Rodgers & Hammerstein's Oklahoma!, the super smash hit of the 1942-43 season, took a dozen years to make it to the screen. The authors, in full control, went out of their way to protect their firstborn. R&H were no film novices; not only had several of their Broadway shows (written without each other) made it to the screen, they both had written influential screen musicals (including Rodgers' "Love Me Tonight" and Hammerstein's "High, Wide and Handsome"). They had also, following the opening of the stage Oklahoma!, collaborated on one screen musical, "State Fair" (see below).
But in the time between the stage Oklahoma! and the film Oklahoma! [Fox Home Entertainment], Dick and Oscar had become the most powerful producers in the musical theatre. Count the numerous companies of Oklahoma! and Carousel, both of which they ultimately controlled (although the shows were originally produced by the Theatre Guild); add in South Pacific and The King and I; and don't forget Annie Get Your Gun, which they produced but did not write. They also produced some major hit plays (including I Remember Mama) and a string of American hits in London (including Teahouse of the August Moon and Guys and Dolls).
Through all this activity, they kept their hit Broadway musicals off the screen. By 1954, when Oklahoma! went before the cameras, they were in a somewhat different position than just a few years earlier. Three of their first four collaborations were highly praised classics. The King and I, their 1951 offering, had enormous trouble out-of-town, resulting in a considerable rewrite. The show met with a less-than-smashing reception upon its Broadway opening; good, but not as good as Oklahoma!, Carousel or South Pacific was the verdict. (Ironically, The King and I has proven the strongest of the four in terms of afterlife.)
In retrospect, The King and I marked the end of R&H's eight-year reign as Broadway kings. Their 1953 effort, Me and Juliet, was uninspired and weak; their 1955 show, Pipe Dream, was inventive but irremediably troubled; and their 1958 try, Flower Drum Song, was little more than an ordinary musical comedy. By this point R&H were both ailing, mere shells of their former selves. One more show followed, another poorly received work that managed to overcome the gibes of the sophisticated theatrical crowd to become a major success. The Sound of Music, that is.
The point of this lecture is that the film versions of the big four were not interspersed with more great Broadway musicals; the films appeared over the course of four years (beginning with "Oklahoma!" in 1955), after the boys were finished creating legendary theatre. Was it a case of Broadway=art, film=business? Who can say. "Oklahoma!" was the first feature filmed in the technologically impressive Todd-AO format. Todd-AO used specially devised wide-angle lenses; the result was a film that, when projected on a curved screen, made viewers feel surrounded by the action. Relatively speaking, at least. Not coincidentally, regular-priced movie tickets at the time were 75 cents; "Oklahoma!," in Todd AO, premiered at the Rivoli on Broadway with a $3.50 ticket. "Oklahoma!" was simultaneously filmed in CinemaScope, as most cinemas of the day weren't equipped to project Todd-AO films. What Todd-AO gave you was epic scope; fine for scenes of wide-screen grandeur, but a wee mite overwhelming for a guy and a gal singin' a ballad on the front porch.
Mike Todd, the fabled showman who created Todd-AO, fittingly enough is the same fellow who issued the legendary pronouncement upon the occasion of the first performance of Oklahoma! — then entitled Away We Go! — in New Haven. "No legs, no jokes, no chance," said he, walking out during the first intermission.
The film "Oklahoma!" was fairly well received in its time, and did strong business, although a perusal of the autobiographical reactions of people involved with show and film suggests that the film was a major disappointment. Not having been around to see the original show in 1943, I would guess that Oklahoma! on stage was marked by an overwhelming excitement and spirited vibrance, while the film was just a scenic movie with impressive songs. The film also gives us a sense of the original choreography by Agnes de Mille, enlarged out of proportion to fit the sense-a-round screen but a reasonable re-creation of what had been seen onstage.
The new two-CD set includes both the Todd-AO and Cinemascope versions. The colors in the Todd-AO, oddly enough, are somewhat faded (noticeably so in comparison to the first DVD release of the film). Curiously enough, Bosley Crowther's original 1955 New York Times review makes the same complaint. This coincidence makes you wonder if the initial release version needed correction (as it was a brand-new format at the time), and if they mistakenly went back to the original-but-uncorrected version for this new release.
