Sunday, November 27, 2011

the "south pacific" conundrum

My friend Paul reminded me of a curious movie moment that I had safely tucked away in the recesses of my mind.

It involves Joshua Logan's lavish 1958 film version of Rodgers and Hammerstein's "South Pacific."

Twenty years after the original roadshow release of the film, another friend, the New York exhibitor Ralph Donnelly, programed the film as part of a roadshow-musical revival when he was booking Broadway's Warner Cinerama theater. It was a rare print, Ralph told me, that he acquired from the people overseeing the Rodgers and Hammerstein estate. ("South Pacific" was made independently by the Magna Theater Corporation and was only distributed by Twentieth Century-Fox.) Alas, Ralph's print was not in Todd-AO but in standard 70mm. Still, it was the original roadshow version, Ralph promised.

This was major because "South Pacific" initially ran 171 minutes when it premiered at the Rivoli Theater in New York and, shortly thereafter, was trimmed to 157 minutes (following the scathing reviews) for the roadshow presentations throughout the rest of the country. For years, the 171-minute running time persisted in details about the film, even though it was displaced by the 157-minute version.

Well, the print that Ralph screened was the shorter 157-minute version. However, it was special in another way. This version, which was made for the Mexico run and had Spanish subtitles, hewed closer to the play, which immediately introduced the Emile De Becque and Nellie Forbush characters and opened with the back-to-back "Twin Soliloquies" and "Some Enchanted Evening" numbers, followed a scene later by the Seabees' "Bloody Mary."

Every version of "South Pacific" that I've seen - the roadshow and general release versions and the assorted home-entertaiment presentations - has opened with the "Bloody Mary" number.

Given that Ralph presented a 70mm print of the film and not the Todd-AO version, my hunch is that he had a preview print that was prepared for the Spanish-speaking market and that, by the time the film opened, the chronology of the opening numbers was changed. Commercially, I guess, it made more sense to open the film with the rousing (and witty) "Bloody Mary" than with the somber classic, "Some Enchanted Evening."

Anyway, when I bought the two-disc DVD of "S.P." a few years ago, I was hoping that the advertised roadshow version on one of the discs might be the one we saw back in '78, plus the missing footage. It indeed turned out to be the 171-minute version (which includes mostly deleted dialogue scenes, all of them seemingly involving Ray Walston's Luther Billis) but it didn't have the alternate opening that screened at the Warner Cinerama.

By the way, Ralph was able to secure an original Todd-AO version of R-&-H's "Oklahoma!" for his series, a print which was a-mazing, so eerie in its clarity that the figures on the screen looked lifelike - only magnified a thousand times over, of course.

Paul's reminder of that screening of "South Pacific" makes we wonder if that rare Mexican print still exists, if it is still in the archives of the Rodgers and Hammerstein estate. I hope so.


Paul said...

Joe, another thing that occurred to me, was I remember that the print we saw had left out "My Girl Back Home", but had a somewhat longer version of the "Bloody Mary" number. The "Wash That Man" song was shown as it was on the soundtrack album.

I was 6 when the film was released. My family owned shops on the boardwalk in Wildwood, NJ. Just up from my grandparents store was a movie theater which showed "roadshow" versions of films, usually one film all summer. When they showed South Pacific, they place a large stereo record player on the boardwalk in front of the theater and played the soundtrack album over and over and over.

You could hear the music clear from the beach where I would play. So, after a couple of weeks, a 6 year old could sing every song in the film. It's one reason why I have a special memory when I see the film.

Two other things... First, I don't know if your DVD has the same commentary on the roadshow disc as the Blu Ray I watched last night, but the commentator mentioned that he "was told that the European" release of the roadshow version was in the same running order as the show, and that the original souvenir book sold at the showings had the songs in the "Broadway" order.

Second, when I worked at Sardi's in NY 30 years ago (oy!), I had the opportunity to ask Joshua Logan about that version and he said that I had seen the "original" cut of the film.

So, like you, I'm a bit disappointed with this blu-ray, however the picture quality is far better than any previous version.

joe baltake said...

Paul! Your encounter with Logan confirms my hunch about the original cut of the film honoring the stage show's chronology of the songs. Interesting, though, that that's the cut which played foreign markets. That explains the subtitled version we saw in '78. One thing though - while I remember "My Girl Back Home" being missing from that print, I recall "I Gotta Wash That Man Right Out of My Hair" being the truncated version that appears in all versions of the film. I was told that R & H wanted the song removed entirely from the film. They wrote it for the play strictly for the novelty of the leading lady actually washing her hair on stage every night. That wasn't such a novelty on film. Hence, they wanted it out. But it was finally thought to be too popular to cut out entirely, so they merely trimmed it.

a.n. said...

In case anyone did not know, the original film (released in the theater some 30 years ago) did have the second verse of "I'm gona wash that man right out of m hair.
I double checked with the owner of the theater - he was a friend and he said they probably would cut this out.

Jimboo said...

Since we're talking about alternate versions of "South Pacific," I remember reading that there was a debate during the recent restoration of "South Pacific" whether the colored filters used to add "mood" to the musical numbers should be removed. The filters were distracting to most critics at the time of release and they colored (no pun intended) in a negative way people's opinions of the film. The restorers ultimately decided to leave the filters in place because they were part of the film's history.

I was sorry to read that this decision had been made. Director Joshua Logan had himself asked Fox to remove the filters AFTER initial exhibitions of the movie had taken place because he felt their inclusion had ruined the film. Fox had refused to remove them at the time on the grounds that it would have been too expensive to withdrawal the film and then rerelease it in a different version. Logan spent the rest of his life apologizing for the use of the filters whenever the film was mentioned.

With all the attention given today to director's cuts of films that had been altered by their studios, shouldn't we also have a version of "South Pacific" that conforms to the director's final wishes?

joe baltake said...

Hey, Jimboo-

The information that I have is that the filters were completely Joshua Logan's idea.

The cinematographer, the great Leon Shamroy, strongly advised against them because once the movie was filmed through the filters, the look was permanent. The appearance of the film couldn't be changed. Shamroy suggested tinting the film in post-production instead, but Logan was adamant. He wanted the filters.

Logan going around afterwards asking Fox to "remove" the filters frankly doesn't make sense. Even if Fox agreed with him, it simply couldn't be done. Both Fox and Logan were stuck with the filters.

Personally, I can't understand why critics of the film continue to complain about the filters. They work perfectly fine, putting the audience in the mood for a musical number. It was a very creative idea and, given that most audiences are uncomfortable when characters in a film suddenly burst into song, I'm surprised it hasn't been used more often, as it "prepares" the viewer for a song.

BTW, for me, the nighttime sequence (with Mitzi Gaynor in a ballgown) is gorgeous because the filter used by Shamroy gave the scene a black-&-white look. Very dramatic.

Based on the info that you have (and which isn't accurate), it sounds like Logan was trying to save face to placate his critics. Instead, he should have stood behind his gutsy decision. He should have been proud of his experiment.

Mark M. said...

Logan himself wrote that he wanted the filters removed:

"When [Logan] asked to have them removed, he found out that it couldn't be done in time to meet the film's bookings, so it went out with the tinting. In his memoirs, he would write that he wanted to picket each showing of the film with a sign reading, "I DIRECTED IT, AND I DON'T LIKE THE COLOR EITHER!"