October 11 marks the 65th anniversary of the release of 1955's Oklahoma!, Fred Zinnemann's cinematic adaptation of the classic Rodgers and Hammerstein musical. Starring Gordon MacRae, Shirley Jones (in her screen debut), Rod Steiger, Charlotte Greenwood, Gloria Grahame, Gene Nelson, James Whitmore, and Eddie Albert, the film was the first of several silver screen adaptations of Rodgers and Hammerstein's work.
The legendary musical theatre writing duo premiered the original stage version of Oklahoma!, their first ever collaboration, in 1943. The musical, itself an adaptation of the 1931 play Green Grow the Lilacs, was a box office hit, launching a run that lasted for a then-record 2,212 performances and solidifying Rodgers and Hammerstein's place as musical theatre heavyweights. The two would later go on to collaborate on a string of hit classics, including Carousel, South Pacific, The King and I, Cinderella, and The Sound of Music.
Rodgers and Hammerstein oversaw production on the film in an effort to keep the studio, Magna Theatre Corporation, from making changes to their material. While the pair exercised similar creative control over subsequent film renditions of their work, Oklahoma! remains the closest adaptation of the original stage musical, with only two numbers—"It's a Scandal, It's a Outrage" and "Lonely Room"—cut from the score.
From Rehearsal to Production: Celebrate 65 Years of Oklahoma! on Screen
Zinnemann, who had never directed a musical film prior to Oklahoma! (and never directed another thereafter), shot the film in Nogales, Arizona, and the surrounding area. It was the first film to employ Todd-AO, a 65mm-to-70mm widescreen conversion process developed by film and theatre producer Michael Todd; however, given the newness of the technology at the time, many theaters were not equipped to show 70mm film. As a precaution, the production was simultaneously shot on both 65mm and the more standard Cinemascope 35mm. The result: two separate versions of Oklahoma! exist, shot with entirely different technology and comprised of different takes.
Oklahoma! premiered at the Rivoli Theatre in New York City on October 11, 1955, under the same type of "roadshow" release model that would become a standard for large-scale movie musicals in the years to come. It earned two Academy Awards—one for its score and one for its sound recording—and received favorable reviews from critics.
The film remains a classic from the "Golden Age" of movie musicals and has seen multiple theatrical re-releases in the 64 years since its premiere. The 70mm Todd-AO cut has since been restored by eventual distributor 20th Century Fox; the restoration was screened for the first time in 2014 at the Fifth Annual TCM Classic Film Festival in Hollywood.
The musical was last seen on Broadway in a 2019 Tony-winning revival at Circle in the Square Theatre.