“I know the world is filled with troubles and many injustices. But reality is as beautiful as it is ugly. I think it is just as important to sing about beautiful mornings as it is to talk about the slums. I just couldn't write anything without hope in it.”
– Oscar Hammerstein II
It’s been said a collaborative partnership is very much like the ideal marriage. Certainly, this seems to have been the case for Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II, whose symbiotic union generated a creative flurry unparalleled in Broadway’s history. Yet, even the word ‘prolific’ seems at once fitting, yet grossly inadequate to summarize the team’s contributions to the American theater. Today, Rodgers and Hammerstein are justly celebrated for their provocative, ground-breaking and trend-setting entertainments. The movies that ultimately live on beyond this stagecraft are, in fact, lavish reflections from an exceptionally fertile period for this composing duo.
Throughout their tenure, Oscar Hammerstein would wax affectionately how he had toiled for weeks on a lyric, only to have Rodgers sit as his piano and perfectly score his words in a mere few hours. It is rumored Rodgers wrote ‘June is Bustin’ Out All Over’ for Carousel in the time it took his wife and daughter to attend a Saturday matinee. Rodgers always protested the insinuation his contributions somehow came more easily, citing that by the time he actually began to tickle the ivories, several months of intense discussion about character and motivation had already transpired, facilitating a good solid understanding and anticipation of the song’s mood, tempo and pacing. “I think the moment of creation should be a spontaneous one,” Rodgers clarified, “But I have to do an awful lot of thinking for an awful lot of time before I actually do a few notes.”
Together, Rodgers and Hammerstein wrote a staggering nine shows (five; Oklahoma!, Carousel, South Pacific, The King and I and The Sound of Music becoming immediate cultural touchstones, long since legendary - a tally made even more impressive when one stops to consider that from 1943 to 1959 they produced one new hit for the stage every other season and, in between, managed to pen a memorable film score for the 1945 remake of State Fair. They also create a musical for television; Cinderella starring, then relative unknown, Julie Andrews. Cumulatively, these efforts earned the duo 35 Tony Awards, 15 Academy Awards and a pair of Pulitzers – along with a host of Grammies and Emmys.
After Hammerstein’s death from cancer in 1960, Rodgers attempted to ‘link up’ with other major lyricists. Despite such luminaries as Stephen Sondheim and Alan Jay Lerner as his collaborating partners, Rodgers never again found the ideal muse for his intricate compositions. Simply stated; theirs’ can truly be said to have been a partnership of equals: Rodgers and Hammerstein – organic in fruition, dramatic on stage, their enduring longevity unlikely to be surpassed any time soon – if ever.
The first of many seminal works to emerge from Rodgers and Hammerstein; Oklahoma! had its Broadway debut on March 31, 1943. With its integrated score, stirring choreography by Agnes De Mille and seemingly effortless social commentary, the play was an immediate critical and financial success, departing from the conventional Broadway musical format; hummable songs sandwiched between the necessary evil of a threadbare plot. Based on Lynn Rigg’s, Green Grows the Lilac, (and original titled by R&H as Away We Go! Oklahoma!), the play’s most notable departure was its first act finale – a lavish and prolonged dream sequence ballet.
In Hollywood, Oklahoma!’s staggering success did not go unnoticed. 20th Century-Fox studio mogul, Darryl F. Zanuck had for some time been contemplating a musical remake of one of his biggest moneymakers from the 1930s; State Fair (1933). The novel by Philip Stong had translated into a winning melodrama for Will Rogers and then, Fox ingénue Janet Gaynor. The 1945 Technicolor remake would add a lush R&H score to State Fair’s already folksy ornamentation and become the new film’s coup de grace. State Fair (1945) is the story of the lovable Frake family. Patriarch, Abel (Charles Winninger) has his heart set on prize hog, Blue Boy winning the coveted Blue Ribbon, while ma’ Melissa (Fay Bainter) is aiming to make the best minced meat preserves in the county.
