Thursday, August 23, 2018

Marvelous Mitzi Gaynor in SOUTH PACIFIC

Our late mother absolutely loved Mitzi Gaynor.  In our Black Catholic household in South Central Los Angeles, watching the Mitzi Gaynor music variety specials on CBS was practically a religious obligation -- like attending mass on Christmas and Easter Sunday.  I picked up the love from Mom and had a definite crush on Mitzi Gaynor by the time I started high school.  In those years, ABC would air film versions of Rodgers and Hammerstein Broadway musicals as prime time holiday specials.  The films were THE KING AND I, CAROUSEL and SOUTH PACIFIC.  Mitzi made several films at 20th Century Fox.  SOUTH PACIFIC is her best Fox musical and her best Fox film.
It's a deluxe production, beautifully shot and orchestrated, and a musical that richly utilizes her singing, her wholesome All-American personality, her dancing ability and her fabulous figure.          
It also gives her a screenplay that has dramatic depth and a razor-sharp social issue.  Unlike the Hollywood musicals of the 1930s and 40s, this was a musical that -- like the Broadway play -- took aim at racial prejudice in wartime.
 All this is done with a memorable score by Rodgers & Hammerstein.
SOUTH PACIFIC airs on big screens nationally this weekend.  I'll give you a link to click onto for more information.  I've seen SOUTH PACIFIC on a big screen during a revival engagement  It's a treat for the eyes.  My one criticism is that director Joshua Logan overdid it with the yellow tints.  With all the lush natural splendor of the tropical location where the film was shot, he really didn't need a tinted lens to make scenes look dreamier.

I recommend it for weekend entertainment because, in America's current political climate, this 1958 wide screen Hollywood studio musical has renewed relevance.  When I was a kid and watched it on TV, I understood what it said about racial prejudice.  I was a black child of the Civil Rights era and I had a full understanding of Rodgers & Hammerstein's song, "Carefully Taught." One year ago, this very summer, we witnessed the terror and tragedy of KKK supporters and other racists marching through Charlottesville, Virginia.  There's still a lesson to be learned from "Carefully Taught."
SOUTH PACIFIC takes place during World War 2 when Japan was an enemy.  A tough question for the audience to face and answer is -- are we all killing for democracy, to keep people free, or are some soldiers from the Land of the Free using a righteous war as an excuse to kill people of a different race and hide their bigotry behind GI uniforms?  The main characters are all at war with themselves emotionally while doing their bit in the war effort while stationed in the South Pacific.  Even Nurse Nellie Forbush with her "girl next door" sunny demeanor has an inner conflict.

Here comes another recommendation -- one for the use of local libraries.

The N-word, rape, love, war, American values and the embrace of an Asian culture.  That's all in "Our Heroine," the short story in James A. Michener's TALES OF THE SOUTH PACIFIC.  We meet Nellie Forbush, the young lady from Little Rock, Arkansas in this story.  It's a story that became a big basis for the Broadway musical, SOUTH PACIFIC. Michener's book and the 1949 Broadway musical starring Mary Martin both won a Pulitzer Prize.  I checked out the book from my local library.

In "Our Heroine," Nellie falls in love with a man who is not an American.  She meets him in the South Pacific.  He's not white like the men she knew in Little Rock.  He once loved a dark-skinned woman who died.  Nellie has an inner monologue in the short story, brilliantly written, in which she calls out her own racism, a racism that's been taught to her.  Asian people are tolerable, she was taught, because they're so light-skinned they almost look white.  But anyone darker than Asian is "a nigger."  She keeps repeating the N-word to herself over and over again with a machine-gun like rapidity.  For Nellie, repetition is like an exorcism, calling out her demon of bigotry.

In the movie, Mitzi Gaynor plays a strong, independent, lovable Rodgers & Hammerstein lead female character of substance.  Like Anna in THE KING AND I and like Maria in THE SOUND OF MUSIC (also a Fox musical based on a Broadway hit that starred Mary Martin), Nellie is a woman who takes an active part to challenge intolerance whether it's within her environment or within herself.

The movie SOUTH PACIFIC was made when Hollywood was still operating within production codes.  It couldn't be as direct as the short story but it could make a strong point about race and the irony of WW2.  My late father was a WW2 veteran.  He fought for freedom when America's troops were segregated.

I rented the deluxe DVD edition of SOUTH PACIFIC.  It has some juicy extras.  Mitzi Gaynor's screen tests are extras.  She's bright and bubbly in her first one.  In her second, she shows a dramatic sensitivity and an awareness that makes me think she probably read the provocative source material, the short story, in between the first audition and the callback.

I lived in New York City's Chelsea district, below West 23rd Street, for twenty years.  I loved it.  One crystal blue morning, I had my windows wide open because the breeze was so delicious.  I heard a low flying plane and then, less than half a minute later, I heard what I thought was a sonic boom from that low flying plane.  It was a sonic boom.  It was September 11th and that was the first plane that crash into a World Trade Center tower.

We New Yorkers, we Americans, were paralyzed with grief and horror for days.  A few weeks later, when we attempted to get on with our lives again, knowing that our lives had been changed forever by that evil, I rented a DVD from my neighborhood video store.  I rented SOUTH PACIFIC.  I just had to hear a song, a number, that I'd loved since my youth back home in L.A.

I needed to hear Mitzi Gaynor sing "A Cockeyed Optimist."  Her lovely, lilting voice made me smile.  It healed my heart.  It reminded me that beauty and kindness still exist in the world -- and it's our duty to make sure that they do.  For more information on SOUTH PACIFIC showtimes and locations for August 26th, go here:

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