Dr. Christina J. Johns
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Dr. Christina J. Johns

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South Sea Woman

Posted on August 4, 2019 at 6:05 PM

 

SOUTH SEA WOMAN (1953)

 

Burt Lancaster did not want to make “South Sea Woman” but did so as part of a deal with Warners to get financing and distribution for a couple of films being put out by his independent production company, Norma Productions.


According to Gary Fishgall, Burt’s biographer, he had no illusions about the film, but tried even with lines like “I don’t want any bathtub jarhead beating his gums to save me” to make it the best he could.


His co-star in the film, Chuck Conners, had only recently been discovered (while a baseball player) and had only two movie credits to his name. On the basis of being cast in this film, Connors quit baseball. It was not, in my opinion, the wisest decision.

 

People later wrote that the film as being an odd combination of adventure, service comedy, Hope and Crosby road film, prison escape, pirate, and costume drama, mixing ridiculous comedy with war action film footage.

 

There’s not a lot to see here except a strange scene where both Connors and Lancaster prance around in women’s night clothes. Very quickly in the scene, Lancaster almost rip his dressing gown off as if he couldn’t stand to be seen in it. He does the rest of the scene bare chested while Connors remains clothed in a filmy negligee.

 

Virginia Mayo (the love interest) gives a performance that it probably better than both men put together. She manages to at least be believable in most of the scenes, which isn’t easy since she starts off being in love with Connors and ends up marrying Lancaster.

 

The film is directed by Arthur Lubin (who did Francis the Talking Mule movies and Abbot and Costello) and based on a play written by William Rankin. Lancaster plays a marine being tried for being AWOL. He refuses to participate in his own court-martial and so various acquaintances tell the story of how he wound up there in flashbacks.

 

Lubin said years after the film that he had been intimidated by Lancaster in the beginning. But, Lubin and Lancaster got alone fine. The directors who had no trouble with Lancaster were the ones who had a great deal of respect for him, listened to him and who didn’t get into a dominance struggle with him. Lubin said that Burt had great ideas and he was glad to accept many of them. That always suited Lancaster down to the ground.

There is some location film included and some war footage but most of the movie is shot on the Warner Brothers backlot. And boy, can you tell it. The sets are just terrible. Some people wrote at the time that Lancaster seemed to be playing a parody of himself. The sets even seem to be a parody of tropical island film sets.

 

As if that weren’t bad enough, somebody (who knows who) devised men’s costumes used for the dancers in the wedding festival scenes with Connors and Mayo that look like nothing so much as enormous dancing thumbs wearing grass skirts.

 

I am sure, sure, that no natives in the history of the world have ever worn costumes like that. In order to escape the island, Lancaster dresses up as one of the dancers. There’s a scene where he removes the top of the costume, but not the bottom. He looks truly absurd.

 

The New York Times reviewer Bosley Crowther called the film "a rip-snorting glorification of two United States Marines", with Lancaster doing his best "with all the muscle and charm at his command", but in the end, it comes off as a “terrible lot of nonsense and, eventually, a fizzle as a show."

 

Another reviewer said that the film was “one of those random souped-up tales which gets out of hand early, races through all sorts of nonsense in search of a story, and winds up in a flurry of action, empty-handed (Fishgall).

 

If you’re a Burt Lancaster fan, this is definitely worth sitting through. If you’re not, I’m not sure it is. I’ve never seen Virginia Mayo do anything that was bad. (I especially loved her in The Best Years of Our Lives.) She is simply gorgeous and a talented actress. For Burt, the film never seems as other than a walk in the park. And, Connors is just a terrible actor. The screenplay is scattered and schizophrenic. But, in the final analysis, it’s worth it just to see those dancing thumbs.

 

Gary Fishgall (1995) Against Type. The Biography of Burt Lancaster.

 


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