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South Pacific

Some enchanted evening, I was thinking, I must force myself to sit down and finally watch the film version of South Pacific.

So when it appeared on the television schedule, I duly recorded it.  All I would need now would be a spare couple of hours, and a handy bottle of something soporific, just in case Mr. Rodgers and Mr. Hammerstein failed to complete the job. 

In the event, I watched the whole damned thing, from start to finish, and without resorting to the bottle.  I’m not particularly proud of the achievement.  In truth, I was too mesmerised by the sheer awfulness of it that I couldn’t bring myself to switch channels, or go to bed, an odd custom that I frequently observe when watching a really bad film. 

The reason I put myself through the ordeal in the first place was that I had never seen South Pacific, either on stage or on film, and it occurred to me that I just might have skipped a significant chapter in the history of the American musical.  Moreover, my wife chipped in to say that she had loved both versions – though admittedly younger and more impressionable in years. 

Ominously, though, no sooner had the opening credits come up than she left the room, ostensibly to attend to “some things that I’ve been meaning to do”.

“You can’t leave me in here alone with Rodgers and Hammerstein,” I called out after her.  “I’d rather be locked up in a crypt with Burke and Hare”.

“You’ll love it,” she said, heartlessly.

Messrs R and H have never been among ‘my favourite things’, as the latter might have put it, but even they can’t be blamed for the disaster that I watched on screen.  Their songs, though not to my taste, actually came as a relief, and I have to admit that a couple aren’t all that bad. 

Mystifyingly, the film broke every box-office record going when it was released in 1958.  I can remember it running for several years at the Dominion cinema in London.  It was there so long that younger citizens assumed that South Pacific was the name of the theatre.  Policemen giving directions used to say “turn left at South Pacific”. 

When it finally closed, the same cinema changed its name to The Sound of Music, another R and H tear-fest, which likewise ran and ran and ran.  It is, I gather, still celebrated with an annual screening to which several hundred devotees show up, many dressed as nuns (and a few wrapped head-to-foot in what look like sacks but actually meant to be ‘brown paper packages tied up with string’).

The celluloid version of South Pacific, like its Broadway predecessor, was directed by Joshua Logan, an iconic figure on the Great White Way after a string of hit shows.   South Pacific was his crowning triumph, earning him a Pulitzer Prize for the script, which he shared with Messrs R and H.  The story has a cruel twist.  When the winners were first announced, the Pulitzer committee inadvertently omitted Logan’s name.  The error was quickly corrected but Logan was bitter about it to the end of his days. 

I’m unable to testify to Logan’s competence as a director, or writer, for the stage, but in the transition to film he seems to have lost his mojo, and perhaps even his marbles. (He was a lifetime manic depressive, and in later years suffered from a debilitating complaint called supranuclear palsy, of which I had never heard until I read his obituary.  One of the symptoms I mentioned is difficulty in moving the eyes.)

South Pacific received a glowing review from Bosley Crowther of the New York Times – a soft touch who spent much of his career suffering the slings and arrows of his fellow critics – but most of the rest were scathing.  The same critics would years later also tear into Logan’s other adaptations of his stage hits, Camelot and Paint Your Wagon.  I agree with them, having sat through both.

South Pacific is very badly directed. Logan has no idea how to set up his camera or where to place his actors.  Some of them, including and in particular the male leads, Rossano Brazzi and John Kerr, who look as though they have just emerged from a freezer.  There are three possible explanations: they can’t act; they couldn’t be bothered to make the effort; Mr. Logan hadn’t bothered to tell them what to do.  To be fair, Mitzi Gaynor, the female lead, compensates for their inadequacies by being perky, though the perkiness begins to pall after a while.  At least she tried.

The film changes colour from one scene to the next.  Apparently Logan decided, or was persuaded, to change the colour filters for some of the more lyrical scenes.  These episodes are so hazy that, far from adding an ethereal quality, the effect is distractingly irritating, like watching through dirty spectacles.  I found myself wondering idly whether perhaps the cinematographer had somehow set fire to his trousers.     

Never mind, I’ve done my duty.  Now, I’m gonna wash that film right out of my hair.  Shouldn’t take long – I don’t have any.    

My next stops, I suppose, ought to be Oklahoma and The King and I, two more R and H that I’ve spent a cinematic lifetime avoiding. 

I’ve gotta wonderful feelin’ they can’t be any worse.

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