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Magic5678's avatar

Controversial Theme of South Pacific and Show Boat?

Asked by Magic5678 (173 points ) December 30th, 2012

My friend asked me a while ago what the controversial theme (that almost stopped production in these two musicals was. I still can’t figure it out and I’d be greatful if you guys could help. :)

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11 Answers

elbanditoroso's avatar

In South Pacific, it was that a white man (the Frenchman) could have been married to a Polynesian woman (with darker skin) and had two darker-skin children with that wife.

The secondary controversial theme was that the Mitzi Gaynor’s character at first decided she wasn’t able to fall in love and marry a man who had non-caucasian children .

But there were all sorts of other things that would be considered sexist and even racist today, even though they were normal back then.

AngryWhiteMale's avatar

To add to @elbanditoroso‘s comment about Emile’s Polynesian wife and mixed-race children, and Nellie’s reluctance to be with Emile because of that, there is another controversial element: Lieutenant Cable’s budding relationship with Liat, which culminates in the musical number ”You’ve Got To Be Carefully Taught”.

I’m not really familiar with “Show Boat”, but knowing “Ol’ Man River” was written with Paul Robeson in mind, I’m betting there’s controversial scenes regarding race in that play/movie. I’ll have to watch it sometime.

Jeruba's avatar

Isn’t one of the issues in Showboat the fact that one of the women is of mixed race?—the Ava Gardner character, if I’m recalling the movie correctly. I haven’t seen it in a long time, but I thought her race was perceived as an obstacle to romance. In those days (the 1920’s) I guess it would have been.

@AngryWhiteMale, are you sure that song was written with Paul Robeson in mind? He wasn’t cast in the original stage version. Yes, he’s identified with the song, but others performed it before him.

Magic5678's avatar

Thanks! :)

AngryWhiteMale's avatar

@Jeruba, it’s been a while, but I read an article somewhere (Smithsonian? American Heritage? Or a similar magazine…) on Paul Robeson and it mentioned this. Only came to mind again when I read this thread. Not authoritative, but it’s also mentioned at IMDb, for what it’s worth. Not the song, perhaps, but definitely the role.

jaytkay's avatar

Tales of the South Pacific, the book that inspired the musical South Pacific, very explicitly spelled out the Nelly character’s uncomfortable feelings about romance with a man who had slept with a [n-word]. Yes, the n-word is in the book.

I don’t recall if she overcame her prejudice, it’s been many years since I read the book.

For its time, South Pacific was progressive in showing honest loving relationships among ethnic groups.

There was an earnest liberal zeitgeist at the time in much of the US.

rooeytoo's avatar

I’m not familiar with Show Boat but South Pacific was the first “romantic” movie I ever went to and swooned over (not literally of course). Anyhow, I think I have seen that movie at least a half dozen times and never noticed the apparently underlying racism. I wonder what that says about me??? I think I assumed she was going to wash that man right out of her hair because of the difficulties of leaving behind her home and family. Perhaps I am naive because it is not a problematic situation for me personally. The sexism is rampant but I consider it a sign of the times in which it was filmed and ignore it (and be grateful that it exemplifies that indeed we’ve come a long way baby!)

jaytkay's avatar

@rooeytoo Anyhow, I think I have seen that movie at least a half dozen times and never noticed the apparently underlying racism

The movie doesn’t show racism. It shows tolerance. Normal for us today. But it was a stance in 1949 when the musical debuted.

rooeytoo's avatar

@jaytkay – As I said I never actually took notice of racism or tolerance, even as I watched in later years when the sexism was very evident to me. But according to some answers above, there was controversy because of the racism even your answer leads me to that conclusion. I must be misinterpreting what everyone is saying???

jaytkay's avatar

I looked up the 1949 New York Times review. No help. It’s a breezy and short and entirely positive. Link

ucme's avatar

Musicals are controversial in that all the folks automatically know the words to the bloody songs, even randon passers-by chime in with their flawless singing.
Be really irritating if it happened in real life, imagine the postman breaking out a chorus of “oh what a beautiful morning!” No it isn’t, it’s pissing down you bloody fool.

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