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November 16, 2007

South Sea Woman

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Arthur Lubin - 1953
Warner Brothers Region 1 DVD

When it comes to the films of Burt Lancaster, South Sea Woman is rarely, if ever, discussed. Released just two months before From Here to Eternity, this World War II comedy is more dumb and silly, as mildly amusing as an Abbott and Costello movie. Seeing this film on DVD for the first time in about forty years, I was struck at how much South Sea Woman plays like one of Arthur Lubin's films with Burt and Chuck subbing for Bud and Lou. Take, for example when Chuck Conner's, under interrogation by a police inspector, states that he's on his honeymoon. Says Burt, "I'm on his honeymoon, too."

The verbal humor includes Burt Lancaster mangling French, and Virginia Mayo pointedly addressing the proprietor of the hotel as "Madame", pronounced as one who runs a brothel rather than as a proper French woman. While South Sea Woman aims for an audience a bit more adult than that for Abbott and Costello, the film's sense of wit seems also rooted in old vaudeville and burlesque. What may be the funniest aspect to South Sea Woman is that even though it came before From Here to Eternity, in some ways the film plays as a spoof of the better known classic.

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Had Joan Crawford not walked out on Fred Zinneman, we would have had two films with Burt Lancaster as a Marine romancing two Warner Brothers stars in the same year. Pearl Harbor is a significant plot point in both films, with Burt as the by-the-book Sargeant chasing after the AWOL Chuck Conners who wants to leave military life to be with Virginia Mayo. While no one is going to confuse this with Monty Clift chasing after Donna Reed, the coincidences seem more than accidental.

My own discovery of South Sea Woman was accidental, channel surfing on late night in the Sixties, back when there were no more than five channels to choose from. A couple of years later, I was able to see this film from the beginning. Even though South Sea Woman is probably the stupidest film Burt Lancaster allowed himself to be associated with, there is something fascinating about a film in which Chuck Connors single-handedly blows up a Japanese ship with a bag full of TNT. If South Sea Woman is the most easily forgotten film of Burt Lancaster's career, it may be due at least in part to the star's ability to leap from studio bound fare to controlling his own career the following year.

South Sea Woman was Chuck Connors' first big role. To what extent Lancaster was an influence on Connors I don't know. One of Lancaster's more questionable choices was to star as a Native American in Apache. Had Lancaster not made that film, would we have been spared the sight of Chuck Connors as Geronimo?

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Posted by Peter Nellhaus at November 16, 2007 12:42 AM