Wednesday, January 17, 2007

THE RODGERS & HAMMERSTEIN COLLECTION (Magna/Fox 1945-1965) Fox Home Video

Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II remain one of Broadway's most prolific composing teams. Between 1943 and 1960 the two shared an unprecedented string of mega-Tony award-winning hits (and minor flops…Allegro, anyone?). The formula - if one can call it that - for an R&H musical is unmistakable. Take a story of moral significance, instill it with a social conscience, and extol and celebrate the very best in the human condition through introspective song and dance. It's not an overstatement to suggest that Rodgers and Hammerstein reinvented the Broadway musical. But apart from being new then, the R&H musicals expanded the boundaries of the stage musical. So perhaps it merely stood to reason that after their meteoric success of Oklahoma! Hollywood would simply not let this creative pair pass quietly unnoticed.

Hence, in 1944 20th Century-Fox studio executive Darryl F. Zanuck hired R&H to write their only score for a motion picture; his Technicolor remake of State Fair (1945). Based on Philip Stong’s best-selling novel, the property had already been made as a moderately successful non-musical in 1933 with Fox’s biggest star at that time, Will Rogers.

The remake shifts its focus from Rogers’ fatherly figure to young people in love with dad on the side. R&H wrote six songs for State Fair, including the lilting ‘It’s A Grand Night For Singing’, the melodic ‘Isn’t It Kind’a Fun and the Oscar-winning ‘It Might As Well Be Spring.’

State Fair stars winsome Jeanne Crain as Margy Frake, the daughter of Abel (Charles Winninger) and Melissa Frake (Fay Bainter). Caught in a restless sort of teenage angst about what to do with the rest of her life, Margie discovers the answer to her prayers in the arms of Pat Gilbert (Dana Andrews), a handsome cub reporter covering the Iowa State Fair.

Meanwhile, Margy’s brother, Wayne (Dick Haymes) begins to fall for chanteuse, Emily Edwards (Vivian Blaine). It's an ill-fated romance, but one that will mature Wayne and make him worthy of the girl back home he thought he'd leave behind. Over the course of a week, Margy and Wayne, Ma and Pa, Pat and Emily will experience all the lush and homespun goodies there are to sample at the fair.  

Louanne Hogan convincingly dubbed for Jeanne Crain's singing voice, a move that led to a lip syncing career for Crain in several of the studio's top notch musicals. State Fair is a humdinger of a good show. But it's very much a Hollywood musical rather than an R&H show, lacking in their upwardly mobile mixture of human tragedy and social conscience.

In 1962, Fox attempted, rather disastrously to update and remake State Fair yet again, relocating the story to Texas, costarring the charm-free Pamela Tiffin and grating Bobby Darrin as the lovers. Garish and gaudy, the remake in no way captures the intimacy of the original.

The experience of writing songs for movies genuinely soured Richard Rogers who vowed to never again repeat the experience. Rogers disliked the pressure to produce songs on spec under harsh deadlines, only to have them either rejected or bludgeoned by heavy handed orchestrations. After State Fair, R&H returned to Broadway where they would reign largely unchallenged as masters of their realm for nearly two decades.

But by 1954, Oklahoma! had run its course on Broadway affording producer Michael Todd the opportunity to purchase the rights and produce it as a film. Neither Rodgers nor Hammerstein were particularly keen on this idea at first, having seen other Broadway shows become bastardized pale ghosts of their original shows on celluloid. But Todd was a showman first and foremost, and an utterly charming sweet talker second. After all but guaranteeing R&H strict adherence to the Broadway show, Todd further sweetened the deal by offering R&H the opportunity to partake in crafting the film version of their stage hit.  It was too good a deal to pass up.

Based on Lynn Rigg’s play ‘Green Grow The Lilacs’, Oklahoma! begins as the precocious tale of Laurie Williams (Shirley Jones), the first in a long line of R&H troubled heroines who is headstrong yet confused, determined yet apprehensive about the ways of the world. Laurie is pursued romantically by charming cowboy, Curly McLain (Gordon MacRae) whom she secretly adores, yet cannot abide for his devil-may-care teasing of her prim and proper ways. Laurie lives with her Aunt Eller (Charlotte Greenwood) and the brooding anti-social farm hand, Judd Fry (Rod Steiger), who is concealing a very deadly secret that threatens to destroy Laurie and Curly’s happiness.

Oklahoma! was photographed twice: once in Fox’s patented Cinemascope, then again in Michael Todd’s superior 70mm Todd A-O. Regrettably, the Todd A-O version was rarely seen after its limited road show engagement. Choreographer Agnes DeMille who had overwhelmed theater goers with her groundbreaking choreography,  was given the opportunity to do the film. Yet despite having every advantage, Oklahoma! is perhaps the most stilted of R&H’s stage to film translations. The cast is in fine voice, and the dance routines are brilliant. But when the music stops so does the story - or at least the spirit and tempo of it.

