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The granddaddy of modern musicals, Oklahoma!'s appeal has always been the music, first and foremost - a dozen memorable, singable songs that have become much more than standards. After ten years of resisting the call of Hollywood, Rodgers and Hammerstein joined with impresario Mike Todd to bring their musical play to the screen without benefit of an MGM or Warner Brothers to, ah, reinterpret the material. As a result many Broadway hits have since been filmed with big New York stage people holding the reins.
Except for its star casting, Oklahoma! is pretty much the straight stage book and music, plunked down in the great outdoors where Mike Todd's superior Todd-AO lenses could do their stuff. Musical score + picture postcard setting = guaranteed satisfaction. But only in individual dance numbers, in particular a nightmare ballet that reverts to Agnes de Mille's original staging, does the film really take off. This undying favorite is a great entertainment despite being barely adequate as a movie.
Anyone seeking what made the 1950s what they were need look no further than the movie Oklahoma!. The 1943 play was an affirmation of American hopes for the future that pushed the reality of WW2 far away -- we can imagine that people listening to the description of The Surrey with the Fringe on Top were thinking about the cars that Detroit had stopped producing during the war years. By the time the film came out the nation was awash in affluence, riding an expanding economy with jobs for most of its citizens and a bright future ahead. Curly and Laurey step out into the sunshine prepped and primed, corn-fed and fresh faced. They're ready to mate and take possession of everything presumed worthwhile in life - marriage, children, a prosperous future. The White and clean world belongs to them, and the Jud Frys and Gertie Cummingses will just have to get out of their way. When the wedding party gallops down the (cough, cough) dusty trail to greatness in the last scene of the movie, I always get the feeling that they're headed for a shopping mall. If the show is really about building a better Oklahoma, we wonder if Rodgers and Hammerstein ever considered doing a musical sequel version of The Grapes of Wrath showing Curly and Laurey in their 80s during the depression: Dustbowl!
On the romantic level Oklahoma! cannot be bettered. The music has a clarity of purpose that expresses emotions and concerns far beyond the characters as written. Cowboys and prairie girls sing about being single and available. Will Parker flouts his freedom in a hick's visit to Kansas City and Laurie imagines herself empowered to turn up her nose at her unappreciative suitor. Everybody feels free and unrestrained in a land with no barriers but the sky.
The ballet that follows Out of My Dreams reveals Laurie's subconscious to be a bundle of fears. Rodgers and Hammerstein often resorted to an 'occult' number and this one becomes a nightmare of sin, rape and murder. The 'singing' Curly and Laurey are replaced by 'dancing' doubles, a trick that quite probably came from the stage but provides an especially interesting contrast in the film. James Mitchell (The Band Wagon) and Bambi Linn are a more anxious and dark interpretation of the characters as seen from Laurey's distorted dream perspective -- even Curly becomes cold and unloving. It's the perfect middle-class nightmare for the 50s - sordid doings and loveless anxiety. And just like the 50s, once finished, Laurey's dream is tidily put away and promptly forgotten.
Shirley Jones is picture perfect, fresher than fresh. But the story's petty romantic problems don't always connect with the deep feeling in the songs -- the uncomprehending optimism of the principals doesn't quite add up. I'll bet a lot of people who fell in love and started lives together in the 1950s get an emotional tug when Curly and Laurey set out together on their first day of marriage. The pair hasn't a clue - they're total strangers unaware of what waits ahead.
Oklahoma! exalts its romantic leads while finding easy laughs in supporting characters created from satirical stereotypes. Ado Annie is an irresistible tramp and we're assured that a good possessive man will straighten her out. Gloria Grahame's star turn outweighs the role but she's definitely a highlight. Eddie Albert is a wholly unconvincing Persian peddler, and makes us wonder just what's so obnoxious about being foreign that allows Ali Hakim to be targeted for such easy comedy. Finally there's Jud Fry, the thankless role of all time. Hot actor Rod Steiger forever types himself as a loathsome screen presence, looking so filthy among the otherwise spotless cast that we expect him to be sent to hell for offenses against hygiene. The film shows him no mercy. He doesn't catch on when Curly sneeringly puts him down (Pore Jud is Daid) and Laurey thoughtlessly asks him for a ride to the big party in a bid to make Curly jealous. Poor Fry gets his hopes up and of course has to be put in his place - he turns out to be a black-hearted villain just to provide Act III with a conflict. We learn that he's a suspected Barn-Burner and a plain no-good, an easy way to condemn a character out of hand. It's fortunate that the star characters in Oklahoma! have such innocent and noble inner lives (as heard in the music) because they're otherwise a pack of intolerant vigilantes. But they are pure Americana, and their story is our story.
The best way to watch Oklahoma! is to accept its fantasy of Utopia on the plains and go with the flow of the music. The orchestrations are superb and director Fred Zinnemann occasionally finds the right visual to back them up. A slow track through a cornfield is just a literal picturization of a lyric from O, What a Beautiful Morning, but what else would be appropriate? Simple isn't always bad. And anyway, that cornfield is the first memory four year-old Savant can remember in a movie theater (on Edwards Air Force Base, probably 1956), and apparently it's just as memorable to everyone else as well. But to be fair, Oklahoma!'s static nature was bettered by almost every big-scale musical that followed.
