Viewer Guide: South Pacific and Cadillac Records

June 14, 2019 | Richard Peña


This week’s classic is South Pacific, the 1958 movie adaptation of the beloved Rodgers & Hammerstein Pulitzer Prize-winning musical, directed by Joshua Logan.

Following in the footsteps of Oklahoma! and Carousel, Rodgers & Hammerstein scored a third blockbuster success on Broadway in 1949 with their adaptation of James A. Michener’s Pulitzer Prize-winning collection of intertwined stories titled Tales from the South Pacific. With searing memories of World War II still potent in the audience’s hearts and minds, South Pacific, instead of simply being a nostalgic melodrama of wartime peril and romance, found its dramatic power by focusing on another evil running rampant around the globe: the destructive power of racism now intensifying in an upended world of colliding ethnic populations.

Focusing on select anecdotes from Michener’s autobiographically inspired stories, Rodgers & Hammerstein along with co-writer and director Joshua Logan chose to concentrate on six key characters: Ensign Nellie Forbush, a naïve young Navy nurse from Little Rock, Arkansas, played by Mitzi Gaynor; Emile de Becque, an expatriate French planter played by Rossano Brazzi; Joe Cable, a Main Line Philadelphia Marine Corps Lieutenant played by John Kerr; Bloody Mary, an enterprising Tonkinese peddler played by Juanita Hall; Bloody Mary’s beautiful daughter Liat, played by France Nuyen; and Seabee Luther Billis, an entrepreneurial jack-of-all-trades played by Ray Walston. Set in a Navy base on a lush, unnamed South Pacific atoll, the nearby Japanese-occupied islands offer a constant reminder that the war is actually never far away, despite the island’s Club Med appearance. And with Lieutenant Cable’s arrival to undertake a secret mission, the war begins to intrude on Nellie and Emile’s budding romance—although for Bloody Mary, Cable’s appearance signals an intriguing opportunity. And for Cable himself, the sight of the mysterious island Bali Ha’i conjures a powerful longing he can’t quite define.

Among the score’s many classic songs are “There’s Nothing Like a Dame,” “A Cock-Eyed Optimist,” “Younger Than Springtime” and of course “Some Enchanted Evening,” as well as the biting musical soliloquy on the relentless grip of racism, “You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught.”

After their unhappy earlier experiences working in Hollywood, Rodgers & Hammerstein firmly resolved to take control of the movie adaptations of their blockbuster musicals, beginning in 1955 with the screen version of Oklahoma! With South Pacific, the first task that Rodgers & Hammerstein faced in adapting the show for the movies was recasting. Although the pair were reportedly considering having legendary Broadway star Mary Martin reprise her stage performance as Nellie alongside their original Emile, opera singer Ezio Pinza, Pinza’s untimely death from a stroke—and Martin’s age—made it clear they would need to start all over. Although many assumed Doris Day would be a lock for Nellie, director Josh Logan felt that Day would only play a version of herself and not the character. Hollywood mogul Mike Todd lobbied for his wife Elizabeth Taylor, but Rodgers was too underwhelmed by her singing to accept her in the role. Known for supporting parts in various movie musicals, Mitzi Gaynor ultimately won the coveted role after two auditions and a screen test. For Emile, Italian actor Rossano Brazzi was everyone’s first choice after his smoldering performance as Katharine Hepburn’s married lover in Summertime. But despite Brazzi’s assurances that he could handle the singing, his actual vocal performance fell short, leading Rodgers & Hammerstein to hire opera singer Giorgio Tozzi to dub Emile’s songs. During production on location in Hawaii, Brazzi made no effort to hide his disgruntlement, finally forcing Logan to threaten to replace him if he didn’t adjust his attitude. And as for those color filters intended to heighten the atmosphere of the songs, Logan had employed the technique on an experimental basis, intending to revert to un-tinted picture if he decided they didn’t work. However, after determining during previews he wanted to drop the tinting, Logan made the jolting discovery it would take too long to remove the colorizing in time to meet the film’s release schedule, and so the tinting stayed. In his autobiography, Logan wrote of wanting to picket screenings of the film wearing a T-shirt that read, “I Directed It, and I Don’t Like the Color Either!”


This week’s indie is Cadillac Records, the 2008 biographical music film directed by Darnell Martin.

In telling the story of the Chicago-based Chess Records, Cadillac Records offers a vibrant and volatile ensemble portrait of some of the most groundbreaking artists in blues music during the dawning days of rock & roll, when records by African American performers were dismissively categorized and firmly segregated as “race records.” Adrien Brody stars as Leonard Chess, who founded Chess Records with his brother Phil in 1950. Heading the roster of the label’s first major stars is the incomparable Jeffrey Wright as blues great Muddy Waters, who was first recorded by Alan Lomax for the Library of Congress in 1941. Soon joining the Chess stable of stars is the hot-headed Little Walter, played by Columbus Short, along with Eamonn Walker as Howlin’ Wolf and Cedric the Entertainer as Willie Dixon. Fiercely competitive, the men eventually make way for the arrival of a most singular lady by the name of Etta James, portrayed in a blistering performance by Beyoncé as a prodigiously talented yet profoundly troubled woman. And by the time Chuck Berry arrives on the scene—played with scene-stealing cunning by Mos Def—the crossover era has officially arrived, with black and white teenagers jumping over the dwindling barricades in unified response to a revolutionary new music.

Also featured in supporting roles are Gabrielle Union, Tammy Blanchard, Jay O. Sanders—and if you don’t blink, you’ll notice The Walking Dead’s Norman Reedus as a Chess recording engineer.

Cadillac Records tells an important story that to my mind can’t be repeated often enough: the way that popular culture—specifically, music—was among the most effective weapons in the still-continuing struggle for racial equality in the US. While one can’t, and shouldn’t, dismiss the profit motivation for many of the mostly white producers of rhythm and blues, it also has to be remembered that these people were helping to usher in a new consciousness that contributed to changing the course of American history.

Matt Dillon was originally in discussion for the role of Leonard Chess, but was forced to withdraw due to scheduling conflicts. The film’s soundtrack was nominated for three GRAMMY Awards and spent 48 weeks as the number one Blues Album. The month after the film’s release, Beyoncé performed “At Last” at the inauguration ball of Barack Obama as the official “first dance” of the President and First Lady.


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