A Cockeyed Optimist


I saw my first movie in the UK when I was five years old.  it was 1959, and Dad was on leave from Nigeria.  We were living in the family home in Droitwich, and Granny, Mum, and I went to Birmingham’s West End Cinema to see a much-celebrated American import.

Those were the days before movie ratings, when folks who attended such things were adjudged to be, and trusted to be, capable of making decisions as to what was the appropriate age level for attendance.  And knowing that the film in question was of the sort that my granddaughter–many decades later–would dub a “pretty dancing movie,” Granny and Mum were fairly sure I’d enjoy it at some level, even if I didn’t completely “get” all the nuances.  And, since I was a well-behaved child, they thought they could count on my not throwing a tantrum or making a scene, even if I did get a bit fed up or out of my depth.

As it turned out, I was enchanted (even though it was a matinee–and not an evening–performance).  By the scenery, the story, and the characters.  It’s an experience I remember fondly and vividly.

Looking back on it, sixty-three years later, I wonder why that is.  After all, the themes of the movie–racism, prejudice, miscegenation, illicit sex, and yes, Virginia, a bit of toxic masculinity–should, by twenty-first century standards, have sent my childish self into orbit and future lifelong therapy (and perhaps resulted in Granny and Mum being arrested for child abuse).  And yet I pretty much noted them, rolled with them, filed them away, and figured them out.

By the time the movie ended, I had no doubt at all about who were the “good” guys, and who were the “baddies.”  Of what was “right,” and what was “wrong.” And I could see that the heroine, just like those in many of my favorite childhood stories, had learned some lessons, grown as a person, and become a better human being as a result of her travails.

That movie?

South Pacific - movie POSTER (UK Style A) (11" x 17") (1959)

Ahead of its time in some ways.  So hokey in others.  But–in either way–not really a child’s movie.

Except, I found it so.

The star of South Pacific was Mitzi Gaynor.  Of Hungarian descent, she was born Francesca Marlene de Czanyi von Gerber ninety-one years ago, on September 4, 1931, making her today one of the last survivors of the Golden Age of Hollywood.

An established Hollywood presence, she’d been featured in several song-and-dance movies by 1958, when she was tapped to fill the shoes of Mary Martin (who’d performed the role for years on Broadway but who was now found a bit wanting in the attractiveness and age department when it came to the big screen).  Gaynor (a very capable song-and-dance girl in her own right) would, it was felt, fill the movie role to perfection.

And thus did Hollywood find its own Ensign Nellie Forbush.

And–several classics:

When she found out his deep, dark secret:

For the quote of the day:

And the finale.  “Of course, there’s always a chance.”

Happy Endings!  May we all find them and bring them to pass. (Perhaps this really is my theme song):

Of course, I remember other things about the movie, in particular, My (future) Favorite Martian (I’d have picked another link, but most of them have either been disabled or don’t work):

I can’t get any of this “out of my heart.”

Not. This. Heart.

And I don’t expect I ever will  That’s perfectly fine, and totally OK.

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  1. Doug Kimball Thatcher
    Doug Kimball

    What a lovely introduction to film!  R&H always translated well from stage to film.  My lovely wife, when we met, was an aspiring singer/actress.  I first saw her as the ingenue in the Fantastiks at a Boston based rep company.  My mother wore the grooves out of all the early R&H musicals and South Pacific was a favorite.  I like Carousel best myself, but it is awfully sad.  My wife’s favorite movie of all time is Sound of Music.  She once played Maria in a small theater in Fairfield County.

    I also remember my first big screen experience was a showing of Disney’s “Darby O’Gill and the Little People.”  It was the summer of 1959.  I was nearly five and they showed it in the auditorium at an old school near our two decker flat, free, for the local children.  I found it frightful and closed my eyes through most of it.

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  2. OldPhil Coolidge

    Not a clip from the movie, but this one always gets me.

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  3. Percival Thatcher

    “South Pacific” was one of our high school musicals. When I first got involved, I wanted ti run the light board, but somehow my talents (mostly carpentry and electrical work) were always required elsewhere. My only on-stage role was holding together the “pier” during the “There is Nothing Like a Dame” dance number when it started to separate during a performance. So, there was one extra sailor that apparently vanished during the scene.

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  4. EODmom Coolidge

    I saw that in Vernon, Texas the summer it was released. We were visiting my mother’s parents where she grew up for our annual visit from NJ. It was a thrill to go to the movie theater with my cousins and see that film. It warms my heart to think of how it glowed for me – the music, the adventure, the exotic nature of all of it. It was simply thrilling. I know we saw other movies there different summers – drive in and in town – but this one is the memory standout.  
    So thank you. You made my night. 

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  5. Hoyacon Member

    When I saw the B&W pic of Mitzi Gaynor, all I could think of is “Hollywood glamor, whatever happened to it?”

    I’d love to be the guy who was washed out of her hair.

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  6. EJHill+ Podcaster

    Pacific was the first R&H film to be only be shot once. The 1950s was an era of competing film formats, both in ratio and frames per second. Both Oklahoma! and Carousel were filmed twice. Frank Sinatra quit the latter film because of it.

    The plan was to have Ezio Pinza reprise his role from Broadway with Mary Martin. But Pinza suffered a stroke and several heart attacks and died in 1957 before filming began. With Pinza out, so was Martin. Doris Day was offered the role and declined. Elizabeth Taylor auditioned and bombed.

    In the end the only authentic singing in the film is Gaynor and Ray Walston, who was in the original stage cast in the West End.

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  7. RushBabe49 Thatcher

    I saw it with my Portland cousins, and I still remember it.  Thanks for the memories, @she!

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  8. David Foster Member
    David Foster

    Rossano Brazzi, who played Emile de Becque in ‘South Pacific’, earlier played the character Leo in the Italian movie version of Ayn Rand’s ‘We the Living’.  Somehow, he made Leo come across as a much more likable person than he seemed in the book, although I don’t think any of the dialogue was changed.

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  9. TBA Coolidge

    EJHill+ (View Comment):
    Elizabeth Taylor auditioned and bombed.

    Not shocked. 

    • #9
  10. She Member

    TBA (View Comment):

    EJHill+ (View Comment):
    Elizabeth Taylor auditioned and bombed.

    Not shocked.

    Me neither.  I can’t even.

    There was a terrific “Live From Lincoln Center” production several years ago on TV with Kelly O’Hara in the lead. (Looks like it was in 2010).  I had it saved on my satellite box, but lost it when I switched providers a few years later.  I don’t think it’s available anywhere.

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