As Ado Annie's shotgun-toting father James Whitmore isn't particularly convincing in old-age makeup. Sagebrush stalwart J. C. Flippen gets a break from James Stewart westerns to kick up his heels at a square dance. The movie provides superior hoofer and showman Gene Nelson (Lullabye of Broadway) with his best role and one of the best western-flavored dance numbers ever in Everything's Up to Date in Kansas City. Rod Steiger aquits himself rather well with the singing chores but mostly hulks about looking unappealing. For bit player spotters, we're advised to keep a lookout for actor/rodeo champ Ben Johnson, somewhere in one of the dance numbers.
Fox's 2-disc DVD of the Oklahoma! 40th Anniversary Edition replaces a pretty bad release from 1999 when studios like Fox and Paramount hadn't yet adopted the concept of 16:9 formatting. The image tended to pixillate and on large screens human faces often dissolved into digital mush.
Oklahoma! is one of two movies shot in original 30 frames-per-second Todd-AO, an exciting but impractical idea. In exclusive big-city engagements where theaters went to the trouble of installing speed-changing projector motors, audiences enjoyed a brighter picture with less flicker and more detail in things like fast-dancing cowboy boots. 30 fps is also the frame rate for NTSC video, which accounts for the snap in the motion of objects - things like fire and moving water look completely different between 24 and 30 fps. As most of the world's theaters had no intention of converting to Todd-AO, Oklahoma! had to be shot in two completely different versions, and most critics agree that the Todd-AO version is better because it was reportedly shot in morning light with a fresher cast. If you're in doubt about what version you are watching, the Todd-AO's main titles are over black, and in the CinemaScope version they're seen over vistas of green farmland. The last shot of the movie tilts up to a sky, where earlier video versions often used crude masking to hide a bunch of original proprietary end credits. The Todd-AO version now has a simple 'The End' card, but there's a suspicious jump in the picture when it fades up. I guess as earlier co-producing entities were bought out, they could be 'disappeared' from the film. That's revsionism for ya.
The new DVD has both release versions. Disc one comes with the standard CinemaScope show we've seen mostly on television for forty years or so, and Disc two has another transfer of the Todd-AO version that came back in the early 90s. Savant went directly for the Todd-AO cut and was mildly disappointed - it's enhanced and should be an improvement on the earlier disc, but the transfer element is unaccountably soft and mushy, seriously so. This cancels out most of the benefit of the higher frame rate. I guess we'll have to wait for HD to straighten this one out. To simply watch the show, the CinemaScope version is the best choice.
Fox has piled on the extras. An historical (and rather proprietary) commentary on disc one comes from the President of the Rodgers and Hammerstein Organization assisted by historian Hugh Fordin. A theatrical teaser turns out to be a crude mockup for a much later (1982?) reissue. If you can catch little kids before they're ruined by today's pop music, they'll enjoy singing along with the song lyrics, which can be added via a special subtitle menu.
Disc two has most of the goodies. Shirley Jones provides a commentary this time around, accompanied by the gentlemanly Nick Redman. She's been telling the same stories about Oklahoma! for fifty years but still sounds reasonably fresh. The question we have for Ms. Jones is this: If your predominant image of yourself remains a beautiful picture filmed when you were eighteen or nineteen, singing and looking lovely, does it make you feel forever young?
CinemaScope vs. Todd-AO is a good docu on the making of the picture that explains the format differences, sometimes fudging by showing mock-ups of what Oklahoma! might look like in 3-Screen Cinerama, etc. The Miracle of Todd-AO and The March of Todd-AO are two vintage demo short subjects to promote the process using the expected aerial shots and roller coasters ... is that the famous wooden Long Beach Pike roller coaster we see? With 1955 Hollywood burned out on weird new formats, 30 fps Todd-AO never took off. It was used once again for Around the World in 80 Days. The obvious deal killer must have been the inconvenience of shooting every picture twice. We also get excerpts from a 1954 TV show about the play featuring Gordon MacRae and Florence Henderson singing, a trailer and some photo galleries.
Fox's big Rodgers and Hammerstein musical reissue would have been terrific had something not gone wrong with the Todd-AO version, but it's still an attractive presentation. Two final gripes come to mind. They've included the maddening anti-piracy 'public service' spot, even though we didn't pay to be propagandized. And Fox's menu animations have big, bold score excerpts that spoil the onset of songs when they appear in the movie proper. One thing that's become difficult with DVD is to put one on and show a movie "cold" to one's audience, without being interrupted by promos, legal threats and spoilers for the disc content. Come on, we paid to see the movie -- just let us see the movie. 1
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Oklahoma! 50th Anniversary Edition rates:
1. Warners gets high marks for this concern. Once their discs spin up to speed you can skip everything, even logos, and go right to the menu. That's consideration.