edited by John Hayes

South Pacific Miscellanea

by robb marsh

Having read and thoroughly enjoyed John Hayes excellent article on the much abused South Pacific I realized there were, tucked away in a filing cabinet, several facts which have, since the film’s 1958 release, been conveniently mislaid. Let’s face it, it only takes one film historian, in one book, to set the record wrong.

What follows, therefore, has been cobbled together from contemporary press clippings, with one or two Mitzi Gaynor chats thrown in for good measure - a lady who wasn't a contract player with Twentieth Century Fox when she was cast as Nellie and hadn’t been since the completion of There’s No Business Like Show Business in 1954.

Only One Actress Tested

At the time Ensign Nellie Forbush was the most coveted role to come up for grabs in Hollywood since the days of David O. Selznick and his well-publicized search for Scarlett O’Hara. “Every actress you can think of,” said director Josh Logan in Parade (August 18, 1957), “and many you can’t, campaigned strenuously for the part.” While fans threatened (“If you don’t let Audrey Hepburn play Nellie Forbush,” one fan wrote R and H, “you’re both as good as dead.”) and stars laid claim, columnists, agents (Doris Day fired hers when she lost the role), and even mothers (Ginger Rogers’) announced almost daily in the press which actress had finally snared this prize film role of the decade. While all of this public brouhaha was being waged, Mitzi Gaynor was quietly doing something the others were not. “Mitzi is,” Logan continued, “the first and only actress we screen-tested for the part.”

She had originally gone to see Logan about the role of the Japanese girl in Sayonara (1957). His assistant, unaware of this, volunteered the information that Marlon Brando wouldn’t do the film unless the part went to a Japanese girl. “Oh! That was kind of a low blow. But my husband and I decided we couldn’t turn around and go back, so we went ahead, since we had this appointment anyway. Josh put me completely at ease and then he said: ‘I suppose you want to talk to me about Nellie Forbush?’ I realized that here was my chance, if I didn't lose my nerve.

“I had dressed for the Sayonara part - brown suit, hair down, plain pin, gloves and bag. Logan said: ‘Mitzi you look absolutely perfect. Stand up. Take your shoes off. Can you sing?’ I said yes (she sang “There’s No Business Like Show Business”). He said: ‘I think you should see Dick tomorrow.’ I said: ‘Dick? Dick who?’ He said: ‘Dick Rodgers - for South Pacific.’That clobbered me.

“The next day I dressed for Nellie Forbush in a blue suit like a uniform, but it was cold, so I wore my mink coat. Dick admired the coat when I came in, and I blurted out: ‘Yes, it’s brand new, I just finished paying for it and it’s all mine now.’ Dick burst out laughing. He told me that was a real Nellie Forbush answer.”

As Oscar Hammerstein was in Australia at the time, an audition was arranged for Mitzi in the Crystal Room of the Beverly Hills Hotel on the one day Hammerstein would be in Hollywood en route to New York. Faced with him “I went all Mitzi Gerber” (her real name). “I said: ‘Gee Mr. Hammerstein, it certainly is nice to meet you.’ I sang “Cockeyed Optimist,” then kicked off my shoes and sang “I’m In Love With A Wonderful Guy.” Out of the corner of my eye I could see Oscar’s foot tapping in time. All he said was: ‘Thank you, Miss Gaynor, you’ve been a wonderful sport.’ I went home and prepared for the hysterical scene in The Joker is Wild (1957), which we were then shooting. Believe me, I had no trouble at all being hysterical that day.”

On December 20 1956 Mitzi got the day off from filming and was screen-tested at Twentieth Century Fox. It was one of the most secretive and expensive tests ever shot in Hollywood. Alfred Newman conducted the 40-piece orchestra. Leon Shamroy photographed it in Cinemascope and color. And Josh Logan directed it. Mitzi did the lead-in dialogue to and sang “A Cockeyed Optimist.” She also sang “Wonderful Guy.”

“For ten days I died a thousand deaths. I heard nothing, absolutely nothing. I had seen the test and thought it was pretty good. But I didn’t know what anyone else thought. While working on Les Girls (1957) with Gene Kelly, I got a phone call from Twentieth. ‘You'll have to re-record the test songs,’ I was told. ‘Rodgers and Hammerstein think the tempo should be faster, a little brighter.’ I’d been, practicing the songs every day, so I worked hard on the phrasing and the tempo and sent the new recordings to New York.” In early February, Mitzi’s husband called her at MGM. All he said was: “Honey, you’ve got it.” Two days later, Mitzi received a telegram from Rodgers and Hammerstein. “Dear Mitzi” it read, “We compliment each other on our good fortune.”

And that is how the perfect Nellie Forbush wound up in ‘The Perfect Show In Todd-AO.’

Those Filters

As John wrote in his article, Director Josh Logan had been assured by Fox that the controversial colour filters could be removed if they didn’t work and wasn’t too pleased to be told they wouldn’t be removed, because it would cost too much, take too long (three months), and anyway the release date had already been set. However, had he remained in Hollywood instead of heading to New York to direct Blue Denim things might have worked out differently. “I will always wonder whether my decision to do Blue Denim was not the worst decision I ever made in my life. Deep down I know that I should have stayed in California and watched every inch of the cutting and every bit of the color changes ... The first time I saw it was in Hartford, Connecticut, in front of an audience ... I was never more shocked by anything in my entire life. I didn’t dream the color would screech the way it did.” Legend has it, during the first months of it’s American release , because of ongoing cutting and scene switching, no two prints of South Pacific were exactly alike.