Meanwhile, their offspring Wayne, (teen heartthrob and recording sensation, Dick Haymes) and sis’, Margie (Fox ingénue, Jeanne Crain) are a pair of teenagers utterly bored by their platonic relationships back home. To all, this journey to the state fair will bring some new revelation. Pa and Ma will fulfill their dreams and the children will have theirs’ disillusioned – both for the better. At the fair, Margie meets newshound, Pat Gilbert (Dana Andrews) and Wayne has his head turned by travelling chanteuse, Emily Edwards (Vivian Blaine), who will ultimately break his heart, but allow him to return to his ever-devoted best gal, Eleanor (Jane Nigh) the sadder but wiser man.
State Fair is that rare slice of idealized Americana that Hollywood so readily celebrated throughout the war years; exuberantly fleshed out by Rodgers and Hammerstein’s debut score featuring such standards as ‘It Might As Well Be Spring’, ‘Isn’t It Kind’a Fun?’ and ‘It’s a Grand Night For Singing’. Interestingly, neither Rodgers nor Hammerstein was particularly keen on returning to film work – each having had a bad experience working in the movies apart from one another a decade earlier. However, after screening the 1933 State Fair in New York, both felt the story and its endearing characters warranted a second glance. A deal was struck whereby the duo could remain in New York while they wrote the score. Zanuck agreed.
Jeanne Crain, initially discovered by Orson Welles, had since become a Fox contract player with modest success in non-musicals. Zanuck cast Crain in a non-speaking role in The Gang’s All Here (1943) and then, as the lead in Home in Indiana (1944) – which became a huge hit. But Margie Frake presented a quandary for Crain, who admittedly could not sing a note. Hence, Louanne Hogan was hired to dub Crain’s vocals – a move that proved so successful, Crain went on to have a lucrative ‘singing’ career at Fox.
In writing the lyrics for State Fair, Oscar Hammerstein was briefly befuddled by his choice of love ballad for Margie. Hammerstein had desired to write a lyric about a girl suffering from Spring fever, thus, her inability to enjoy or even relate to the things and people she once cherished in her life. The concept was solid, except Hammerstein was quick to discover state fairs are held only during the autumn months. With a bit of imagination, Hammerstein revisited his concept; the result – the Oscar-winning classic ‘It Might As Well Be Spring.’ “I wrote it all out first,” Hammerstein would muse affectionately years later, “It took me several weeks. Then I gave it to him (Rodgers) and two hours later he called me up and said, ‘I’ve got it.’ I could have thrown a brick through the phone.”
When State Fair was released, it proved very popular. Though some of the more highbrow critics were quick to misjudge the score as not living up to the standards of Broadway’s Oklahoma! most were laudatory in their praise for Rodgers and Hammerstein’s first – and, as it would turn out, only – exclusively filmic collaboration. With the folksy charm of both Broadway’s Oklahoma! and Fox’s State Fair under their creative belts, Rodgers and Hammerstein turned to a very dark fantasy by Hungarian playwright Ferenc Molnar. Liliom was the story of an abusive lover who, after failing to secure happiness for his wife and young child, unrepentantly commits suicide. He is afforded one opportunity to return to earth and make peace with them, but badly mangles this opportunity for redemption and is exiled into purgatory instead.
Hammerstein was fascinated by it. But Rodgers initially considered Liliom oddly perverse and gruesomely tragic. Furthermore, Rodgers was quick to remind his partner that fantasy rarely translated well to stagecraft. Nevertheless, Rodgers did begin the creative process of ‘breaking down’ the elements, suggesting to Hammerstein the mood might be lightened with a change of locale from Budapest, in the original, to Maine for their revision. With a name change to Carousel, the protagonist, rechristened as carnival barker, Billie Bigalow (superbly realized by Gordon MacRae in the movie) became a tragic figure who, in his desire to secure a future for his family, makes a grievous decision that inadvertently costs him his life. He is recalled from heaven by the star keeper (Gene Lockhart) and time travels back to earth for one day; to make a mends for his past by inspiring his middle-aged wife, Julie (Shirley Jones) and encouraging his downtrodden teenage daughter, Louise (Susan Luckey) to believe in herself. In essence, Carousel is a morality tale, its’ noted optimism and hope at the end, supremely achieved by R&H’s haunting ballad, ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone.’
