Out film professor Sean Griffin explores the majesty of ‘South Pacific’



Sean Griffin got lucky at the movies. Like, literally, his entire life was shaped by flicks of celluloid racing past his eyes. “

All of my earliest memories are related to movies,” he says. “My first conscious memory is holding my dad’s hand walking down the sidewalk knowing that I was about to go see The Jungle Book and being excited as all get out.”

He recalls traumatic moments as a kid — at the drive-in with his parents, waking just in time to observe some horrific violence — as well as some historic ones — watching Gone with the Wind the first time it was broadcast on network television.

“Movies were on the TV all the time while I’d play with my Hot Wheels or Matchbox cars in my bedroom, so I kinda soaked up motion pictures without realizing it,” he says. He discovered books about Hitchcock, and the idea that there were scholarly works about filmmakers rocked his world. “From then on, I was hooked.”

Griffin became more than a movie buff, though. He earned his Masters and his Ph.D. from the University of Southern California, and started teaching at SMU in the fall of 2000, where he’s now a full professor of film and media arts. He’s published a book about Disney, and has another — about the history of the American musical film — coming out next year. Like I said: Lucky him.

It’s the latter that probably got Griffin tapped to be one of the invited speakers at the Stars & Stripes Film Festival this weekend. He’ll introduce the 1959 film adaptation of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s South Pacific, the only musical at a festival dedicated to patriotic and war-centric cinema of the last 50 years.

“My favorite movie of all time, as almost every student I’ve taught knows, is Singin’ in the Rain,” Griffin says. “Even people who tend not to like musicals like it, because it’s also really funny — and for me, it’s a musical about people making movies, so of course I love it. But I have been doing research on the musicals of 20th Century-Fox for many years, including on South Pacific. In [a scholarly article he wrote in 2010], I not only talk about the film version of the hit stage play, but I also delve into the production history of the location shooting in Hawaii in 1957. I got access to the Fox production files, so I got to see budgets, schedules, interoffice memos, telegrams, contracts, etc. And I also made it out to Hawaii and got to look through the local newspaper coverage of the shoot. Beyond this claim of expertise, I also simply like the property very much, and can sing most of the score … Don’t challenge me, I’ll do it,” he cautions.

If Griffin sounds a little fanboyish, well, it comes with the territory. Although he has his own areas of interest and passion, it’s his belief in the artistic and social value of cinema as a whole that keeps him on track in his career.

“I always love reading about something that I never would’ve tried to tackle myself and discovering something I hadn’t thought about before,” he says. “Each war film, for instance, comes with its own unique situation, historical perspective and outlook — so movies about war made in the 1920s are reacting to the trauma of the First World War; movies during World War II are obviously incredibly supportive of the military effort; movies about war made in the late ’60s and through the 1970s are usually extremely critical of the military-industrial complex in the wake of Vietnam; and movies about war made currently often feel the need to walk this tightrope of showing how horrible war is while not disparaging the sacrifice and honor of the average soldier thrust into battle.”

Grifffin will introduce South Pacific at a screening at 4 p.m. Sunday.

ARNOLD WAYNE JONES Executive Editor [email protected]

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition November 11, 2016.