The entire musical takes place during WWII in the Solomon Islands. There is an American naval base on one of the islands, and the rest are occupied by the Japanese. An American lieutenant, Joe Cable (John Kerr) lands on the island occupied by the US in order to plan an attack on the Japanese-occupied islands. He lands there and is greeted by Luther Billis (Ray Walston), another sailor stationed on the island, and Bloody Mary (Juanita Hall), a Tonkinese grass skirt vendor. Bloody Mary shamelessly flirts with Cable while Billis sees Cable as his chance to get to the one unoccupied and seemingly magical island, Bali Ha'i. Cable falls in love with the idea of the island as well, and Bloody Mary sings a song. Then a Captain Brackett (Russ Brown) arrives and shoos Bloody Mary and her grass skirts away from the navy base while introducing himself to Cable. Cable tells him of his plans to take the islands from the Japanese, but he'll need the help of a certain Frenchman living on the island, Emile de Becque (Rossano Brazzi). Meanwhile, Emile de Becque is entertaining a certain Nellie Forbush (Mitzi Gaynor), a naval nurse working at the hospital. They fall in love quite instantaneously and sing a song about it. Then Emile proposes to her (what? It's only 35 minutes into the film!) and Nellie says she'll think about it. Then Emile tells her that back in France, he killed a man (nice timing, bro) and she's slightly horrified but still wants to marry him. She returns to the hospital for work and is summoned to Capt. Brackett's office. Brackett and Cable have learned about Nellie and Emile's romance, so they question her about it and Cable tells Nellie to forget it all. Then Nellie goes and takes a shower and vows to "wash that man right outta [her] hair." Then the captain talks to Emile and tells him to join in the secret operation with Cable. Emile refuses because he loves Nellie and Cable is distraught. Captain Brackett tells Cable to take some time off, and Cable seizes the opportunity to go to Bali Ha'i with Luther Billis. They both get a boat and sail to the magical island where native women cover them with flowers and they watch a pig-killing ritual. Then Bloody Mary shows up and drags Cable off to her house, where he meets her daughter Liat (France Nuyen). Liat and Cable fall in love/lust and stay with each other until the bell for the boats rings and Cable has to return to the other island. Meanwhile, Emile has hosted a grand party for Nellie to meet all of his friends. She speaks horrible French, by the way. Both are rather drunk, so they sing a song. Emile decides to introduce Nellie to his two children, who he had with his previous wife, a woman of Polynesian descent. When he tells Nellie this, she becomes remarkably upset and flees his house. INTERMISSION! Act II begins with Cable returning to Bali Ha'i to be with Liat, where he is told that a rich French planter wants to marry Liat. Bloody Mary tells Cable that he must marry Liat to make her happy. Cable says that he can't, but he gives a watch to Liat as a keepsake. Bloody Mary is unsatisfied, so she takes the watch and gives it back to Cable, who returns to the other island depressed. Thanksgiving is nearing, and Nellie is planning to put on a comedy show in celebration. However, she is depressed as well, and she demands a transfer to another island. Captain Brackett talks her out of it, and after the show, Nellie receives some flowers and a note from Emile. Distraught, she runs from the stage and out... away... to where she bumps into Cable, who has just recovered from malaria (what?!). They talk about love, and Cable confesses that he loves Liat, and Nellie suggests that they both need to go back home to America. Emile shows up to talk to Nellie, who confesses that her racism made her hate the fact that Emile used to be married to a Polynesian woman, while Cable decides against going back to America and decides to marry Liat. Emile then reluctantly joins Cable's mission to take back the Japanese-occupied islands. The two of them make it to the other island safely and are able to relay information back to the naval base. Unfortunately, the Japanese detect their presence and open fire on them, killing Cable. Nellie hears of this and must comfort Liat, who has refused to marry anyone but Cable. Nellie realizes that she still loves Emile despite his past marriage, and she goes to his house and begins to care for his two children. Emile returns safe and sound and they all eat soup together. The End!
Someday you'll see me floatin' in the sunshine,
My head stickin' out from a low fluin' cloud,
You'll hear me call you,
Singin' through the sunshine,
Sweet and clear as can be:
"Come to me, here am I, come to me."
If you try, you'll find me
Where the sky meets the sea.
"Here am I your special island
Come to me, Come to me."
This movie is part of a whole other aspect of Asian American-ness that I haven't really investigated prior to this. I've mostly stuck with exploring East Asian stereotypes, but I've never really gotten into the Pacific Islander thing. It is definitely included in the Asian/-American thing, but Pacific Islanders usually get left out of these considerations. I realized this and thought that I needed to include a movie or television show that showed potential stereotypes surrounding Pacific Islanders as well. I lucked out, huh?