The two-DVD set is filled with numerous extras, including an illuminated and interesting commentary by Ted Chapin and Hugh Fordin accompanying the Cinemascope version. (Shirley Jones, who played Laurey, is on the Todd-AO version.) There is also some less-"Oklahoma!" related material on the Todd AO process, which I don't suppose will interest musical theatre or musical movie fans. And, it should be noted, that film shot in the Todd-AO process loses something when displayed on a mere television screen.
Back through the 1930s and early 1940s, book musicals were lucky to run a year on Broadway. Hit musicals like The Boys from Syracuse, Too Many Girls, Best Foot Forward and Louisiana Purchase usually came to the screen within two years of their Broadway opening.
When Oklahoma! appeared in 1943, it was unclear just how long a superhit could run on Broadway. Still, the authors knew enough to hold off on the motion picture rights. (It wasn't until 1970 that anybody thought to release a film while the original production was still running.) When Rodgers and Hammerstein, in the first flush of Oklahoma!, were approached by Hollywood, they understandably demurred. Even so, their unhappy studio experiences surely left them with the feeling that they ought to find some way to take the money.
The result was not Oklahoma! Part II, but Iowa! More specifically, a second film version of Philip Stong's 1932 novel State Fair [Fox Home Entertainment]. Stong was an Iowa boy, bred and born. The Iowa state fair was part of the life he lived; his grandfather, at one point, had been superintendent of the swine division. (The plot centers around a humorous old geezer set upon winning a blue ribbon for his prize pig.) With the money he earned from "State Fair," Stong ultimately bought back the old family ranch.
The novel was an immediate success, resulting in a filmed version the following year; Will Rogers starred as the father, with Academy Award winner Janet Gaynor as the daughter of the family. A dozen years later, Fox's Daryl F. Zanuck figured that "State Fair" — with songs by Rodgers & Hammerstein — would be box-office bait for moviegoers who couldn't expect to make it to Oklahoma! in the foreseeable future.
A full-scale musical, "State Fair" was not. Rodgers & Hammerstein were content to pen six songs to insert in the story, as opposed to devising a score around which to build a plot. The songs were of high caliber, not surprising in that they were written simultaneously with Carousel. Most were more than fine, while two were extra special. "It's a Grand Night for Singing" was a sweeping waltz, of the sort that Rodgers reveled in throughout his career (such as "The Most Beautiful Girl in the World," "Lover," and the one from Carousel.) "It Might As Well Be Spring," meanwhile, ranks high on the list of the best of R&H. A fine companion to Hammerstein's "I've Told Ev'ry Little Star" (with Kern), and pretty much perfect. "Spring" won Rodgers his one and only Oscar, with Oscar himself picking up his second.
Fox has seen fit to include "State Fair" in its current parade of new-and restored Rodgers & Hammerstein DVDs. Is "State Fair" in a class with the others? No, and understandably so. This is not a Rodgers & Hammerstein musical, but a middling and dated film enhanced with Rodgers & Hammerstein songs. Yet here it is, fitted out on two discs with all sorts of extras. The most interesting elements, unsurprisingly, are the songs. Also of note are Vivian Blaine, some five years before she entered Frank Loesser's Hot Box as Miss Adelaide; and Charles Winninger, who eighteen years earlier had created the immortal Cap'n Andy in Hammerstein's Show Boat.
Otherwise, spells of commentary add some interest to the proceedings. The big feature of this release, at least in theory, is the first-time-on-DVD appearance of the 1962 remake of "State Fair," starring Pat Boone, accompanied by Bobby Darin, Ann-Margret and Alice Faye. The film was reset in Texas, with a clutch of new songs with music and lyrics by Rodgers (as Hammerstein had died in 1960). This "State Fair" was all but unwatchable in 1962, and ain't much better nowadays. Even so, Fox is saluted for going all out for R&H. They are following "Oklahoma!," "State Fair" and "The Sound of Music" (which was reviewed in our last column) with the forthcoming releases of the other two Rodgers & Hammerstein classics, "Carousel" and "The King and I."
—Steven Suskin, author of the forthcoming "Second Act Trouble" [Applause Books], "A Must See!," the "Broadway Yearbook" series and "Show Tunes." He can be reached by E-mail at Ssuskin@aol.com.