Classic Hollywood: ‘South Pacific’ at the Samuel Goldwyn Theater
Want to see “South Pacific” in Los Angeles? On Friday, you will have two fun choices.
As the Tony Award-winning revival of the 1949 classic Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II musical continues to enchant audiences at the Ahmanson, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences will also be unveiling a newly restored 70-millimeter print of the 1958 movie version of the epic romance at the Samuel Goldwyn Theater.
Following the screening, Center Theatre Group’s artistic director, Michael Ritchie, will lead a discussion with three of the film’s stars — Mitzi Gaynor, who played the perky nurse Nellie Forbush; John Kerr, who played the ill-fated Lt. Cable; and France Nuyen, who played his native lover, Liat — as well as Rod Gilfry, who just left the Ahmanson production. He played the handsome French plantation owner Emile de Becque, who falls in love with Nellie.
The evening, says Ritchie, is “really a tribute to the show itself, both the play as it exists and the movie as well. Clearly, this is one of the great, if not the greatest, American musical.”
The musical was based on novelist’s James Michener’s 1947 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, “Tales of the South Pacific,” which he wrote while stationed on a small Pacific island during World War II. The musical follows the lives of several people on a Pacific island during the war. Practically every song is a standard, with “Some Enchanted Evening,” “Happy Talk,” “There Is Nothin’ Like a Dame,” “I’m in Love With a Wonderful Guy” and “Bali Ha’i” among the standouts.
The film version was directed by Joshua Logan, who had also helmed the Broadway production. Though it was a major box office hit — and nominated for three Oscars, winning for sound — the critics were decidedly mixed in their reactions.
One of the main problems was the use of color filters to reflect the emotions of the musical numbers.
“It was a big mistake,” says Kerr, who later gave up acting and became a trial attorney. “When I first saw it, I thought it’s going to be distracting rather than increase the intensity of the scene.”
Gaynor, who continues to perform in clubs, points out that even Logan didn’t like the tinting. “He wanted to stop it,” she says. “When he saw it, he said, ‘I think we ought to take it out.’ But they couldn’t because they would have to redo the entire picture.” Among the film’s major stars, Gaynor was one of the few whose singing wasn’t dubbed. Only Ray Walston, who had played Billis in London and on tour, also sang his own numbers.
“The man who sang for me was Bill Lee,” says Kerr. “We were sort of like a team. I have always been embarrassed about the singing. He didn’t get screen credit. I thought he did a wonderful job, and he made me sound great.” (Lee also supplied the singing voice for Christopher Plummer in “The Sound of Music”)
Rossano Brazzi, who played Emile in the film version, thought he would be doing his own singing. He had recorded an album in Italy, but it wasn’t the operatic baritone needed for the film. “He was kind of petulant,” Gaynor said of Brazzi when he learned he was to be dubbed.
So, opera singer Giorgio Tozzi was hired to dub Brazzi. And the actor accompanied the opera star into the recording booth. “Rossano would stand in front of Tozzi and kind of direct Tozzi,” Gaynor recalls, laughing. “Then he was very happy.”
Though Gaynor, Brazzi and Kerr were established stars, Nuyen was just a teenager when she was cast as Liat. “ ‘South Pacific’ was my first baby step into the whole of show business. I knew nothing at all,” says the French-Vietnamese Nuyen.
Nuyen, who didn’t speak English at the time, was working at a French bakery in New York. She had mustered $500 to go to the Candy Jones Conover modeling school, where photos were taken of her. “One day the phone rang, and it was Miss Conover saying they were coming to pick you up for an interview. They drove me to a very tall building,” she recalls.
“It was the office of Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein. I knew nothing of those two giant musical people. Josh Logan spoke French. I told him what I did. They made me take off my shoes and run around the desk, and I walked out with a seven-year contract with 20th Century Fox!”
Nuyen, who became a psychological counselor for abused women and children, has also continued acting, appearing in “The Joy Luck Club” and numerous TV series.
Although the program is sold out, there will be stand-by line at the Goldwyn on Friday evening. For more information, go to https://www.oscars.org.