Opening on Broadway only four years after VE Day, South Pacific found a ready made audience with the American public who believed in the rightness of the cause just fought for. The show is based on two short stories from an anthology of stories entitled Tales of the South Pacific by James Michener. The success of South Pacific boosted Michener's reputation as a novelist in no small way.
It's only too bad that South Pacific was not made with the original Broadway leads because it took so long to come to the screen. Ezio Pinza had died in 1956. He had done a couple of films in Hollywood that didn't do that good, but Pinza scored another great success on Broadway in Fanny. Too bad he didn't get to do that film either.
Mary Martin was also getting a bit long in the tooth by 1958 to be playing young Ensign Nellie Forbush. Also in a previous sojourn in Hollywood she hadn't done that good for some inexplicable reason. Mitzi Gaynor stepped very nicely into Mary's shoes and being more of a dancer than Martin, Gaynor's part had more dancing than on Broadway. Check the routine she has when she sings and dances about that wonderful guy she's just fell in love with. It's a shame that Mitzi Gaynor did not come along when musicals were at their height. How great she would have been in some Busby Berkeley epics.
Pinch hitting for Pinza is Rossano Brazzi and for Pinza's voice, Giorgio Tozzi. The big hit of South Pacific, probably the greatest hit from Rodgers&Hammerstein is Some Enchanted Evening. The popularity of that song made the South Pacific original cast album a big seller. And a whole slew of singers recorded it. Bing Crosby and Perry Como had big selling records in 1949 and Al Jolson as well.
The comedy is supplied by Ray Walston who was fresh from Broadway and Hollywood playing Mr. Applegate in Damn Yankees. He plays Luther Billis, sailor and conman extraordinaire. On Broadway the part was done by Myron McCormick.
In fact Walston's big scene is a reminder of how film can do things that on stage you can only imagine. He accidentally falls out of a plane with a parachute fortunately just off a Japanese held island. He's thrown a rubber life raft and has to paddle like mad to get out of range of the enemy weapons. And then sits back and enjoys the show as a whole slew of fighters pound the Japanese on that island. It's described on stage, but here you can enjoy it first hand.
The primary story is the romance between nurse Nellie Forbush from Little Rock, Arkansas and French expatriate planter Emile DeBecque, Brazzi's character. The secondary story line concerns marine lieutenant Joseph Cable, nicely played by John Kerr with dubbed singing voice. Juanita Hall who is from the original cast is Bloody Mary is trying to match Cable with her daughter Liat played by France Nuyen in one of her first screen roles. She's quite the operator herself, Bloody Mary and more than a match for Walston.
Three young players who made it big later and had bit parts in South Pacific were James Stacy, Doug McClure and featured prominently is Tom Laughlin, the future Billy Jack.
It's too bad that we don't have a nice technicolor version of Mary Martin and Ezio Pinza, but this is a pretty good group of players who worked hard and made a wonderful movie.