Mitzi Gaynor with Cinema Retro contributor Eddy Friedfeld in New York.
By Eddy Friedfeld
“I never worked with a stinker- how
great is that?” Mitzi Gaynor said as she recalled working with the likes of
Frank Sinatra, Gene Kelly, Cole Porter, Rogers and Hammerstein. Probably
because the legendary actress, singer, and dancer never worked on any project
that she did not make better.
In New York City celebrating the 50th
anniversary of the release of the film South Pacific on Blu-Ray disc,
Ms. Gaynor was radiant, charismatic, and vibrant, still possessing all the
energy that could “wash that man right out of her hair,” recalling her iconic
character, Nellie Forbush.
Filmed on location on the Hawaiian
island of Kaua’i, the classic and enduring South Pacific is about a
young American nurse from Little Rock (Gaynor) who meets the handsome and
mysterious French planter (Rossano Brazzi) on a South Pacific island during
World War II. They fall in love against the backdrop of the war and a
classic Rodgers & Hammerstein score.
“The film brought in $17,000,000 on its
domestic release,” writes Laurence Maslon in The South Pacific Companion,
“making it the third top grossing film of the 1950s. In England, they
went absolutely mad for the picture. It was the greatest money earner in
the United Kingdom until Goldfinger.”
“The minute we got off the airplane,
off came the girdles and the stockings and on came the Mumus. And then
the next day we suited up for shooting.”
“Nellie Forbush was one of the first
feminist characters and she didn’t know it,” Gaynor said. “She was just a
little girl from Little Rock. A nice girl from a nice family- brought up
right. Nellie was college educated in her twenties, a trained nurse.
She’s never been away from home and winds up on an island in the Pacific,
surrounded by servicemen. She meets a man with an accent she’s never
heard before who offers her a brandy and a plantation. She initially
can’t get over her own prejudices- he was married to a black woman and has
Polynesian children, which to her are black. ‘Before you’re six or seven or
eight, you’re taught to hate everyone your family hates’ were the lyrics.
But Nellie overcomes what she was taught as a child, and when her great love is
killed in action, Nellie commits to raise his children as her own.”
“The best part of making South
Pacific were Rosanno and Lydia Brazzi- two treasures of my life. Rosanno
would walk around so in love with himself- “Mitzi Gahnor- I’m so
gorgeous- could you imagine not having a good time with someone like
“Few people know that if it weren’t for
Frank Sinatra I wouldn’t have gotten the part,” Gaynor recalled fondly. “I was
doing The Joker’s Wild with Frank and he took me to meet director Josh
Logan who shook my hand and said “Hello Nellie.” I met Richard Rodgers
the next day They then wanted me to meet Oscar Hammerstein, but Oscar was only
available on a particular Thursday, which was the day of the big casino scene
in The Joker’s Wild. I asked the director, Charlie Vidor, for a
few hours off. Charlie turned to Frank and said, “it’s your call.”
Frank said, “We’ll shoot around you, honey - go get the job.” Someone else
would have said are you crazy?” Frank never got the credit he deserved for all
the good things he did for people.”
I sang for Oscar Hammerstein. All
he said was “Thank you, Miss Gaynor.” I finished Joker’s Wild and
then started Les Girls with Gene Kelly. It was lunch time, it was
raining, and cold. I was in my dressing room when my phone rang. “How are
you?” Jack (Jack Bean, Gaynor’s beloved late husband and manager of 51 years)
asked. “My fanny hurts, my leg hurts, my ankle hurts, and I’m coming down
with a cold. But other than that I’m fine. “I wonder what the
weather is like in Kawaii in August,” he said. “How in the world would I
know,” I responded. “Because you’re going to be there, you got the
part.” And here we are 50 years later.”
The new DVD features a special “Road
Show Version” of the film, a feature-length documentary “Passion, Prejudice and
South Pacific: Creating an American Masterpiece”, Mitzi Gaynor’s screen test,
and vintage excerpts from the original Broadway stars, and Diane Sawyer
interviewing James Michener, author of Tales of the South Pacific, upon which
South Pacific was based.
Fox's new Blu-ray special edition DVD of South Pacific.
“Dancing is still the hardest
profession. Gene Kelly said dancing is a man’s game. Women have to
do the same thing in heels, and have to sing and smile at the same time.
Professional athletes don’t even have to do that- and they get to wear
sneakers. You break your knees, ankles, and toes. The first lesson
is not to step on your own feet or anyone else’s. Dancers are always falling
down offstage and tripping. Probably because they’re not paying as much
Gaynor alsorecalled running
into Sid Caesar in the vitamin section at Trader Joe’s in Beverly Hills and
immediately lapsing into a German accent and matching banter as Caesar’s
shifted into an equally faux German voice.
On the connection between music and
comedy: “I’m a Hungarian Virgo- I see everything skewed. You cannot see
the forest through the trees- you just see that little hole of what’s missing-
and that’s where the comedy comes from. There’s a big difference between
a Hungarian and a Romanian- both will sell you their mothers, but a Hungarian
is honest- he’ll deliver.”
Cinema Retro Contributor Eddy Friedfeld
is the co-author, with Sid Caesar, of Caesar’s Hours and teaches The
History of Comedy in America at Yale and NYU.
Click here to order the new South Pacific DVD discounted from Amazon. Click here to order the DVD Mitzi Gaynor: Razzle Dazzle, The Special Years. Click here to order The South Pacific Companion book.