I watched this musical mostly for Juanita Hall's performance as Bloody Mary. Hall, an African-American woman, played the Tonkinese woman who sells grass skirts to the sailors stationed on the unnamed island. She's loud, and brassy and pidgin English abounds. Everything about Bloody Mary is disgusting. She can't say the word "lieutenant" - she's forced to call Joe Cable a "sexy Lootellant" in that halting, fingernails-on-chalkboard accent. She sets up her daughter with the "sexy Lootellant" and purrs at him, "You riiiiiiiiiiiiike?" Once he refuses to marry Liat, she calls him a "steen-gee steen-kah" and waddles away in a huff. Accent aside, however, there's the issue of yellowface. Is it considered yellowface to have an African-American playing a Pacific Islander? She's not playing an East Asian, but she's still playing someone of a different race - a race that, nowadays, is grouped with East Asians. What's up with this? I'm unsure how to classify this particular casting choice at all. The role has been played by women of all races, but that doesn't excuse the fact that this role is based on cheap stereotypes and lowbrow comedy based on her preposterous accent. The character of Bloody Mary is basically creating another stereotype, but this time only one that can be applied to Pacific Islander women of a certain age - middle-aged, roly-poly and sassy women. Bloody Mary seems to be made fun of all the time by the sailors stationed on the island, and she doesn't seem to have any love interests - she's just there for kicks and giggles. Bloody Mary is kind of like Charlie Chan in this way. Both are subservient, rotund, laughable, and speak their own brand of pidgin English. She's like an old, un-innocent Suzie Wong - now ain't that too damn bad?
Then there's the island girl Liat. She's pretty and sweet and mute. Another Lotus Blossom - although it begs the question of whether or not she should be a Hibiscus Blossom or something. Liat has only one line in the entire movie - "Je parle francais - un peu." And that's it. Nothing more. When she's onscreen she's either kissing Lootellant Cable or smiling at him or, in the above video, doing some sort of funky hula-esque/sign language dance. Liat represents the white man's fantasy - a young, pretty, exotic island girl who doesn't talk but dances and is pretty all the time. Eye candy. That's all Liat is. And she's completely devoted to her Lootellant - what more could the guy want? (Sidenote: That actress is France Nuyen (19 at the time of the shooting), who played Suzie Wong on Broadway and later starred in Joy Luck Club)
Then of course there's the plot line surrounding Nellie Forbush and Emile de Becque - Nellie loves him but can't get over the fact that he was once married to (God forbid) a Polynesian woman! And had two mixed-race children with her! How horrible! Obviously, the French guy had no problem with marrying a Polynesian woman - makes you wonder whether his previous situation was similar to Cable + Liat's, eh? Yeah. This whole White Guy + Asian Woman thing? Yeah, tanned-white-as-white-can-be Nellie Forbush doesn't like that all that much. It's the Reverse Fu Manchu effect: Watch out for those innocent, Bambi-eyed, pretty Polynesian women! They'll enchant and steal your white men! This prompts Emile to (somehow) still believe in Nellie's love and ability to love him and his children. Then Lootellant Cable bursts into song!
You've got to be taught
To hate and fear,
You've got to be taught
From year to year,
It's got to be drummed
In your dear little ear
You've got to be carefully taught.
You've got to be taught to be afraid
Of people whose eyes are oddly made,
And people whose skin is a diff'rent shade,
You've got to be carefully taught.
You've got to be taught before it's too late,
Before you are six or seven or eight,
To hate all the people your relatives hate,
You've got to be carefully taught!
Well damn. Couldn't have said it better myself (I think?). Now here's the kicker. The tune of this song sounds like a happy-happy-joy-joy song, right? But those lyrics don't... fit? I mean, "You've got to be taught to be afraid of people whose eyes are oddly made"? Wow. Ouch. And in a way, Cable's right. You probably have been taught to fear people with "oddly made" eyes. That's what this study is about, right? How the media teaches us to fear the other - regardless of what kind of other it is. Anyways, I'm pretty sure that this song is supposed to be sarcastic and spiteful, as Cable (at this point in the show) is upset that he can't marry Liat. This song seems to be shedding some light on this idea of inherent racism that is really... nurtured racism? Environmental racism? Interestingly enough, this song was deemed "Communist" by a Georgia legislation when the show was first on tour in the 1950s (Communist? Really?!? I resent that remark!). It claimed that the song "[justified] interracial marriage [and] was implicitly a threat to the American way of life." Ouch. Thankfully, Rodgers and Hammerstein stated that they would continue the show without the cutting of this one song. Progress, people, progress!
Overall, this musical is... odd. At some points, it directly draws from and expands upon crude stereotypes surrounding Pacific Islanders, not to mention some East Asian characterizations. But then it has songs like "You've Got to Be Carefully Taught" that open one's eyes to the racism that has been, well, carefully taught. It's a mixed bag - but again, it's some crap songs.