ALEX NORTH: SOUTH SEAS ADVENTURE (1958). Cinerama Orchestra conducted by Alex North; Norman Luboff, choral director. DAGORED CD
Reviewed by Michael McDonagh
The 1950's were a difficult time for film. TV, which had co-opted radio as the medium of choice, was threatening to do the same to film. So studio heads were worried, and got to work. Fox took an option on the anemographic lens developed by Henri Chretien in the '20's. This system, which squeezes a wide image into standard frame size during filming, and projects it undistorted, was used in Fox's first widescreen format picture, Henry Koster's THE ROBE (1953) that was in the company's patented Cinemascope. The film's mega success prompted the invention of other big screen formats like VistaVision, Todd-AO, and Panavision. But the biggest of them all, Cinerama, was invented by Fred Waller and unveiled at the 1939 New York World's Fair as the 11-camera Vitarama, and then as a new, improved three-projector process in 1952's THIS IS CINERAMA. This format continued to be used for travelogue-driven pictures throughout the 50's, until Fox's HOW THE WEST WAS WON in 1962, and George Stevens' THE GREATEST STORY EVER TOLD (1965), which though presented in Cinerama, was actually shot in Ultra Panavision 70.
Alex North must have looked like an odd choice for a Cinerama picture. He'd made his mark, after all, with up close and personal projects, like Kazan's A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE (1951), and Mervyn LeRoy's THE BAD SEED (1956), and preferred to work in this scale. But North had an innate dramatic and coloristic flair, which, oddly enough, made him the right man for SOUTH SEAS ADVENTURE. And he availed himself of the largest orchestra he'd ever used-97 pieces. Yet he somehow managed to keep his personal voice in this picture, which had not one, but three directors-Francis D. Lyon, Walter Thompson, and Basil Wrangell. And the sound on this CD, recorded, according to the booklet, with "seven separate all-directional microphones," which was state-of-the-art in 1958, is still spectacular, and I think it was a high-fi demo record when originally released. The first cue, "Journey To Hawaii", begins with lush, yet contained writing for strings, brass, and percussion-including chimes-and a humming mixed chorus directed by famed choral conductor/arranger Norman Luboff (1911-1987). This is followed by a much thinner section, then a huge orchestral apostrophe with full-out chorus, and a big tune-the love theme-in highly varied colorations, accompanied by North's always subtle countermelodies. "Ted and Kay" (Love Theme), which follows, is a lusher strings with brass pedal version. And though one rarely thinks of North as a programmatic composer, some of his music here has an undeniable visual and spatial dimension. This is most forcibly heard in "Driving To New Zealand", which starts with a rocking eight-note string figure-pitched vertiginously high-over a sparsely-scored orchestra, then a tutti passage which sounds, for all the world, like a gigantic close-up, while other sections suggest pans or long shots.
North's score gives equal measure to his epic and lyric sides, which would continue to develop in surprising ways. There are lots of entertaining moments, too, and the composer's devotees should have a field day with how some of this score pre-figures bits of his later output, like, say, the Dodge City episode in Ford's CHEYENNE AUTUMN (1964). And North, ever the serious scholar of ethnic sources referenced in his music, uses Polynesian-Hawaiian ones here for their rhythmic rather than melodic content, and even builds some of his score from these, as well as music of his own invention. SOUTH SEAS ADVENTURE is a unique and colorful installment in North's remarkably varied output, and living proof that he could write epic music without losing his soul. Not many could accomplish that feat in his lifetime, and few, if any, could today