Fred Zinneman, not generally known as being a musical director, is clearly more interested in emphasizing the drama of the piece. This tends to darken the mood of the film, particularly its last act where Judd is killed and Curly briefly tried for his murder, making the reprise of ‘Oh What A Beautiful Morning’ seem either grossly conflicted or haphazardly tacked on. Despite these shortfalls in artistry, the film was a huge hit. Better still, showman Michael Todd and R&H got on famously throughout the shoot – a partnership that indirectly paved the way for the composers to gain more creative control over subsequent stage to screen translations of their work.

However, R&H’s tenure in Hollywood was strained by their next endeavor, the problematic Ferenc Molnar fantasy, Carousel (1956). Based on Molnar’s play, Liliom (made into a film in 1934), Carousel is the story of carnival barker Billy Bigelow (Gordon MacRae). His flirtations with an inexperienced waif, Julie Jordon (Shirley Jones) lead to a frustrated marriage. Bigelow treats his young bride with modest contempt – longing for the freedom he once knew as a free spirited man of the world. Then Julie becomes pregnant.

All seems right with the world – briefly, until Billy’s fair-weather friend, Jigger (Cameron Mitchell) concocts a plan to steal money from a wealthy businessman. The plan goes awry and Billy is killed. From heaven, he is allowed to observe his wife and child, and then – for one day - to revisit his daughter, Louise (Susan Luckey) on the day of her high school graduation. Without ever seeing him, Louis is infused by her father's strength, his resilient spirit and his pride and fatherly faith in her for the future.

Reportedly, Richard Rodgers favorite collaborative effort, the score for Carousel is one of Broadway’s most inspired with such infectious tunes as ‘June is Bustin’ Out All Over’, the overpowering ‘Carousel Waltz’ and the heart-rending ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone.’ Shot in 20th Century-Fox’s revamped (and much improved) Cinemascope 55, the fantasy elements of Carousel seems slightly off kilter on the expansive screen. Although there is much to admire in several vignettes, the tale never quite comes together as a cohesive whole. 

Fox spent a minor mint of photographing portions of the story in its unique New England settings, then hauled cast and crew to the backlot for interiors and retakes - neither achieving quite the same look on film. The studio also decided to hedge its bets by reuniting Gordon MacRae and Shirley Jones who had been ideally cast in Oklahoma!  Unfortunately they are kept apart for a good portion of the plot. And Carousel is not a romantic fantasy, per say, but the story of one conflicted, often undeserving man who is given an extraordinary reprieve to only partially set right the unhappy lives of the two people he left behind so long ago.  Carousel's ambiguous ending leaves the audience at odds with their own emotions. We're not entirely sure what to feel; pity, pain, salvation, redemption. 

The film's theme of love lost, yet renewed from beyond the grave is strangely unsettling and without the sort of finite conclusion Hollywood movies in general - and musicals from this vintage in particular - were so good at crystallizing.  Although Carousel did turn a profit, box office receipts for the movie version of Carousel were hardly what either Fox or R&H had expected.

Far more profitable was the film version of R&H’s titanic Broadway smash, South Pacific (1958). Based on James A. Mitchener’s Tale of the South Pacific, the play and the film are an intimate critique of racism and conflicted love, set against the breathtaking backdrop of the South Sea Islands. The story concerns a romantic entanglement between American nurse Nellie Forbush (Mitzi Gaynor) and French planter, Emile de Becque (Rossano Brazzi). Nellie is from Little Rock Arkansas; de Becque – a man of the world.

Their romance develops full steam until de Becque confides that he was previously married to a Polynesian and has two interracial children by her. In the meantime, Lt. Joe Cable (John Kerr) arrives on the island and is introduced to native, Bloody Mary (Juanita Hall). Mary stirs the mysteries of Bali H’ai in Joe’s heart and eventually lures him to a hauntingly beautiful island paradise where her equally breathtaking daughter Liat (France Nuyen) resides. Mary is determined for Joe to marry Liat, but he (like Nellie) harbors deep-seeded apprehensions about mixing with another race.

Director Joshua Logan is an ill-fit to direct South Pacific. His static camera and heavy use of color filters throughout transform the mystery and beauty of the tropics into a gaudy sort of drug-induced hallucination from which only one romantic pairing is destine to survive. The film's saving grace is its R&H score, arguably their most profound with such offerings as the buoyant ‘Cockeyed Optimist’; thought-provoking ‘Carefully Taught’; bittersweet ‘This Nearly Was Mine’ and iconic and moving, ‘Some Enchanted Evening.’

