Saturday, February 24, 2007

Recasting...SOUTH PACIFIC (1958)

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!

7 comments:

Vertigo's Psycho said...

Oh, what Pacific might have been with Day in the role- Nellie Forbush certainly should have been a, if not the, signature role in her filmography. The fact that today Day is remembered primarily for the string of hugely successful but largely vapid comedies she made immediately following Pacific’s release, rather than for her remarkable gifts as a singer and all-around musical comedy performer, makes a Day fan weep. As you mention, Calamity Jane proved an ample showcase for her talents in the genre, but if Day had landed in this Pacific, her flair for musical comedy would have been enshrined forever in one of the highest profile musical undertakings in Hollywood history, and the film’s (and soundtrack’s) quality would have been greatly improved due to Day’s involvement; Day’s involvement could have made the film a classic, rather than the hit-and-miss affair that resulted without her.

Day has stated she simply was never asked to play the role, while Mitzi Gaynor has mentioned she got the part because she was willing to test for it after “name” leading ladies refused to (she doesn’t mention names, but I get the feeling Gaynor’s aware many, many people at the time were thinking this was Doris’ role). For me, the mystery surrounding Day’s lack of participation in Pacific was solved after skimming though Joshua Logan’s autobiography, wherein the director reveals he was indeed the “big shot” who denied Day a chance at the part after attending that Hollywood party and hearing Day’s assertion. Could Logan have been so horribly misguided and/or pigheaded he couldn’t realize movies are a different art form than the theater, and therefore neglect the fact Day had proven herself to be a perfect choice for Nellie in many screen musicals during the ten years preceding the screen incarnation of Pacific? If so, there’s no excuse for his stupid, pretentious disregard of Day’s abilities. Surely, Logan had seen and heard Day sing on film and records during this period, yet in his book he seems proud of his decision to prevent Day her chance to shine, as Logan mentions he observed “You will not play Nellie” to his self-satisfied self after hearing Day refuse to sing at the party. Well, I guess he was pleased with his decision- too bad for the millions who have actually seen the film sans Day. Logan does go on to admit he was misguided in adding those infamous tints to Pacific’s numbers, but never acknowledges the irreparable damage he did to Pacific by leaving out the rich color Doris Day as Nellie could have brought to the film.

I can’t remember what Logan had to say about Gaynor, and I don’t care, based on the results of their collaboration. Watching the Gaynor screen test (wherein the young ingenue offers her stock-in-trade perkiness, coming across as forced and bland- there’s no ‘spark’ in the test to justify her casting) only makes it clear the role of Nellie belonged to Day. Gaynor’s vocals in the film are pleasant, but she seems out-of-her element, stiff, and over rehearsed, whether performing numbers or doing dialogue sequences. She’s clearly attempting to seize her chance at stardom, rather than offer a true, compelling account of Nellie as she deals with her predicament, whereas Day possessed the maturity, talent, and professionalism to bring off Nellie effortlessly. You’re right, this is truly one of the biggest “no-brainer” castings ever, and the fact it never happened adds up to a pile of horses--- (thanks, but no thanks, Mr. Logan).

CanadianKen said...

So Joshua Logan was the culprit! Thanks for the response - packed with interesting info and astute observations. Glad we're on the same page as to the enormity of the injustice here. Not that it makes up for his crime - but ,you know, I've always been totally behind Logan's choice of Vanessa Redgrave for Guinevere in "Camelot". She may not have been a legitimate singer, but as an actress, she's clearly phenomenal. Leagues and leagues ahead of Julie Andrews. Bringing nuance and shade to every moment of the performance. Exquisite! Redgrave made each line of every lyric come alive. Who needs high C's? Just listen to the Broadway cast album. Andrews - with her crystal-clear soprano - gallops through the part with hickory-dickory-dock efficiency. And that's that. Plus, of course, it didn't hurt that, in the movie version, Redgrave was at the absolute zenith of her beauty. I think Harris and Nero worked well too. But, as I say, none of this excuses Logan for stealing Doris Day's Nellie from us.

Bob said...

I completely agree with both assessments -- Doris Day should have been cast in the role of Nellie Forbush. And, yes, I did know of Josh Logan's lunkheaded decision to cast Mitzi Gaynor (who I liked in everything else). Day did a record album called "Showtime," in which she sings several songs from Rodgers & Hammerstein musicals, like "People will Say we're in Love," "The Surrey with the Fringe on Top," and "The Sound of Music," but it's her soaring version of "A Wonderful Guy" that really shows us what we are missing in the film version of "South Pacific."

But the film still very likely would have had those terrible tinted scenes that were quite annoying, so who knows? In any case, Josh Logan screwed up big time!

Vertigo's Psycho said...

I've re-read Logan's musings, and the situation's even weirder than I remembered. Logan claims Elizabeth Taylor was his ideal Nellie, but he couldn't convince Rodgers and/or Hammerstein to cast her, while he pretty much belittles Day as a "lesser" candidate who's name came up a few times before Logan finally nixed her. What the hell?

Taylor over Day for Cat on a Hot Tin Roof?- Yes. For Pacific?- Ah, no. Guess Logan was impressed with all those glorious Elizabeth Taylor musicals MGM was cranking out during this period- of course you remember them.

Hmmm, can't get Taylor, so lets go with- Mitzi Gaynor over Day!! Something stinks, and I don't think Logan's telling the whole story behind his disregarding Day during the casting process (she won't sing at a party, so obviously she can't do the role, even though she's been a professional singer and actress for almost twenty years- stupid and illogical).

Too bad Fox didn't pick Ed Wood over Logan for director, as Wood couldn't have possibly made worse decisions (and "Ed Wood's South Pacific" would definitely be something I'd pay to see).

CanadianKen said...

Thanks for the chuckles - rueful ones - but chuckles nonetheless.

Susan DA said...

I absolutely adore Mary Martin... if only she'd gotten the role. (Why didn't she?) But Doris would indeed have been wonderful too.

CanadianKen said...

Thanks for taking the time to comment. I like Mary Martin too. But by the time they were filming "South Pacific" she was around 44 and considered, I expect, too old to play Nellie Forbush under the unforgiving gaze of the movie camera. She also wouldn't have been perceived as much of a movie box office draw. Paramount had promoted her in a number of movie musicals during the war years and public response had been pretty tepid. So she retreated to the theater where she became a legend. You could still play ingenues on the stage in your 40's and 50's and get away with it. So after the movie version of "South Pacific" had come and gone, Martin still had big stage triumphs ahead of her, including - of course - her Maria in "The Sound of Music". Of all the Mary Martin recordings I've heard, I think she sounds best on the Richard Rodgers tribute album she made in the late 50's. She sings and Rodgers himself accompanied her on many of the tracks. If you don't have it, it's definitely worth tracking down.