Encapsulating the passionately emotional arch of Liliom, Carousel (1956) infused a sense of the miraculous in the everyday, and even more ironically, within an overriding element of the tragic. This was mainly Hammerstein’s contribution – inspired by his Christian faith that, as he would later comment, “…we should all have in ourselves and one another…illuminated in these words – when you walk through a storm, hold your head up high and don’t be afraid of the dark. At the end of the storm is a golden sky and the sweet silver song of the Lord. Walk on through the wind. Walk on through the rain, though your dreams be tossed and blown. Walk on with hope in your heart and you’ll never walk alone.”
At the Broadway debut of Carousel, Ferenac Molnar confided in Hammerstein that he wished he had thought of their ending for his novel. Years later, Rodgers concurred with Molnar’s assessment. “Oscar never wrote more meaningful or more moving lyrics and to me, my score is more satisfying than any I’ve ever written…it affects me deeply every time I see it performed.” Though not the overwhelming critical or financial success that Oklahoma! had been, Carousel nevertheless did respectable business. Unfortunately, it would be followed by one of duo’s most forgettable stage efforts; Allegro – a meandering, speculative piece with socially conscious underpinnings about the folly of big business. Allegro ran for a mere 315 performances – disregarded by audiences and badly maligned by the critics.
If many were quick to contemplate the future of Rodgers and Hammerstein then, such snap analyses were laid to rest with South Pacific. James Michener’s frank, yet somewhat romanticized war stories, Tales of the South Pacific had been considered box office poison; an opinion that inadvertently placed the novel on the open market where theater director, Joshua Logan first discovered it. Unable to shake the notion the novel would make a great play, Logan passed it on to Rodgers and Hammerstein. Crafting themes of racial prejudice and moral ambiguity around the characters of an American nurse, Nellie Forbush (Mitzi Gaynor in the movie) whose love for French plantation owner, Emile DeBecque (Rossano Brazzi) is brought into question after she discovers he has Polynesian children from a previous marriage, the play proved to be Rodgers and Hammerstein most socially aware and emotionally charged stagecraft to date.
What made the Broadway premiere of South Pacific particularly satisfying for Rodgers and Hammerstein was that it was their first venture as solo producers. For their next project, the duo would be matched by two enigmatic talents, arguably as formidable as themselves; one a veteran actress; the other, a virtual unknown on the cusp of his own immortality. In 1946, 20th Century-Fox had debuted the non-musical film, Anna and the King of Siam; a fictionalized account based on the celebrated memoirs of British governess, Anna Leonowens (later played in R&H’s The King and I by Deborah Kerr) – also, a novel written fifty years before by Margaret Landon, about Anna’s burgeoning romantic feelings toward King Mongkut (spectacularly realized in all his finery by Rex Harrison in the 1946 film and later, in 1956, given even more formidable presence by Yul Brynner); a volatile potentate. Enthralled by Fox’s 1946 film was one of Broadway’s most luminous leading ladies; Gertrude Lawrence.
Lawrence was an intercontinental sensation whose recent stage success in Lady in the Dark embodied the height of chic sophistication. Purchasing the rights to Anna and the King, Lawrence approached Rodgers and Hammerstein to produce it for the stage with her as its’ star. As the legend goes; Rodgers and Hammerstein began The King and I in earnest, only to discover, much to their chagrin, they knew of no actor able to play the male protagonist. It was during this impasse that longtime friend and occasional collaborator, Mary Martin arranged for Rodgers and Hammerstein to audition several actors for the part of the king, including Yul Brynner, who was then appearing in the play, Lute Song. Emerging from behind the stage curtain, Brynner sat cross-legged before R&H with a guitar in hand. He then gave the instrument a mighty thwack and let out a primal yelp.
Brynner – who seemed to intuitively radiate savage sexuality – agreed to shave his head for the part. The results were startling, sensual and instantly iconic. To say R&H were inspired by Brynner is an understatement. While the first half of their play undeniably belongs to Gertrude Lawrence – and her sparing with the king - the last act remains a tour de force for Brynner; also bringing two secondary characters and their flawed romance to light; the slave girl, Tuptim (played in the movie by Rita Moreno) and Lun Tha (Carlos Rivas). Both on stage in, as reincarnated on film, The King and I was capped off by a startling ballet; a Siamese interpretation of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin.
