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Oklahoma!

Oklahoma!(1955)

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In 1943 musical theater history was made when composer Richard Rodgers and lyricist/librettist Oscar Hammerstein II joined together for the first time in what would become the most successful musical writing team in the American Theater. Together they would write some of the most enduring music of the century, including a litany of songs that would instantly become standards. Their first collaboration would be the groundbreaking Oklahoma!, which changed the course of the musical theater. Based on Lynn Rigg's 1931 play Green Grow the Lilacs, Oklahoma! is credited as the first musical to fully integrate music into the story, with the songs carrying the action of the play forward rather than simply providing entertaining interludes. It also introduced the use of dance to convey the emotions of the characters, featuring the choreography of the great Agnes de Mille.

Despite its record-breaking success on Broadway, it would be over a decade before the musical would make it to the screen, where it would again make history by becoming the first film to be shot in entrepreneur/producer Michael Todd's Todd-AO process, a single projector version of Cinerama, projected on a concave screen that would envelope the audience in the viewing experience. With theaters needing an expensive retooling in order to show the film in the new process, Oklahoma! would be shot twice, once using Todd's new system and again in the popular Cinemascope process, which would provide two completely different versions of the film, though the latter would be more widely seen, and would be the version of the film shown on broadcast television for decades. More than simply two formats, these editions would provide subtly differences in performances, so that viewing both of them is rather like seeing the same play on consecutive nights. Both versions are included in Fox's new 50th Anniversary Edition of the film.

In spite of its historical significance, Oklahoma! is a very simple story, set in 1906 when the territory, rich in cattle ranches, was on the eve of statehood, and when government land grants would bring an influx of settlers who were moving to the area to start farms. Laurey Williams (Shirley Jones) is a young woman living on a farms which is owned and run by her Aunt Eller (Charlotte Greenwood). Laurey is the object of affection of rowdy rancher Curley McLain (Gordon MacRae), with whom she shares the kind of mildly antagonistic relationship which disallows them from open professions of love for each other: charmingly demonstrated in the song People Will Say We're in Love, in which the pair offer a list of "don'ts" that will keep the locals from mistakenly believing that they care for each other.

But Laurey's affections are also sought by burly, troubled Jud Fry (Rod Steiger), the ranch hand who makes his home in Aunt Eller's smokehouse. When Laurey playfully vascilates about whether or not she will accompany Curly to the event of the season—a mammoth party at the nearby Skidmore Ranch—her plan to make Curley jealous backfires, and he asks another girl to be his date. Laurey agrees to go with Jud to the party, and the fireworks when the two men are pitted against one another lead to disaster. At least until the happy ending.

While the basic plot of Oklahoma! may be simple, the marriage of music and spirit are not: Rogers and Hammerstein capture the most basic and universal emotions and literally make them sing. The film opens with the fresh-faced Curly giving voice to his reaction to the glorious landscape and weather with Oh What a Beautiful Morning, demonstrating right from the outset, with almost breathtaking simplicity, R&H's innate ability to reflect human experience in both words and music. The same is true of the later Many a New Day, sung by Laurey after learning she's been spurned by Curley: the lyrics convey her philosophy, while the lilting melody perfectly reflects the emotional attitude she intends to adopt. In the aforementioned People Will Say We're in Love, Hammerstein's clever lyrics are belied by Rodgers' soaring melody, which clearly shows that the pair are in love. It is a device that will be echoed in R&H's next hit, Carousel, as the young lovers Julie Jordan and Billy Bigelow (also played by Jones and MacRae in the film version) croon the "anti-love-song" If I Loved You.

The beauty of the music is fully realized in the performances of Jones and MacRae, who were at the height of their vocal powers when the film was made. MacRae in particular does more than justice to the score: in the opening his booming baritone seems to cut through the morning air, awakening the landscape (and the movie) around him. As in many of the Rogers and Hammerstein efforts, the romance of the principal characters is offset with comic seconds: a sort of Twentieth Century version of Shakespeare's comic rustics. In this we have the on-again-off-again romance of the flirtatious Ado Annie (an unforgettable performance by Gloria Grahame), and her rancher beau Will Parker (Gene Nelson), who has an ongoing problem holding onto the fifty dollars he needs in order to win Annie's hand in marriage. Rod Steiger provides the film's only dark moments as the man who is so obsessed with Laurey than in modern days he would be termed a stalker (or worse). And Charlotte Greenwood offers he usual solid support in the role of the understanding Aunt.

Although Oklahoma! may suffer from a thin story and overlength, the music, performances, and lovely cinematography make for a film in which the strengths far outweigh the weaknesses. Seeing Oklahoma! the first time (or the hundredth), even those who don't like musicals cannot escape the feeling that they are watching history being made.

In the new 50th Anniversary edition of the film, the Todd-AO version is presented in its original theatrical aspect ratio of 2.20:1, while the Cinemascope edition is framed at its theatrical ratio of 2.55:1, both anamorphically enhanced. The Todd-AO version features deep, rich colors that at times look almost over-saturated, and the picture has a tendency to softness, while the Cinemascope edition is struck for a nearly pristine source, with colors that are rich and natural, and flesh tones that are far more life-like, and an image that overall is much sharper and crisper than in the other version. There are some interesting differences not only in the performances between the two versions, but also in the framing of the image: i.e., in the song Kansas City, the cameras for both versions appears to have been placed in exactly the same places, however the Todd-AO version offers more information at the top an bottom of the screen so that all of the dancing is clearly seen, while in the Cinemascope version the feet of the dancing chorus are not visible during a major part of the dance.

The disc includes a wealth of supplements, including a feature-length commentary by Shirley Jones and film historian Nick Redman on the Todd-AO version, and a commentary by Ted Chapin (president of the Rodgers and Hammerstein organization) and film historian Hugh Fordin on the Cinemascope version. Also included are vintage featurettes, including "The Miracle of Todd-AO," which played before the feature at theaters showing the Todd-AO edition.

For more information about Oklahoma!, visit Fox Home Entertainment. To order Oklahoma!, go to TCM Shopping.

by Fred Hunter