Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Fifty Years on South Pacific is still terrific

Amid the dross, there are some great programmes on tv this Christmas- with BBC2 showing classic episodes of Dad's Army on most days. Another highlight is a rare tv showing of the film version of Rodgers and Hammerstein's classic musical 'South Pacific' on Boxing Day at 1.25pm.

Here's my Daily Express tribute to 'South Pacific', which was released exactly fifty years ago in March. The show featured several unforgettable songs, including the wonderfully upbeat 'Happy Talk', which you can watch being performed above. Enjoy!

NOWADAYS we have grown used to the phenomenon of the movie blockbuster.
Weeks of pre-release publicity. Interviews with the stars on the Jonathan Ross show. A red carpet launch at Leicester Square.

But even the attention given to today’s most hyped-up films pales into insignificance compared to the enormous public interest generated by the release of the film version of the musical South Pacific, 50 years ago this month.

“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,” says film historian Robb Marsh.

The original soundtrack, released at the same time that LPs first became commercially available, soon became a bestseller – it was said that by the end of 1949, everyone in New York had bought a copy. The South Pacific phenomenon quickly spread to Europe. In London, the show opened to sell-out audiences in 1951 at Drury Lane.
After years of war and privation, colourful, upbeat musicals were lapped up by the public on both sides of the Atlantic.

And the kings of the musicals were undoubtedly Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II. The first show they wrote together was the groundbreaking Oklahoma! which had its Broadway premiere in 1943. It was the first musical that integrated songs, lyrics and dance into the storyline. In 1945, Carousel, which includes the rousing You’ll Never Walk Alone – a song that became an anthem for football fans – opened on Broadway.

But as popular as these shows had been, Rodgers and Hammer­stein’s greatest success was yet to come. Set on a tropical island during the Second World War, South Pacific tells the story of a romance between high-spirited US Navy nurse Nellie Forbush and middle-aged French expatriate plantation owner Emile de Becque, a widower with two mixed-race children. A parallel romance is between US Marine Joe Cable and Polynesian girl Liat.

When news came out that a film version of South Pacific was being planned, there was intense speculation as to who would be cast in the main roles.

While several leading stars were tipped to play Nellie Forbush, including Doris Day and Elizabeth Taylor, in the end the part went to the relatively little-known actress Mitzi Gaynor. The Italian heart-throb Rossano Brazzi was chosen to play Emile de Becque. They were to prove inspired choices.

No expense was spared to make the film one of the most lavish and most technically advanced ever seen. It was one of the first to be shot in Todd AO, an extremely high-definition wide­screen film format. In addition, special colour filters were used by director Joshua Logan for dramatic emphasis.

South Pacific was released in America on March 19, 1958, and had its UK launch a month later. The public’s response could not have been more emphatic. At the Gaumont in Manchester, South Pacific played continuously for two years and two months.

At the Dominion Theatre in London’s Totten­ham Court Road, the film ran for an incredible four years and 22 weeks – a total of 2,551 performances. It was a huge international success: in Sydney it enjoyed a 180-week run and it played to packed audiences across Europe.

The public weren’t only queueing up to see South Pacific in their millions but were also rushing to buy the soundtrack. The album of South Pacific, featuring Gaynor and Brazzi in a romantic embrace on the cover, was the first No1 in the album charts, which were launched in Britain in November 1958. It stayed at No1 for 115 weeks – which remains a record to this day. It was also the first album to sell one million copies in Britain.

The sheet music of South Pacific also sold in record numbers. There were other spin-offs, too: the name South Pacific was licensed for cosmetics, dresses and lingerie.

How can we explain South Pacific’s extraordinary appeal?

First and foremost, it was one of the greatest musicals of all time. “South Pacific has the lot – memorable songs sung by real people, embedded in a coherent plot; music, lyrics and book [the script],” is the verdict of music critic Mark Steyn.

South Pacific contains some of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s greatest work: romantic ballads such as Some Enchanted Evening, and Younger Than Spring­time, upbeat songs including Happy Talk and Cockeyed Optimist and exuberant chorus numbers such as There Is Nothing Like a Dame.

Although Rodgers and Hammerstein did portray characters with darker sides, South Pacific, like all of their work, is tremendously uplifting: just the tonic for audiences in the immediate post-war era.

“I see plays and read books that emphasise the seamy side of life, and the frenetic side, and the tragic side. I don’t deny the existence of the tragic and frenetic. But I say that somebody has to keep saying that isn’t all there is to life,” said Oscar Hammerstein, explaining his positive outlook.

Rodgers and Hammerstein transported the public away from their humdrum lives to magical and colourful worlds, where romance was always in the air and where even the wildest of dreams could come true.

Fifty years on from the film’s release, and nearly 60 years since it opened on Broadway, South Pacific is still enchanting audiences. A major touring production of the show opened in Blackpool in August and will finish in Cardiff in July. A Broadway revival opens in New York early next month.

After writing South Pacific, the duo created two more unforgettable musicals: The King And I and The Sound Of Music.

Because of their tremendous and enduring popularity, it’s fashionable in certain circles to sneer at Rodgers and Hammerstein. Yet their work has brought more happiness to more people than any other 20th-century song-writing partnership.


Tommy Schmitz said...

Ah. My first film. I was four years old. It's sort of woven into me.

Here's a song from the movie that almost didn't make it into the Broadway Show, years before... censors didn't like it :)

"You've got to be carefully taught."


You've got to be taught
To hate and fear,
You've got to be taught
From year to year,

It's got to be drummed
In your dear little ear
You've got to be carefully taught.

You've got to be taught to be afraid
Of people whose eyes are oddly made,
And people whose skin is a diff'rent shade,
You've got to be carefully taught.

You've got to be taught before it's too late,
Before you are six or seven or eight,
To hate all the people your relatives hate,
You've got to be carefully taught."

Ken said...

Not quite, Neil. The format was 70mm; Todd AO developed the lenses is memory serves me right.

I started work at the Gaumont Manchester about five years after South Pacific had finished its run. To the amazement of everyone, the cinema ran the film without changing prints - the same copy ran all those months.

They did it by keeping the machines as clean as a whistle, especially the gates. The reels were rewound by hand in those days and the projectionist would keep his left thumb and index finger on the edges of the film as his right hand turned the rewind crank. This was to keep the film lined up neatly on its spool and to check for any small breaks.

The problem was that grease from the human hand does damage the film eventually. So the Gaumont crew used white linen gloves...

By the end of the run the Gaumont lads had become famous throughout the cinema industry, which to be honest is what they had wanted from the start.

Anonymous said...

While we disagree about many things, you won't get any friction from me about South Pacific.

I just looked at the top grossing films of 2008, and I don't believe any of them will be contemplated in the media of 2058. It's not because I have multiple disagreements with Hollywood, but because most of these movies were repurposings of earlier cultural innovations.