After tryouts in New Haven and Boston, The King and I premiered on Broadway on March 29th, 1951. It was an immediate and overwhelming success – winning Tony Awards for Best Musical, Actress (Lawrence), Featured Actor (Brynner), Costume and Scenic Design. However, after playing Broadway for nearly a year and 1,246 performances, Gertrude Lawrence suddenly fell ill. She finished the Wednesday matinee in September 1952 and checked into hospital for what she believed would be a brief respite from jaundice. Instead, doctors informed the actress she was fatally stricken with liver cancer. That Saturday, Lawrence died at the age of 54, leaving Brynner to inherit the play’s mantle of quality as the undisputed monarch of Fox’s movie version in 1956.
It is interesting to note that, with the exception of State Fair, Rodgers and Hammerstein resisted transforming any of their plays into movies until the mid-1950's; a decade marred by a decline in the studio system; the loss to television of the movies’ exclusivity as mass cultural entertainment. In hindsight, Rodgers and Hammerstein’s apprehension likely had more to do with the fact they both were constantly busy. Their hiatus from Hollywood allowed the movie musical to ‘catch up’ to the place where, arguably, live theater had been all along. But it was the movie’s burgeoning technologies that afforded the Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals their lushness.
In Oklahoma!’s case, the venture was expedited by master showman, Michael Todd and his newly patented Todd A-O widescreen process, meant to rival Fox’s Cinemascope, but moreover, to recreate the all-encompassing Cinerama experience without its cumbersome 3-camera set up. For Todd, the appeal of having a Rodgers and Hammerstein musical to mark Todd A-O’s debut was a stroke of genius and a marketing dream. For Rodgers and Hammerstein, the overall appeal remained in Todd A-O’s promise to deliver improved image and sound quality – hence, optimal pictorial presentation. Unfortunately for all, the early Todd A-O process came with caveats – the most obvious being its large format 70mm widescreen precluded mass distribution, since most movie houses were not equipped to show Todd A-O. As a result, Fox studio chief Darryl F. Zanuck ordered the film to be shot twice: once in Todd A-O and once in Fox’s Cinemascope, necessitating each scene photographed twice using a two camera set up.
Director Fred Zinnemann brought nothing fresh to Oklahoma! – a startlingly faithful, and occasionally stagnant experience in Todd A-O, though ironically less obvious in Cinemascope. The roadshow of Oklahoma! at the Rivoli Theater in 1955 became a sensation; the Cinemascope version screened by a wider audience and equally as embraced. With a cast including Gordon MacRae, Gloria Grahame, Eddie Albert and Rod Steiger, that also introduced movie audiences to the talented, Shirley Jones, Oklahoma! became a big and beautiful screen spectacle. Flush with success, Zanuck reunited Gordon MacRae and Shirley Jones, rushing Carousel into production to debut Fox’s newly patented Cinemascope 55. Ironically, this widescreen process resembled Todd A-O in its photographing, reduction printed to standard 35mm anamorphic Cinemascope, later stretched during projection. As it had proved on the stage, the filmic version of Carousel did not equal Oklahoma!’s popularity or box office, though it managed to turn a profit nonetheless.
During these heady times leading up to the filming of The King and I (1956) Rodgers and Hammerstein were also involved in two commercial flops on the stage; Me and Juliet (1953) and Pipe Dream (1955). As a result, it was mutually agreed Rodgers and Hammerstein would take a brief respite from working together. While Rodgers continued to be intimately involved in the handling of The King and I, Hammerstein worked independently, adapting 1943’s stage show, Carmen Jones for the screen. On film, The King and I became the beneficiary of Zanuck’s meticulous supervision; screenwriter, Ernest Lehman assigned the task of restructuring the play’s content, deleting several songs along the way. Zanuck spared no expense on the construction of lavish outdoor sets to augment this story. The alterations to the play met with Rodgers and Hammerstein’s approval. But it was Yul Brynner’s central performance as the King that truly captivated audiences, earning him the Best Actor Academy Award; a banner year for the actor – nominated thrice in a single annum for this, The Ten Commandments, and Anastasia.
