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Category:    Home > Reviews > Musical > Large Frame Format > Oklahoma! - 50th Anniversary Edition

Oklahoma! – 50th Anniversary Edition


Picture: B-/B     Sound: B-     Extras: B     Films - 35mm: B   Todd-AO 70mm: B+



Fred Zinnemann was always known as a dramatic journeyman director best known for helming the 1950 Western classic High Noon, and was so impressive throughout his career that Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II (aka R&H) personally approved him to do the hottest property they may have ever had.  All the major studios wanted to make the groundbreaking stage musical Oklahoma! into a feature film, but Michael Todd decided to move on from the huge hit Cinerama process and designed the Todd-AO system with American Optical Company.  The results so impressed R&H that they signed on and even co-formed a company with him to distribute called Magna.


The story about boy meets girl in the wild blue yonder combined a sense of realism, darkness and naturalism not seen on the stage before and certainly never seen on film before.  Veteran Joel MacRae and then newcomer Shirley Jones lead a fine (and fun) cast in this story about a if a young woman will pick the man who is best for her, or one (Rod Steiger) who has major issues.  It may be a typical love triangle story at its base, but it is the way it is done and the approach, the still amazing dancing and memorable song after memorable song that broke the old model of stage and film Musicals.  It certainly cracked the MGM and Paramount studio bound approaches and helped American filmmaking move into a new direction.


Sure it gets campy, but Gloria Grahame, Gene Nelson, Eddie Albert, Charlotte Greenwood, James Whitmore and an amazing cast of dancers hand-picked by R&H gel together so well and it is one of the reasons this holds up so shockingly well a half-century later.  That leaves addressing the differences in the two versions left to consider, and this is more than just a director’s cut versus one supposedly lesser.


The way the film was made is that many scenes were shot with both cameras at the same time.  The differences had to do with the Todd-AO 70mm being used for more extraordinary shooting of the locations, taking advantage of visual tricks (not unlike a 3-D film) and for the Musical numbers.  First, the 35mm CinemaScope takes would be shot and once they felt they had what they wanted, they would then shot the 70mm.  The result is that the 70mm has the better lip-syncing, acting and especially dancing.  The group dancing is especially tighter and more remarkable, some of the greatest even captured on film in or out of the genre.  Some of these moments are purely stunning.  That is not to say the 35mm dancing looks as sloppy as a Music Video, but it is just not as extraordinary as the large frame format roadshow version, which is the one R&H favored.  So few theaters were going to be equipped with 70mm, while some more did already adapt CinemaScope, so this was done to increase profits and cover costs.  Needless to say it was it was a huge hit and a new era in Musicals and widescreen filmmaking arrived.  Now to the technical features.


They anamorphically enhanced image for each disc is not bad, if not perfect, both demonstrating rarely used formats.  Though CinemaScope was a huge hit, it was only in its wider 2.55 X 1 aspect ratio (versus the later 2.35 X 1 to accommodate a second optical soundtrack) for a few years and the Oklahoma! is one of a handful of early such productions in the formats first few years.  That was also at the standard 24 (fps) frame a second.  At the same time, the film was also shot in 65mm negative using Todd-AO lenses and equipment, in part because this was the way to do the production on a scale previously unseen for a Musical.  As well, they could not convert one format into another at the time.  Robert Surtees and an uncredited Floyd Crosby split cinematography chores.


The 35mm version is not bad, but has some segments that look darker than they should, likely because this is a late NTSC analog transfer.  The film had been restored a few years ago, as was its 70mm counterpart.  This transfer also has some limits, but is one of the only films ever made where its frame rate matches that of U.S. NTSC TV systems (29.97 fps for video), so it is fascinating to watch.  At first, you could think you are watching material originating on some kind of digital High Definition video, but soon you realize it looks too good to be any video of this time and certainly no video system from 1955.  It is one of only 19 feature films ever to use the great, famed 70mm system and one of the first two at 30 fps.  It is a very significant film just on a technical level, but is even more effective beyond that.  Anyone who loves movies has to see this version, starting with this one over the 35mm copy on DVD 1, then watching that one.


In the original releases, both versions had multi-channel stereo.  The CinemaScope prints had four tracks and Todd-AO six track of magnetic sound.  That is each with one monophonic surround track, while the rest of the tracks behind the screen (three for 35mm, 5 for 70mm) offering traveling dialogue and sound effects not unlike sound on a theater stage.  Both versions offer Dolby Digital 5.0 mixes that are not bad, but are different because the two films had separate soundtracks as well as footage.  Unfortunately, they do not differ sonically that much and it is a shame Fox did not include DTS versions for the sound is so vital here.  These mixes will do, but when they do digital High Definition transfers, they should clean up and upgrade the sound further.  It will be really interesting to see the differences when this is issued on Blu-ray.


Extras include trailers and sing-alongs on both versions of the film, with the Todd-AO DVD 2 having more trailers.  DVD 1 has a commentary track by scholars/experts Ted Chapin and Hugh Fardin, while DVD 2 has Nick Redman and Shirley Jones in a recent taping.  DVD 2 also offers a clip from a 1954 a TV salute to R&H, several stills sections, a featurette comparing the two formats used to shoot the film and two featurettes shot in and designed to promote the 70mm format:  The March Of Todd-AO and The Miracle Of Todd-AO.  Along with the transfer on this second DVD, all of these extras should give you an idea of how amazing the Todd-AO format was and why it continues to be celebrated as one of the great Rolls Royces of large frame formats.  It makes one want to see a 70mm booking, but 1982 was the last time the film came out in its Todd-AO version.  In the meantime, this DVD set will introduce a new generation to a key film and great epic of entertainment.


This set is also available in a nice new compact DVD collection with all six R&H titles (eight films in all not including alternate cuts of the main film) in The Rodgers and Hammerstein Collection Box Set.  Like their Mel Brooks Collection (reviewed elsewhere on this site), the DVDs is thicker regular cases are here in slender cases (two each!) for The King & I, Oklahoma!, The Sound of Music, South Pacific, Carousel and State Fair.  Our page links to all six reviews at this link:





-   Nicholas Sheffo


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