Fox // 1955 // 145 Minutes // Rated G
Reviewed by Judge Bill Treadway (Retired) // October 24th, 2003
"Now all the world is its stage; a motion picture straight from stage to
-- Original 1955 Theatrical Trailer
The first Rodgers and Hammerstein film adaptation to be personally controlled by the composers themselves, it was a gamble that paid off. Oklahoma! comes to the screen with all the energy and vigor of the stage production, aided by a first rate cast and a top-notch director.
In the Oklahoma Territory around the early 1900s, in the countryside lies a crop of characters all confused by romance. Curly, a ranch hand with a good heart and sunny demeanor, loves the local farmer's daughter, Laurey. In between them is Jud Fry, a farmhand (and town outcast) who lusts after Laurey.
Another farmer's daughter, Ado Annie, has troubles of her own. She is torn between two men, a peddler and a rancher. All will be resolved with the local dance -- hopefully.
Oklahoma! was Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein's first foray into film production, having been dissatisfied with the 1944 film version of State Fair (I wonder what they would have thought of the wretched 1962 remake?). What they have done is nothing short of miraculous. Oklahoma! is one of those rare adaptations that "opens up" the original stage version yet preserves what made it so good in the first place.
Of course, everyone remembers the music. Songs like "Oh What A Beautiful Mornin!," "People Will Say We're in Love," "Surrey With the Fringe on Top," "I Can't Say No" and the title tune are firmly attached to any great American songbook, not to mention the hearts of millions. But rarely have they been sung so well. I dare anyone not to get goosebumps when Gordon MacRae belts out the first verse of "Oh What A Beautiful Mornin!"
One aspect of this film that makes it stand out among musicals of the period is its use of actual location filming. Some scenes, such as Laurey's dream ballet, were shot on a soundstage, but the majority of the film was shot on beautiful Texas locations. What hurt Brigadoon, released at roughly the same time, was the overuse of soundstages and the result was a sluggish, visually dull movie. Rodgers and Hammerstein (who financed the production through their Magna company) wanted it to look real and made the (expensive) decision to shoot outdoors. It makes a tremendous difference.
Another risk was hiring Fred Zinnemann, known mainly for intimate, black and white dramas such as The Member of the Wedding and From Here to Eternity, to direct. He turned out to be an inspired choice. Despite its sunny location footage, Oklahoma! has a fairly dark tone to the material, particularly in regards to Jud and his actions. Zinnemann's gift was balancing dark and light tones in his films and this is his best work, worthy of the Oscar, if you ask me.
Casting proved to be another risk. Gordon MacRae was a baritone who had limited acting experience. Of course, he sings the score beautifully, but is he any good as Curly? The answer is yes. At first Curly appears to be a cardboard good guy, but there is a torrent of emotions any actor must deal with in this role, such as how can he express himself to the girl he loves without appearing to be a complete ass, and anger when dealing with Jud. MacRae hits all the notes perfectly and remains the definitive Curly.
Shirley Jones makes her film debut as Laurey. Those accustomed to her role in The Partridge Family are always surprised that she was a serious, dependable actress in the late 1950s and early '60s, even winning an Oscar. This debut defies expectations; she never steers wrong in her acting decisions. We love Laurey, even if we disagree with some of her actions. It's that good a performance.
In fact, Oklahoma! has great performances by all, from James Whitmore's crusty farmer to Eddie Albert's gullible peddler to Charlotte Greenwood's conniving Aunt Eller. Gloria Grahame steals the show as Ado Annie, who cannot seem to make up her mind as to who she wants to marry. Critics have complained about Rod Steiger's work as Jud, feeling his performance was overdone. I couldn't disagree more. Steiger pours the right amount of menace into Jud; we know he's hiding something, but what? However, Steiger also plays Jud with dignity, even allowing us to feel sympathy for him. Jud is one of the more tragic figures in musicals (and films, for that matter). Is he naturally evil or is he a product of the society he lives in and the people who use him (like Laurey)? I'll leave it to you to decide.
A note before discussing the transfer. Oklahoma! was shot in two versions. Rodgers and Hammerstein chose to shoot the film in the then-new 70mm widescreen process Todd-AO. Not all theaters were equipped to project Todd-AO, so another version was shot in CinemaScope for wide release. For over 40 years, it was the latter used for television airings and video releases. However, in 1993, a Todd-AO negative was discovered and a restoration ensued. That print was used for laserdisc and has now replaced the CinemaScope version as the official release.
That said, Fox presents the film in 2.20:1 non-anamorphic widescreen. Trust me when I tell you that this is the finest transfer I have ever seen. The Todd-AO photography, with its faster projection rate of 30 frames per second, is often rich and stunning in its clarity. If you can't see Oklahoma! on the big screen, then this is the next best thing. There are no scratches and specks to be seen. No grain is visible at any point in the 145-minute film. The picture has a nice, silky sheen that is like nothing you have ever seen before, which is shocking considering that this was filmed in 1955 and even the best restorations tend to leave a few tell-tale signs of age. Wonderful work to whomever supervised the restoration. Some critics have complained about the boldness of the colors. Todd-AO's faster projection rate enhances the colors, making them bolder, sharper, and more eye-popping than standard 35mm projection. Anyone who complains that the colors are too bright is not to be trusted.
The sound is presented in Dolby Digital 5.1. Unlike the picture, there are some flaws in the soundtrack, including crackling sounds and some hiss on the soundtrack. Other than that, it sounds wonderful most of the running time, particularly with the musical numbers.
The lone extra is an anamorphic full frame theatrical trailer. That is not a mistake. The trailer was given anamorphic enhancement but not the feature. Strange decisions these executives make sometimes. Anyway, the trailer is from the 35mm CinemaScope release (it also says Distributed by RKO Pictures, who distributed that version). I would have liked to see a trailer from the 70mm Todd-AO release instead. It would have looked a lot better than the trailer we have here.
Other than that, are there any problems with the disc? I would have liked anamorphic enhancement, which would have made it look even better than it does now.
If you cannot see Oklahoma! in 70mm on the big screen, the DVD is the next best thing. Those familiar with the film through television and early video releases simply must purchase this DVD. Chances are it will be a richer, better experience. For a retail price of $19.99, you can't go wrong!
Not guilty! Everyone is free to go!
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Scales of Justice
* 2.20:1 Non-Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
Running Time: 145 Minutes
Release Year: 1955
MPAA Rating: Rated G
* Theatrical Trailer