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Oklahoma! 50th Anniversary Edition

I have to go on record as a fan of musicals. Not too many show up on my personal top 100 movies list, but Singing in the Rain and Seven Brides for Seven Brothers are there along with one or two others. I’ve seen quite a few Broadway musicals, which I guess makes me gay, but something about upbeat group music makes me feel good. So when I saw the Oklahoma! 50th Anniversary Edition 2-Disc set at my local discount retailer of choice for a mere $10, I snapped it up. You should too. Oklahoma! is the movie version of a very successful Broadway collaboration between uber-songsters Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II. The basic story involves an Oklahoma cowboy named Curly (Gordon MacRae) who courts farm girl Laurie (Shirley Jones) with the approval of Laurie’s Aunt Eller (Charlotte Greenwood.) Curly’s rival is Eller’s hired hand, Jud (Rod Steiger.) Jud wades against the current of optimism and light comedy in the rest of film, wearing his resentments and lust across his barrel chest. The second story follows Curly’s cowboy buddy Will (Gene Nelson) who woos Ado Annie Carnes (Gloria Grahame.) To put it delicately Ado Annie is a bit of slut (her signature song is “I Cain’t Say No,”) and her father (James Whitmore) is willing to see her married off to anyone who dishonors her, even a Turkish peddler (Eddie Albert.) Whitmore was 31 when he made this movie and looked 65, he’s 83 now and still looks like he did in this movie.

The songs are the real stars here, “Oh What a Beautiful Morning,” “Kansas City,” Oklahoma!”, and “People Will Say We’re in Love” are just the tip. Unlike many musicals that came before, the songs and dances (choreographed by Agnes De Mille) are integral to the story, arising naturally out of the conversation and moving the plot forward. MacRae has an amazing rich voice that sounds fantastic on the DVD, and Jones, in her first movie role, is truly lovely. After you get over the hump of the guy from “Green Acres” playing a Turk, Eddie Albert joins Grahame and Nelson in a nice comic triangle.

Rodgers and Hammerstein did not want to give any studio the chance to alter their show significantly, so they produced the picture independently. This resulted in them shooting almost the entire thing in outdoor locations in Nogales, Arizona (standing in for Oklahoma.) The wide vistas and outdoor locals are beautifully shot and give a full vibrant look which compliments the story. Also, you have to like a story where the protagonist tries to get convince his rival that the way to make himself more popular is to hang himself.

The movie does suffer from a few missteps. Steiger provides Jud with a good menacing personality, but he can’t really sing or dance and he’s asked to do both. He seems a little out of place in general. Also, there is a 15 minute dream ballet sequence right smack dab in the middle of the movie which was either a bold artistic move or really dumb. I choose dumb. It goes on for too long and it doesn’t really add anything to the story, we already know the information that the ballet is presenting.

Other than those stumbles, the movie is well cast, beautifully shot, and has some of the best movie music ever recorded. MacRae was primarily a singer but ends up giving a decent acting performance. He only made one other movie musical after this, apparently he had a drinking problem, but he’s good here. The supporting cast is excellent and it is pretty uplifting in the end, which is always good. Pick it up, you won’t regret your choice. Paging all A/V geeks! Paging all A/V geeks! Do you get a warm feeling when people talk about aspect ratios, how many sprocket holes per frame (and if you think of Mike Myers petting a monkey right now, 10 bonus points,) or the degrees in the field of view. Then this, my nerdly amigo, is the DVD for you. Two complete versions of the movie are provided, one disc has the movie shot in CinemaScope (2:55 to 1 aspect ratio) and the other has the movie shot in Todd-AO (2.20 to 1 aspect ratio.) This was the first movie to use the brand new Todd-AO widescreen format. Each scene (or at least most of them, depending on which commentary you believe) was shot twice, once with each type of camera. You lose a LOT of the difference on a regular television set like I own, but the wide location vistas do look very good in both formats.

The disc with the CinemaScope version of the film (Disc 1) includes a commentary by those two well known guys, Ted Chapin and Hugh Fordin. What’s their connection to the movie? None! That’s what makes for a good commentary. Actually, Chapin is the President of the Rodgers and Hammerstein Organization and Fordin is a film historian and the author of a book on Oscar Hammerstein II. Because of their connection more to Rodgers and Hammerstein rather than the movie itself, they talk more about the work of the composing team in general and less about the movie specifically. They do provide some interesting historical insight, but for on set tidbits you need to listen to the Shirley Jones commentary on Disc 2.

Other than the commentary, Disc 1 is light on the extras (most are on Disc 2.) There is one trailer and also a feature which allows you to turn on the lyrics during the songs and SINGALONG (it’s capitalized like that on the box, as though they wanted to add DAMN YOU right after.)

The disc with the Todd-AO version of the film (Disc 2) includes a commentary by Shirley Jones and film historian Nick Redman. Jones primarily reminisces about her experiences on the film and what she thought of her co-stars while Redman acts more as an interviewer, guiding and directing the flow of the commentary and prompting Jones with questions. It works pretty well, although Redman seems a bit hesitant to give his own opinion about things, deferring to Jones. However, since she was there, this makes some sense. They do a nice job and while they sometimes go for many minutes speaking of generalities rather than this specific film, it’s an informative commentary.

Disc 2 also includes a featurette on the difference between CinemaScope and Todd-AO (nerd alert!) and two short subjects, both 12 minutes long, that were used to show theaters what Todd-AO would look like. Mostly they come off like those old Disneyland movies in the round, putting you on a roller coaster, flying, or skiing. Although one of them shows some guys from the Navy going to the Vatican and then shows the coronation of the Pope.

Other extras on Disc 2 are Gordon MacRae and Florence Henderson (Mom always says, don’t play ball in the house) doing two songs from the stage version of Oklahoma!. The film is from a 1954 television show and looks pretty flat and washed out, but it’s an interesting historical record of the stage show. There is also a couple of trailers, very brief photo galleries (eh), and a reprise of our favorite SINGALONG feature from Disc 1. That’s right, SINGALONG. I’m talking to YOU.

The combination of two versions of the film which show off the great scenery and a nice selection of extras make this a good disc to add to any musical collection. The film itself is a justifiable classic and you can really learn about both the picture and Rodgers and Hammerstein in general if you listen to the commentaries. Obviously, tech geeks will love the information about Todd-AO and that stuff. All in all, a well put together collection.