the natives have hidden all their women.
Into this, we have the focal point of our story, Nellie, a girl from Little Rock, Arkansas (!!!) who finds herself serving in the South Pacific in 1943, and falling in love with a much older French man, Emile (Rossanno Brazzi). I really had no sense of Mitzi Gaynor before this movie, but the Flower and I agreed she was definitely a “top-flight honey”. It’s a very post-war look, a la Doris Day or Donna Reed: almost angelic, girl next door bubbliness, combined with graceful movement and plausible-deniability clothes. It’s a package that exudes a kind of exuberant—yet somehow wholesome—sexuality.
She and Ray Walston are pretty much the only ones not dubbed, too.
Nellie falls in love with Emile but pushes him away ’cause he’s old and she’s from Little Rock (a mixed bag, apparently), but then embraces him fully only to discover he has two young children already with his late Polynesian wife. The same struggle is experienced by Cable, when Bloody Mary introduces him to her daughter, the stunningly beautiful Liat (France Nuyen, who went on to have a prolific TV career).
Both Nellie and Emile push their loves away because MISCEGENATION! This is a message musical, tackling a hot topic of the day, with a song placing blame squarely on society: “They have to be carefully taught!” That, of course, isn’t the least bit true since humans natively (and arguably reasonably) favor the familiar. But let’s not let that stand in our way, with all the beautiful, quasi-operatic music and amazingly crafted score, weaving themes in and out of all the songs and scenarios. It’s quite amazing, really.
Less amazing—downright notorious, in fact—is the film tinting. The premise was that each scene would be bathed in a different color to evoke a different feeling, but they screwed it up royally. The first scenes, especially when Bloody Mary sings “Bali Hai”, are over-tinted into distraction. It does settle down but it hurts a lot having that up front. There are a lot of stories about who did what to whom here.
Overall, though, it shouldn’t kill your enjoyment of the film. It truly is a great musical and worth seeing.