In contrast to the experiences of many Broadway songwriters, the team of Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II had a large say in how their shows came to the big screen. South Pacific did not arrive in movie theaters until nine years after its Broadway opening, and when it did on March 19, 1958, its two-hour, 70-minute running time allowed for the full Rodgers & Hammerstein score, plus one song, "My Girl Back Home," that had been cut from the stage version for time. In addition to preserving their songs, the songwriters saw to it that the songs were sung by people they approved of, most of whom were not the same people seen on the screen. Mitzi Gaynor sang her own songs in the lead female role of nurse Nellie Forbush, and Ray Walston, who had played the supporting part of rowdy marine Luther Billis in the first national tour and in London, also got to sing. But Rossano Brazzi, as male lead Emile de Becque, was dubbed by opera singer Giorgio Tozzi (who was given screen credit), John Kerr as second male lead Lt. Cable was replaced by Bill Lee, and Juanita Hall, who had originated the role of Bloody Mary on Broadway, was voiced by Muriel Smith, who had played the part in London. (Several minor characters were also dubbed.)
While it would have been nice if Lee and Smith were credited in the film and on the soundtrack album, the result is a well-sung version of the score. Gaynor is appropriately frisky in what is really a soubrette's part in songs like "I'm Gonna Wash That Man Right Outa My Hair" and "I'm in Love With a Wonderful Guy," Tozzi is sonorous and romantic in "Some Enchanted Evening," Lee is passionate in "Younger Than Springtime," Smith is haunting in "Bali Ha'i" and playful in "Happy Talk," and Walston, leading the Ken Darby Male Chorus, makes the most of "Bloody Mary" and "There Is Nothin' Like a Dame." Only Smith and Walston improve upon their counterparts on the original Broadway cast album, however, with stage leads Mary Martin and Ezio Pinza particularly outdistancing their screen and soundtrack rivals. And now that CD reissues of that earlier recording contain Martin's version of "My Girl Back Home," one can't even argue that the soundtrack album is more complete. The original Broadway cast album is preferred.
It also sold better than the soundtrack album, but the soundtrack's commercial performance was not at all shabby. The film was one of 1958's ten biggest moneymakers, but the soundtrack did even better. Its run of more than seven months at number one tied it for fourth place among the longest chart toppers in history behind the original Broadway cast album, the soundtrack to West Side Story, and Michael Jackson's Thriller. It was not only the most successful album of 1958, but the most successful album of the second half of the 1950s. Given that success, the album has been relatively neglected in the CD era. There was a straight-transfer reissue in 1988, but it took RCA until October 24, 2000, to release a refurbished CD version, and that one turned out to be a disappointment. At a time when rivals like Sony and Universal were upgrading their cast and soundtrack reissues in terms of sound, bonus tracks, annotations, and photographs, RCA's new South Pacific seemed skimpy. There were no bonus tracks, little in the way of annotation (the songs were credited by character name except for Ken Darby!), a modest if well-written essay by Joseph F. Laredo, and no new photographs. In fact, the cover was a reproduction of the cover of the original monophonic LP (proclaiming "A 'New Orthophonic' High Fidelity Release"), down to its catalog number, LOC-1032, which was confusing, since the reissue had a new catalog number and was in stereo. Such a jewel of RCA's catalog deserved better treatment.