Arguably, the second best film adaptation in the R&H artistic canon is The King and I (1956), based on the published diaries of Anna Leonowens and a fictionalized biography written by Margaret Landon. The property had already been made into 1946’s non-musical, Anna and the King of Siam costarring Irene Dunne and Rex Harrison. Upon seeing that film, stage legend Gertrude Lawrence approached Rodgers and Hammerstein with the prospect of producing the property as a musical for her.

A stunning success, the Broadway version launched the career of Yul Brynner. By the time Lawrence succumbed to illness, forcing her to leave the show, the property officially became Brynner’s star-making vehicle. The film too has the ear-marks of being Brynner’s to command. But he is given a formidable adversary in the personage of Deborah Kerr (cast as Leonowens).

Ernest Lehman's screenplay begins with Anna’s arrival in the court of Siam where she quickly learns that the King intends to renege on his promise of providing her with a brick home adjacent the palace for her living quarters. This failed agreement is at the crux of Anna’s displeasure as she assumes her responsibilities in educating his many children. Although Anna finds the king tyrannical and moody she also begins to see and warm up to his other side; that of a benevolent leader who is striving to better himself and his people through modern social advancements. As such, Anna dedicates herself to providing aid and assistance, but quite unexpectedly finds herself falling in love.

As with all R&H romances, this pairing of Anna and the King is fundamentally flawed. She is a foreigner unable to rid herself entirely of that middle class morality. He is an earthy and vibrant monarch who is destined to destroy himself by betraying his father's legacy in an attempt to Westernize his country. R&H’s score includes the delightful ‘Getting To Know You’, the stirring ‘Something Wonderful’ and charming ‘Shall We Dance’, the latter translating into a moment of sublime romantic indecision as both the King and Anna realize there is more between them than just her hoop skirt.

Fox studio chief, Darryl F. Zanuck so fervently believed in the strength of this property that he personally supervised the mammoth production. Zanuck’s attention to every detail shows on the big screen. Shot in Cinemascope 55, and with spectacular sets replicating the palace of Siam, the film is (as campaign poster art of its day proclaimed) “more than your eyes have ever seen. More than your heart has ever known!”

By the time The Sound of Music (1965) made its film debut, it had already transcended all of its Broadway hype to become a much beloved piece of American stagecraft. On Broadway The Sound of Music was hardly a smash. But over time it built its reputation as a solid entertainment.  The property languished on Fox’s shelves throughout the early part of the 1960s - well past the expiration date for the film musicals popularity with audiences. In fact, there was some doubt whether The Sound of Music would ever be made into a film at all. Fox was in dire financial straits following the disastrous Cleopatra (1963). 

But Darryl and Richard Zanuck had faith in the property. Moreover, the had secured Robert Wise to direct the film and Julie Andrews - fresh from her overwhelming popularity in Mary Poppins (1964) to star. After the death of Oscar Hammerstein in 1960, Rodgers agreed to go it alone and pen several new songs for the film version. Timing, as they say, was perfect.

Some today regard Julie Andrews assimilation into the part of the sugary-sweet governess who liberates the Von Trapp children from the tyranny of their father as something of a retread of her Poppins role. And while obvious similarities between the two abound, Andrews manages to do something quite different with her Maria Von Trapp.  The film was shot mostly on location in Austria, reveling in its old world charm.  

And Ernest Lehman's screenplay does a marvelous job of filling the gaps that were occasionally quite obvious and unappealing in the stage show. He tightens up the central narrative, diffuses the overt treacle from saccharine to sweetness, softens the figure of the Captain (Christopher Plummer) from paternal ogre to disgruntled patriarch with a wounded heart, and manages to elevate the drama of the piece that is, of course, its most prominent plot point during the final act.

Even today, The Sound of Music retains a familiar freshness that other movie musicals from its vintage utterly lack. The last song Oscar Hammerstein wrote for the show before dying of cancer was Eidelweiss; a tune that embodies his sentiment and faith in the human race. Richard Rodgers wrote 'I Have Confidence' after Oscar's death, and jettisoned 'An Ordinary Couple' in favor of the more lilting 'Something Good'. In all R&H’s score is like a bouquet of evergreen hits, instantly recognizable and utterly buoyant. With The Sound of Music the curtain was brought down on one of the 20th century's most celebrated teams. 

THE DVD TRANSFERS - then and now

Fast track to 1999 – after a misfire called DIVX, Fox Home Video debuted The Rodgers & Hammerstein Collection Version (1) on DVD featuring all 6 of the composers’ collaborative efforts, but sadly in bare bones and poorly mastered non-anamorphic transfers. The best of the lot then was The Sound of Music – released individually in Fox’s then trademarked silver packaging ‘Five Star’ edition. If you still own this version of The Sound of Music, don’t trade it in for the re-release (more on why, later).