With 1958’s big screen debut of South Pacific, Rodgers and Hammerstein realized their dream to produce a movie themselves, in Todd A-O and for Magna Film Corp. Yet, under Joshua Logan’s direction, the film version of South Pacific remains something of a curious letdown. Initially, Logan (who also directed the Broadway original) had toyed with the idea of heightening the magical quality of Bali Ha’i by using diffused color filters. On stage, the effect of this mythical island paradise had been achieved with mood lighting and painted backdrops. On screen, the effect had to be full scale. Ultimately, Logan settled for an awkward combination of matte paintings for the long shots, married to an excessive use of smoke effects and color filtering. Logan was so enamored by the results he elected to use these same filters for virtually every musical number in the movie.
Hence, when nurse, Nellie Forbush (Mitzi Gaynor) declares the sky is a bright canary yellow in ‘A Cockeyed Optimist’, the screen is immediately bathed in a jaundice hue; ‘Some Enchanted Evening’ causing the visuals to turn bright orange, and later, deep magenta for the haunting ballad, ‘This Nearly Was Mine’. Audiences did not seem to mind. But critics were quick to lambast Logan’s limited concept of screen subtlety, along with his exceptionally static visuals. Nevertheless, South Pacific – the movie - would become the most profitable R&H movie to date…soon to be eclipsed by the phenomenal success of The Sound of Music (1964).
The Von Trapp Family Singers had already been the subject of two German produced films; Die Trapp Familie (1956) and Die Trapp Familie in Amerika (1958) when stage director, Vincent J. Donahue recommended their life story as a vehicle for Rodgers and Hammerstein alumni, Mary Martin. Perhaps because the duo were presently involved in adapting South Pacific into a movie, neither seemed particularly interested in producing a play based on the Von Trapp’s. However, Martin could – and would – be very persuasive. Her enthusiasm eventually became infectious and Rodgers and Hammerstein began work on The Sound of Music.
Premiering at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre on Nov. 16th 1959, and running a then record 1,443 performances, The Sound of Music on Broadway became the show to beat - breaking all previous records set and held by Rodgers and Hammerstein. Martin took home the Tony for Best Actress. Tragically, Hammerstein was diagnosed with terminal stomach cancer during the play’s out of town rehearsals. His relentless pursuit of excellence and his commitment to the theater outweighed his own health concerns; his last lyric committed to the project becoming ‘Edelweiss’ - the show’s poignant farewell anthem to a dying way of life. On August 23, 1960 Oscar Hammerstein died at age 65 without ever realizing the even greater heights his last collaborative effort was destined for on the big screen.
In April of 1964, director Robert Wise and a company of sixty descended on Salzburg Austria, intent on capturing Rodgers and Hammerstein’s final stage work on celluloid for posterity. By then, the socio-political and artistic landscape of Hollywood had been so dramatically altered from the Consent Decrees and by the advent of television, many in the industry were pondering the future feasibility of making movies. Indeed, nowhere more than at 20th Century-Fox was this crunch and conflict felt more dramatically, compounded by the studio hemorrhaging funds on the Elizabeth Taylor/Richard Burton epic, Cleopatra (1963). Ever-conscious Fox was expecting a mega-hit, on time and under budget, director Robert Wise worked as diligently as he could on location; hampered by Austria’s temperamental climate.
Today, The Sound of Music needs no introduction. But in 1964 it was a gamble. Times had changed. The Hollywood musical was no longer popular with audiences. The story of the Von Trapps is best recalled in a few brief sentences: a novice from the abbey, Maria (Julie Andrews) – who regrettably will never make ‘a fine nun’ is instead sent to the wealthy estate of retired sea captain, Georg Von Trapp (Christopher Plummer) to act as a governess for his seven precocious children; Liesl (Charmian Carr), Louisa (Heather Menzies), Friedrich (Nicholas Hammond), Kurt (Duane Chase), Brigitta (Angela Cartwright) and Gretyl (Kym Karath). Unaccustomed to the Captain’s military training, Maria brings sweetness and light to the household, inspiring the children, only to realize her place of importance must end once the captain marries the wealthy, Baroness Elsa (Eleanor Parker). However, despite the Baroness’ best attempts at sabotage, the captain falls madly in love with Maria instead. The two are married, the war breaks out and the Von Trapp’s are forced to flee Austria to escape the Nazis.