The Dominion and Beyond

I guess, to fully understand the impact South Pacific had on the 1958 cinema-going public, one has to understand how important and how eagerly anticipated was its release. Here was the filmed version of the most beloved and most revered of all the Rodgers and Hammerstein Broadway musicals. If you add to this the fact that, in Great Britain, Australia, and many other countries, this was to be the first film shown in Todd-AO, it begins to make sense of the enormous amount of public interest in, and the enormous amount of magazine and newspaper inches devoted to, South Pacific, the filming, the actors and the Todd-AO process. Try combining all of the media fuss surrounding a present day Hollywood blockbuster, the British Royal Family and Christmas, and you’ll come pretty close to understanding the frenzy surrounding South Pacific. When Russ Brown’s Capt. Brackett says, “This isn’t a little show, Miss Forbush, this is a big show,” there were few who disagreed.

When South Pacific opened, on April 21 1958, at London’s Dominion Theatre, it was the first film shown in the Todd-AO process in Great Britain. CinemaScope had been used for Oklahoma and something Mike Todd dreamed up called Cinestage was used for Around the World in 80 Days. Many a British reviewer spent many a column lauding the many delights of this latest ‘technical gimmick.’ A gimmick which cost the Rank Organization ₤10,000 per Todd-AO installation per cinema. And, of course, the scene order, in London and throughout Great Britain, differed greatly from the (American) version now shown on TV and available on DVD.

The Dominion premiere was followed by a second at the Gaumont, Manchester the following week (April 29 1958) , where the film enjoyed a 58 week run. At least two 70mm prints, one of which was projected on to the 46 x 21ft (with 5ft depth) screen more that 1382 times, were used at the Dominion. South Pacific’s London run closed on September 30 1962, following a 232 week, or, if you prefer, a 2551 performance run, recouping three times its negative cost before going into general release. The 180 week record-breaking run South Pacific enjoyed in Sidney, Australia, where it opened at the Mayfair on Boxing Day 1958, still stands. And, as the official U.S. representative at the Brussels Film Festival Mitzi saw South Pacific open the U.S. theatre at the World’s Fair on May 1 1958, which also doubled as the European premier of the film.

Top of the Pops

When the first ever British LP chart was published in The New Musical Express, on November 8 1958, the number one album turned out to be the South Pacific film soundtrack - the LP was first issued in April 1958 to coincide with the film’s opening. It remained at number one throughout 1959 and continued, for 70 consecutive weeks, until Freddy Cannon’s The Explosive Freddy Cannon reached the top spot on March 12 1960. South Pacific regained its top spot the following week remaining there for the next 19 weeks. Thereafter the LP bounced up and down the charts, its final number one slot being the week of September 2 1961, making for a total of 115 weeks atop the Brit charts, a record (if you’ll pardon the expression) it continues to hold. South Pacific was, not surprisingly, the first album to sell a million copies in Great Britain. That millionth disc sold November 12 1961.

As a comparison, The Beatles “Please Believe Me” remained in the top spot for 30 consecutive weeks, and the Elvis Presley soundtrack for Blue Hawaii held the top spot for 17 consecutive weeks. Simon and Garfunkle’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water” topped the charts for 41 weeks (in total), and Presley’s GI Blues soundtrack for 22 weeks (in total).

In the USA the soundtrack was on the charts for 161 weeks, 54 of them at number one, receiving it’s U.S. gold record December 31 1959, the second soundtrack LP to do so, the first, Oklahoma (July 8 1958). And while I’m at it, here’s a couple more additions to the loooooong list of ‘who dubbed who:’ Marie Greene dubbed for Candace Lee (Ngana) and Betty Wand (who also sang all of Kay Kendall's notes above C in Les Girls) dubbed for Warren Hsieh (Jerome). 0f all the major players only Mitzi and Ray Walston sang their own songs.

. . . and finally

It has always perplexed me why ‘film historians’ insist upon perpetuating the myth that the majority of the reviews, for the film and for its actors, were less than complimentary. Nothing could be further from the truth, as a trip to any clipping library would prove. The British, particularly, took the film to their collective hearts, many patrons seeing it over and over again. With that thought in mind let me close with the tale of 92-year-old Emily Tippet who, as the Daily Express gleefully reported March 16 1973, journeyed up to London to see “the muckiest film advertised” and came away wishing it had been South Pacific. “If it sounds mucky, then it’s for me,” she chirped as she queued with 600 others for the opening of the controversial Last Tango in Paris, at the Prince Charles Cinema in London’s West End. She emerged from the cinema a disillusioned woman. “It was sheer rubbish,” she declared. “I saw South Pacific 12 times but I wouldn't see this twice.”

Well ... there we are then.

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John Hayes/Wide Screen Movies Magazine

Last revised: 6 November, 2009

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