Judge Bryan Pope just cain't say no...to this fantastic, loaded edition of the classic Rogers & Hammerstein musical.
Our reviews of Oklahoma! (published October 24th, 2003), Oklahoma! (Blu-ray) (published January 15th, 2013), and The Rodgers And Hammerstein Collection (published January 15th, 2007) are also available.
OOOOOK-lahoma, where at night my honey lamb and I
Oklahoma!, the musical that's as big as all outdoors, gets a nice spit 'n' polish from Twentieth Century Fox. This 50th Anniversary edition should have Rogers & Hammerstein fans grinnin' from ear to ear.
Facts of the Case
As Oklahoma prepares to become a state and land disputes flare up between the farmers and the ranchers, pretty farm girl Laurey Williams (honey-voiced Shirley Jones in her film debut) pouts when cowboy Curly McLain (Gordon MacRae) chooses another young lady to accompany him to the box social. In retaliation, she reluctantly accepts farmhand Jud Fry's invitation. The brooding Jud (Rod Steiger, sweating menace in a performance that wipes the smile off of this otherwise relentlessly cheerful film) has more permanent plans for he and Laurey.
While Laurey tries to resolve her romantic dilemma, her shilly-shallying friend, Ado Annie Carnes (comedienne Gloria Grahame, always a delight), negotiates marriage proposals from shyster Ali Hakim (Eddie Albert, woefully miscast but making the most of it) and earnest hick Will Parker (an energetic Gene Nelson).
The moment Curly rides out of the cornfield and onto the expansive Oklahoma prairie, it's clear that the theater was never anywhere near large enough to house the sprawling spectacle of Rogers & Hammerstein's revolutionary musical. You might be able to squeeze a fringe-trimmed surrey and half a train station onto the stage, but to capture the HUGENESS, to convey the enormous visual scope that the name Oklahoma! suggests (that exclamation point ain't there for nothin'), you have to hit the wide open spaces.
That's exactly what director Fred Zinnemann does. His production, filmed largely in Arizona and New Mexico (by all appearances suitable stand-ins for the Sooner state), takes full advantage of those states' endless, gently rolling hills and emerald waves of corn, all blanketed by impossibly blue skies. Seldom has a film made better use of the widescreen format (Oklahoma! was shot in both Cinemascope and brand-spankin'-new Todd-AO).
Based on the Lynn Riggs' play "Green Grow the Lilacs," Oklahoma! doesn't have the narrative heft to justify all the fuss, but it's populated by enough characters with questionable motivations to make the show stand as R&H's most complex blockbuster. Beneath her curly golden locks, Laurey is no mere damsel in distress, but a woman who has landed in a potentially volatile predicament by her own manipulative devices. Ado Annie, meanwhile, provides comic relief as the cotton blossom whose morals are as loose as the corn is high. (Come to think of it, none of the female characters, save for Charlotte Greenwood's seen-it-all Aunt Eller, are the wholesome prairie angels they pass themselves off as being.) And the entire cast of Oklahoma! could reasonably be held accountable for pushing the obviously unstable Jud to the violent extremes on display in the show's climactic haystack burning scene.
But that's not giving due credit to R&H for their most important contribution to musical theater. Oklahoma! was not only their first collaborative effort, but the first Broadway show to seamlessly integrate story, song and dance into a cohesive production. Each song (and they're all classics, from "Oh What a Beautiful Mornin'" and "Surrey with the Fringe on Top" to "People Will Think We're in Love" and the swooping title tune) establishes time, place, tone and character with keen efficiency, exhibiting an economy for words that no show before it had attempted. And never had audiences seen such fiery athleticism put to use in Broadway production numbers.
The movie's theatrical roots become evident toward the end of the first act, when Zinnemann permits the film its biggest theatrical conceit. For more than ten minutes, the action ceases for an extended, stylized dream ballet. Freed of dialogue, the sequence relies entirely on movement, inventive staging and ominous lighting to suggest the dangerous undercurrents of the Laurie/Curly/Jud triangle. It's a daring risk that pays off in spades, resulting in the finest, most harrowing moment in the film.
Whether the film works best as a glossy portrait of our nation's pre-twentieth century growing pains, unapologetic melodrama, or simply a jukebox of great numbers is for you to decide. Whatever your stance, Oklahoma! is a treat for the eyes and ears, especially as presented in Fox's exceptional two-disc 50th Anniversary Edition.
The package includes the film in both 2.55:1 Cinemascope (disc one) and 2.20:1 Todd-AO (disc two). Both transfers are anamorphic, and both share basically the same strengths and weaknesses. The colors are bright and vivid, but the images are soft and lack detail. Still, it's a vast improvement over the unspectacular non-anamorphic transfer provided on the previous edition, so I'm not inclined to quibble. For comparison purposes, only the Todd-AO version includes the original overture, intermission, and exit music. The Dolby 5.0 audio is very strong, making good use of all the speakers. It's a good mix that pulls you into the movie. English and Spanish subtitles are included.
The package includes two outstanding commentary tracks. R&H Organization president Ted Chapin and author/film historian Hugh Fordin get the mic on disc one. They recorded the track together, and they are knowledgeable, articulate and lively. They have good rapport, talking for the duration of the film about R&H's approach to their craft (they were exceptionally particular when it came to selecting singers to perform their work, and they wrote only stories that revolved around sexual tension).
The second disc features star Shirley Jones and film/music historian Nick Redman, who more or less serves as a moderator. Like the other track, this is informative and fun, and it seldom repeats information. Jones discusses the first time she auditioned for R&H and how she was immediately put under contract (according to her, she was the first and last person to be under such a contract with R&H). Her memory is astounding, calling forth an endless stream of anecdotes. She remembers worrying that choreographer Agnes DeMille might make her dance in "Many a New Day," the show's paean to feminine vanity ("I was so nervous that she was going to have me dancing in my underwear").
Considering Oklahoma! was the first production to be shot in celebrated Todd-AO, it should come as no surprise that this film process takes center stage on not one but three featurettes. The first, the 12-minute "Cinemascope vs. Todd-AO," provides an interesting discussion of the differences between the two processes. Todd-AO was developed by legendary showman Michael Todd, and his son is on hand to discuss his father's original concept of achieving the Cinemascope effect with a single projection (Cinemascope required three). In addition, Todd-AO was designed to enhance the viewing experience by projecting the image onto a large curved screen, thereby replicating a person's field of vision.
Less technical are the two vintage featurettes, "Miracle of Todd-AO" and "The March of Todd-AO." Intended as a way of marketing the new technology to the general public, the features take us on a rollercoaster ride, on a flight over snow-capped mountains, and on a sled ride, all in Todd-AO vision.
A snippet from a black-and-white, 1954 television broadcast features Gordon MacRae performing "Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin'" before being joined by a startlingly young Florence Henderson for "People Will Think We're in Love." Grainy and with poor sound quality, but a welcome addition.
Finally, the package includes a teaser trailer, the original theatrical trailer, still galleries, and a sing-along option. The only thing missing is a documentary on the film's production, but the two commentary tracks are enough to compensate for that omission.
Chicks and ducks and geese better scurry, because R&H fans will be in a hurry…to snatch up this DVD. (Should I turn in my gavel and robes now or later?)
Seriously, though, Fox has outdone themselves by providing not one, but two fine transfers, crystal clear audio, and a smorgasbord of extras. You'll be able to find the package for less than $20, which is a bargain to boot.
Until the farmers and the cowboys can be friends, this court issues restraining orders against the two parties. However, all charges brought against Fox are hereby dismissed.
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• Commentary by Ted Chapin and Hugh Fordin
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