Mister Logan Bridges Cultures
Pacific-centric theater proved a boon to Joshua Logan (1908-1988), born 109 years ago today. He’d already staged 13 Broadway productions (including the original iterations of On Borrowed Time, Morning’s at Seven, By Jupiter and Annie Get Your Gun) by the time he co-authored and directed the great World War II seagoing comedy Mister Roberts in 1948, earning himself three Tony® Awards in the process.The following year, he would pick up three more Tony® medallions (and the Pulitzer Prize) as the director, co-producer and co-author of the book for the landmark 1949 Broadway production of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s musical South Pacific, which brought him into contact with the source material’s author, the prolific and popular novelist James A. Michener. When Michener penned Sayonara, his 1954 bestseller depicting the moving tale of interracial romance between two American soldiers stationed in post-World War II Japan and two indigenous women, the experience of devotion to duty vs. the pressures of racial prejudice “carefully taught” by South Pacific compelled Logan to secure the rights to adapt Michener once again. Logan first envisioned it for the stage, possibly as a musical (Logan’s own Wish You Were Here and Fanny became well-received Great White Way successes in the intervening time), but developmental snags in that area made him turn his attention to adapting it as a dramatic film, working in concert with producer William Goetz and his playwright friend from On Borrowed Time and Morning’s at Seven, Paul Osborn. After entering the movie arena co-writing the script of Mister Roberts (1955) and helming hit adaptations of William Inge’s Picnic (1955) and Bus Stop (1956), Logan cleared the decks for his third screen project in the director’s chair: the ravishingly beautiful and deeply poignant Sayonara (1957). “I had been looking for years for a story that would try to explain something of the East to the West, and vice versa,” Logan wrote in his 1978 memoir Movie Stars, Real People and Me. “James Michener’s novel had struck me as one that contained a lot of fascinating information on both cultures.”
That information would be handsomely conveyed via lavish location filming by cinematographer Ellsworth Fredericks in gorgeous Japanese settings as well as generous infusions of performances by the glamorous Matsubayashi Girl Revue, plus the Shochiku Company-sponsored Kabuki and Noh acting companies as well as the fabled Osaka Puppet theatricals (the “stage wizardry guy” in Logan asserting itself), tied into the backgrounds and experiences of the principal characters in the story played by the lovely Japanese American screen neophyte Miiko Taka, the veteran Mexican American Ricardo Montalban (seriously if awkwardly playing Oriental), the Japanese American singer/recording artist/actress Miyoshi Umeki (in her first American film) and New York City-born actor/comedian Red Buttons. And the dramatic urgency and impact of that information delivery would also be conveyed in the startlingly committed topline performance by Marlon Brando, who signed on to the film reluctantly, concerned that the Asian characters in the film would not be accorded equally dignified and understanding treatment alongside the American military. Logan and Goetz persisted, and despite Brando’s insistence on adopting a slight Southern accent (emphasizing the internal conflicts his Air Force Major Lloyd Gruver character would undergo as he fell in love with an “exotic” from a foreign culture) and occasional rebellious behavior during the shoot in Japan and in Hollywood for studio-shot scenes later, the performance was charged and satisfying. The actor-director work process was testy, as Logan relates in the book’s chapter cheekily named Marlon Brando-san (highly recommended reading), but led to invaluable results. Logan closes the section with this memory: “Months after the picture had been released, I could hardly believe my eyes when I saw a letter in my mail with the name Marlon Brando up in the left-hand corner of the envelope. I naturally thought it was a hoax. But I opened it and it was from Marlon all right, single-spaced and three-and-a-fraction pages long. He told how he had talked to and heard from several Oriental friends who congratulated him on the first breakthrough film about the Oriental. They were treated on the screen as equals in every way with the ‘superior’ white race. It was the first time in movie history that an Oriental had been treated as a first-class citizen in a Western story. Marlon was so amazed, relieved and delighted that he had to tell me how proud he was. And then he continued. He said there were several times in the shooting of the picture when he thought I was a blithering idiot to make certain suggestions to him about what to do in a scene. Now that he had seen the picture on the screen and with an audience, he decided I was right on all counts. The letter had no fancy words or phrases, no pretensions. He said it all simply. And all of it simply made me feel good.”
The third-highest grossing film of 1957 (behind The Bridge on the River Kwai and the Twilight Time title Peyton Place), Sayonara was nominated for 10 Academy Awards® (including Best Picture, Director, Actor [Brando], Adapted Screenplay, Cinematography and Film Editing) and won four (Best Supporting Actor [Buttons], Supporting Actress [Umeki], Art Direction/Set Decoration and Sound). Co-stars include Patricia Owens, Martha Scott, Kent Smith and, playing Brando’s Marine pilot buddy, the star of the then-new Western TV series Maverick, the great James Garner. With a score of rare loveliness by Peyton Place’s Franz Waxman and a haunting title song from the legendary Irving Berlin, Sayonara debuts in 1080p hi-def in all its ravishing Technicolor, widescreen Technirama glory November 14 on TT disc. Preorders open November 1. The audience-pleasing, culture-bridging Logan-Michener-Osborn connection would continue the following year when South Pacific came to the screen.