Though reviewers had ( and have) their doubts about Joshua Logan’s screen version of “South Pacific”, the reputation of the property itself made it a virtually critic-proof juggernaut at the box-office in ’58.
The big Rodgers and Hammerstein stage musicals (Oklahoma!, The King and I, South Pacific) constituted such an imposing part of the 50’s landscape it was pretty much taken for granted that when they were filmed, you went. Everybody knew the songs – they were the sing-a-long soundtracks of the era.In hindsight, the film versions of all of them could have been better. Compared to the finest of the late 40’s/early 50’s MGM musicals, these mammoths lacked lightness and creativity. Often following the stage versions too slavishly, they frequently lumbered where they might have leapt. Understandably, Rodgers and Hammerstein’s paramount concern seemed to be the musical scores. And – no doubt about it – the film orchestrations were splendid – often dramatic improvements on the stage versions. What can you say about the “Bali Hai” prelude to “South Pacific”, the radiant choral work in “Oklahoma!”, the rousing “March of the Siamese Children”? Just tingle with pleasure, genuflect and play ‘em again. What’s more, some of the movie castings were spectacularly right. Gordon Macrae (Oklahoma!) and Yul Brynner (“The King and I”) were essentially unimprovable.
Where “South Pacific” was concerned, neither Rossano Brazzi nor John Kerr seemed ideal choices as Emile or Lt. Cable. Both had to be dubbed for their songs. Besides which, neither brought anything exceptional to his role. Juanita Hall (dubbed though she was) projected an oddball screwiness that perhaps justified her presence. But it’s in the critical role of Nellie Forbush that the picture comes up maddeningly short. Not that it’s badly played. No, the problem’s simply the discrepancy between what the role might have been and what emerged. Mitzi Gaynor first popped up in Fox musicals of the early 50’s – a fresh, zingy new discovery. But a certain staleness crept in quite soon, not helped by dud vehicles like “Down Among the Sheltering Palms” and “The I Don’t Care Girl”. She WAS talented – and with the right script and a sympathetic director, Gaynor sparkled. Teamed with Donald O’Connor in “There’s No Business Like Show Business”, as counterpoint to an iconically languid Marilyn Monroe in “Lazy”, she upped her game delightfully. Gaynor did her own singing in “South Pacific” and pushed herself pretty much to her limit in that department. Trouble was she was much better as a dancer than a singer. And the role of Nellie called for a minimum of dancing and a maximum of singing. On balance, Gaynor is actually okay in the part.
But, in retrospect, another artist – eminently high-profile at the time – was such a natural, almost inescapable choice for the role that any other casting now seems unforgivable. What the part requires is an attractive, freshly scrubbed All-American girl next door. Bouncy and effervescent – but grounded. Self-reliant, yet open to romance. A solid, sensitive actress who can make the most of Nellie’s conflicted realization of her own latent racism. Not just credible, but touching. And, oh yes, she has to have a wonderful singing voice – strong and sunny - to deliver numbers like “Wonderful Guy”, “Cock-eyed Optimist” and “Gonna Wash That Man Right Outta My Hair”. Plus the comic chops to sell “Honey Bun”. The American musical comedy leading lady at her best and most beguiling. Did I hear someone say Doris Day? It’s a name that looms large and luminous over the role and the picture - zooming way beyond the might-have-been into the outer reaches of the absolutely, undoubtedly should-have-been – and then some!
Doris was also a big box-office name – perhaps the only icon of early 50’s musicals who survived and prospered for years to come as a powerful screen attraction. Her involvement in the project would surely have made it an even sweeter box-office proposition. Yes, it’s true that a Rodgers and Hammerstein musical of this caliber hardly needed superstars. The vehicle itself would pack ‘em in. But trumping that theory is Day’s indisputable rightness for the role of Nellie. Age-wise – perfectly acceptable; box-office-wise – golden; talent-wise – a magical match.
As it happens, Doris’ prominence and her hands-down appropriateness for the role were so obvious at the time that she was high on the list of prospective candidates. I’ve read various reasons given for her failure to snag the part. Did Rodgers and Hammerstein balk at her big star fee? If so, it was misguided thrift. Or was there another explanation? One account suggests that at a Hollywood party, with celebrities gathered around a piano, Doris was asked to join in and said something to the effect of “I don’t sing at parties.”. This supposedly happened within earshot of some big shot who had a vital say in “South Pacific”’s casting. And apparently ticked him off to the extent that Doris’ name was simply crossed off the list. The story may be apocryphal. But, whatever the reason – it’s wrong, just wrong that Doris didn’t play Nellie. We all need to have seen and heard her sing those words “I’m as corny as Kansas in August” and to have cheered her on when she tried to wash that man right outta her hair.
Along with Garland, Astaire and Kelly, Doris is one of the great blazing talents of the movie musical era – a 20th century wonder. And it’s a shame she was never attached to any of the legendary musical properties. Certainly, “Pajama Game” came close. And though Doris’ “Calamity Jane” emerged as a much better movie than the similarly themed “Annie Get Your Gun”, it’s the Irving Berlin show - with its cavalcade of famous songs – that sits higher in the pantheon. Doris Day and “South Pacific” would have enhanced each other’s reputations. The fact that, separately Doris and “South Pacific” both remain immensely famous is beside the point. Bottom line: We never got to see Doris Day in “South Pacific” She … and we … wuz robbed!