Rodgers met Hammerstein — not literally, but professionally — in 1943. Over nine years they wrote five musicals, four of which — Oklahoma!, Carousel, South Pacific and The King and I — can be said to be as remarkable and revolutionary a Broadway quartet as you can find coming from any songwriters ever, at least in less than a decade.
By the time The King and I worked itself into the hit column (after a difficult tryout), though, R & H had changed. They were by this point the most powerful and successful producers on Broadway and the road, for starters; and they also seem to have both run head-on into physical (and perhaps emotional) problems. They continued cranking out new musicals, yes; and one of the four future works turned out to be massively successful, commercially at least. (The Sound of Music, that is.) But the brilliantly incisive musical-dramatists of Carousel and South Pacific seem to have lost the urge to forge new paths, content merely to turn out professional entertainments while fording a few streams. As The King and I settled in, R & H — the businessmen — seem to have shifted attention away from creation to enterprise. Hollywood had been after the film rights to Oklahoma! since the day it first came sweeping down the plain. Rodgers and Hammerstein Pictures Inc. was duly established in 1953, leading to film versions of the four superhits released in 1955 ("Oklahoma!"), 1956 ("Carousel" and "The King and I") and 1958 ("South Pacific"). Fox Home Entertainment, which brought us the expanded and remastered DVD of "Oklahoma!" last fall, has now completed their Rodgers and Hammerstein Collection — six films on 12 discs, in all — with "Carousel," "The King and I" and "South Pacific." Each film is also available in its own, individual two-disc set.
Fans of the Broadway versions of these musicals no doubt already possess their own opinions about the comparative quality of stage to screen. Let us simply say that watching the films is not quite the same thing as watching good stage productions of the shows. For the vast majority of viewers, though, these are the only Carousel, South Pacific and The King and I they know.
Some are better than the others, some were better received than others, and some did better business than the others. ("South Pacific", with its strange color filters and heavily-dubbed singers, is probably the worst representation but by far the most successful.) If these three films are not precisely what Mr. Hammerstein wrote, I suppose that you can say that they preserve the songs, get the stories across, and have done a pretty good job of establishing the titles around the globe. The films star Gordon McRae & Shirley Jones, Yul Brynner & Deborah Kerr, and Rossano Brassi & Mitzi Gaynor. Some of them sing their own songs, too! Each film is supplemented with all sorts of extras. Most fascinating — for me, at least – are original cast excerpts televised in 1954 as part of the "General Foods 25th Anniversary Show: A Salute to Rodgers and Hammerstein." Leading them all is the remarkable bench scene from Carousel, featuring the original Billy Bigelow (John Raitt) and Julie Jordan (Jan Clayton). For diehard musical theatre fans, this segment alone is, as they say, more than worth the price of the DVD. Enough said. "South Pacific" gives us Mary and Ezio, while "The King and I" features Yul and Patricia Morison (original star of Kiss Me, Kate and a replacement Anna).
Other bonuses include audio tracks of cut numbers, accompanied by stills; the 1934 film "Liliom" (how many of you are dying to see that, I wonder?); the TV pilot for the series "Anna and the King" (how many of you are dying to see that, I wonder?); a songs-only option, allowing you to more or less watch the soundtrack recording; and various historical discussions by a parade of so-called experts (myself included).
Glamour Girls is the name given to a new five-DVD collection released by Kino International. Marlene Dietrich graces the cover, and she certainly classifies; the glamour quotient of Margaret Sullavan, Lucille Ball and Jeanette McDonald is another question, but no complaints as the box includes three pretty good films.
"Love Me Tonight" (1932) ranks high among the finest film musicals ever made, especially if you're restricting the discussion to scores written specifically for the screen. This is where composer Richard Rodgers and director Rouben Mamoulian first met; the pair would later collaborate on Broadway's Oklahoma! and Carousel, forging a new art form in the process. It is safe to say that they began their work at integrating story and score here, on the streets of Paris (or at least on the Paris soundstage). Larry Hart wrote the lyrics, and those Rodgers & Hart songs included three all-time classics, "Lover," "Mimi" and "Isn't It Romantic?" Not just great songs, but effective in the context of the film. Maurice Chevalier and Jeanette McDonald star, with tasty support from Myrna Loy.
The specific interest to musical theatre fans of the "Glamour Girls" box comes not only from "Love Me Tonight." Also included are two films that were later adapted into Broadway musicals. Bad Broadway musicals, which makes the films worthy of study. Why turn this or that movie into a musical? That's an age-old question, one that they are still asking today. "The Good Fairy" (1935) was one of the first movies to be adapted as a Broadway musical. This is a delightful and somewhat daffy tale of a Parisian orphan on the loose, who over the course of 96 minutes makes out all right. She didn't make out all right on Broadway, that's for sure. Make a Wish they called it, in 1951, and probably wished they hadn't. The film, though, shines, with Margaret Sullavan as the girl; William Wyler as the director; and Preston Sturges, in the days before he became a director, providing the very funny screenplay. Herbert Marshall co-stars, with Frank Morgan among the cast.
Probably the finest of the films is Josef von Sternberg's "The Blue Angel" (1930), the film that catapulted Dietrich to stardom. Serious cinemaphiles be warned that this is not the original German classic; an English-language version was simultaneously filmed, and that's what we get in the "Glamour Girl" set. (Kino released a two-disc "Blue Angel" DVD back in 2001, which includes both versions.) Some misguided Broadway types took "The Blue Angel," moved it from Berlin to New Orleans, called in Duke Ellington to write the tunes, and dubbed it Pousse-Café (1966) — one of Broadway's legendary fiascos. The film is dated but nevertheless arresting; the performances, not only from Dietrich but from Emil Jannings as well, are unforgettable.
The other "glamour" films are "Pandora and the Flying Dutchman" (1951), with Ava Gardner and James Mason; and "Lured" (1947), in the Jack-the-Ripper genre, featuring Lucy — before Ricky, but with George Sanders and Boris Karloff. You can buy the three recommended films separately, but the box makes a far more economical purchase (unless you want the German-language "Der Blau Engel").
**** On a non-musical note, Fox has just released the current Oscar-contender Little Miss Sunshine. This is a smart, touching and canny comedy, kind of like "Smile" meets "The Full Monty" featuring an anti-"Annie" (and Broadway's own, crusty Alan Arkin). The DVD gives us not only the film but four alternate endings, as well. Warmly recommended as good, clean, vulgar fun.
(Steven Suskin is author of "Second Act Trouble," "A Must See! Brilliant Broadway Artwork," "Show Tunes," and the "Opening Night on Broadway" books. He can be reached at Ssuskin@aol.com.)