Fox’s newly remastered R&H Collection is decidedly a step up. Each film is a 2 disc Special Edition. Transfer quality is as follows: since no original camera negative existed for State Fair (1945) Fox’s DVD has been mastered from a print  and is remarkably clean and finely detailed with gorgeous color saturation. 

The same can’t be said for its 1962 remake (also included). The 62’ version exhibits slight fading and age related artifacts. The audio on both versions has been remixed to stereo. Fidelity is generally dated but represented at an adequate listening level that will not disappoint. Extras on State Fair include a thorough documentary on all three versions of State Fair, plus its Broadway revival, audio commentaries on both versions and vintage featurettes.

Oklahoma!’s transfer exhibits some perplexing shortcomings. Although the 70mm Todd A-O version should be sharper than the Cinemascope (shot on squeezed 35mm film stock), the opposite is true on this DVD presentation. The Cinemascope version of Oklahoma! is quite sharp with good color, contrast and fine details. The Todd A-O version is virtually unwatchable. Its color is dull and faded. Furthermore, the entire image seems slightly out of focus and exhibits digital edge enhancement and pixelization. Truly, this reviewer cannot fathom what went through the minds of Fox executives when they decided to debut such a superior film format in such an inferior way on home video. The audio on both is 5.1 stereo, but Todd A-O's superior stereo continues to outrank the Cinemascope sound elements. If only the picture was up to par. 

Carousel’s transfer looks far more impressive than it ever has before. Colors tend to exhibit more refined clarity and saturation. Blacks are solid and deep. Whites are generally clean. The New England settings pop on the screen. The key problem with Carousel’s presentation (both on its previous disc and this current version) is its audio which continues to be strident and blooming in spots. Bass levels fluctuate from overpowering to nonexistent with higher frequencies that tend to grate on the ear. One has to believe that the remastering efforts were derived from the best possible stereo stems, but the overall quality of this recording is simply not up to par. Extras once again are an audio commentary and vintage short subjects and news reels. There’s also an isolated score and outtakes from songs deleted before the film’s general release.

South Pacific’s transfer is – in one word – stunning! The Todd A-O image exhibits a vibrancy that is almost three dimensional. Colors are eye-popping. Contrast levels are bang on with richly textured velvety blacks and very clean whites. The audio is robust, capturing the lush orchestrations. Truly, this is a reference quality disc. Extras include the slightly longer road show version of South Pacific. But here the reinstated material has not been color corrected or cleaned up. Hence, the image fluctuates from its breathtaking gorgeousness to badly faded and grainy inserts – not an ideal presentation by any stretch. There’s also an excerpt from 60 Minutes featuring Dianne Sawyer interviewing author, James A. Mitchener.

The King & I is the other outstanding transfer in this collection. Long, have home video aficionados had to suffer through previous incarnations of this legendary film with badly faded prints that maligned its magnificent performances. But now, Fox Video delivers a magical Cinemascope 55 transfer with rich colors, accurate flesh tones and beautiful contrasts. The image will surely not disappoint. Neither will the audio. Extras include several exclusively produced featurettes – some derived from Fox’s 1996 laserdisc presentation, an isolated score and an audio commentary.

This reviewer continues to be conflicted over the transfer quality on The Sound of Music. The previously mentioned Five Star Edition from Fox exhibited a terrible amount of edge enhancement and shimmering of fine details. In cleaning up the image for this re-release those shortcomings have been removed. But the image now appears to be overly soft in some areas, exhibiting a loss of fine detail – particularly in overhead helicopter shots leading up to the film’s dramatic opening and main title sequence.

Colors are rich and more refined herein but if you want my advice, buy the Blu-ray of The Sound of Music and South Pacific to augment this collection Currently these are the only two R&H titles available in hi-def.

Extras include a litany of self-congratulatory junkets produced for the film’s 40th anniversary, but sadly, not the beautifully produced ‘The Sound of Music: From Fact to Phenomenon’ full blown documentary that accompanied the Five Star Edition. Also absent from this supposed definitive box set of R&H classics is the BBC produced Rodgers and Hammerstein: The Sound of Movies, a 2 hr. documentary previously released as a stand alone disc. 

Bottom line: This box set comes recommended as the ideal holiday stocking stuffer for those who still believe in R&H's motto - that ‘better days are still ahead.’

FILM RATINGS (out of 5 - 5 being the best)
State Fair (1945) 4.5
State Fair (1962) 2
Oklahoma! 4.5
Carousel 3.5
The King & I 4.5
South Pacific 4
The Sound of Music 5+

State Fair (1945) 4.5
State Fair (1962) 4
Oklahoma! (Cinemascope version) 4.5
Oklahoma! (Todd A-O version) 2
Carousel 4
South Pacific 5
The King & I 5
The Sound of Music 4.5


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