The Sound of Music is an inspired and inspirational movie musical – astutely publicized by Fox as “the happiest sound in all the world.” Nightly, cast and crew indulged in Austria’s cozy pubs and beer gardens, soaking up lush centuries-old atmosphere of Vienna. At one point, actor Christopher Plummer had to have several of his costumes let out to accommodate the extra girth he had acquired from all the pastries and wine. Despite daily telegrams from California, pressing Wise to speed up his shoot, the director quickly realized he could not wrap up the film on time and under budget. Still, what he had captured around town – the Mirabell Gardens, the exterior of Nonnberg Abbey, Winkler’s Terrace, the lush greenery and mountain exteriors of Saltzkammergut and the Mozart footbridge - proved an intoxicating blend of almost surreal locations. These were later cobbled together, seamlessly for once, with sets built at 20th Century Fox.
When The Sound of Music had its world premiere on March 2, 1965, few could have predicted its success. Despite an only slightly above average opening weekend, word of mouth and renewed ticket sales caused the film’s weekly intake to steadily rise during the Spring and Summer months – a virtually unheard of phenomenon. When the final tallies were counted, The Sound of Music had become Fox’s most popular film of the decade. It would eventually go on to become one of the highest grossing motion pictures of all time. In response to the film’s few detractors, who found the action cloying and saccharinely, Richard Rodgers replied, “So what’s wrong with sweetness and light? They’ve been around for a long time?”
In retrospect, The Sound of Music proved to be the last hurrah for Richard Rodgers. In 1962, Fox had dusted off State Fair for yet another remake. Rodgers was invited to write six new songs to embellish the contributions he and Hammerstein had shared on the 1945 film. A shift in locale from Iowa to Texas necessitated dropping ‘All I Owe I Owe Ioway’ – one of the earlier film’s best offerings; replacing it with the largely forgettable ‘It’s The Little Things in Texas.’ Unfortunately, the revamped State Fair failed to catch on; foreshadowing the fact that Rodgers best efforts were, arguably, already behind him. The Sound of Music’s movie debut delayed Rodgers retirement by another eight years. But that movie put a definite period to Rodgers own aspirations to continue composing for musical shows.
Shortly before his death, Oscar Hammerstein and Richard Rodgers appeared together on television to field questions about their long-time collaboration. It was poignant farewell for Hammerstein, who had already been diagnosed with terminal cancer. “I believe that not all of life is good,” Hammerstein whimsically relayed, “but so much of it is. My inclination is to emphasize that side of life…and it’s natural. It’s not something I’ve developed.”
Today, the Rodgers and Hammerstein catalogue remains a unique legacy steeped in this philosophy of goodness and light. It continues to radiate appeal well beyond its own time and resonates with the highest ideals humankind is capable of achieving. That Richard Rodgers subsequent musical collaborations, following Hammerstein’s death, failed to reach such meteoric heights is perhaps forgivable – for he and Oscar did give themselves an impossibly tough act to follow. But in the final analysis, theirs’ was a legacy in song immeasurably blessed by a willingness to believe art and life should – and might – run high-minded parallel courses. Perhaps, it is this expectation for idealism in all things that we today continue to find so alluring; arguably more desperately needed now than ever before.
When Richard Rodgers died on Dec. 30th, 1979, a period was put to what brilliant ideas and melodies might have lay within that highly developed sense of personal style. But he did not leave us barren of the moments, memories or a lifetime of exemplary masterworks. These will continue to captivate and encourage the creative fertility of young minds for as long as musicals endure. Oh what a perennially beautiful morning, indeed.
I wish I could say the same for Fox’s Amazon exclusive of The Rodgers and Hammerstein Collection on Blu-ray. While I cannot be certain of the mentality behind this release, I can unequivocally state that what’s here has decidedly left me wanting. Back in 2003, Fox Home Video released a similar collection on DVD. Regrettably, this hi-def offering is hardly an improvement. Where to begin? Well, for starters, in their infinite and thoroughly perplexing wisdom, Fox has excluded the 1962 remake of State Fair from this collection. They’ve also jettisoned a series of interviews featuring R&H, and the extensive ‘making of’ that was included for The King and I (actually, an ‘interactive’ supplement culled from the old CBS/Fox Laserdisc, that nevertheless featured some fascinating interviews and behind the scenes footage). All this is missing from this thin box set.
I could have forgiven even these oversights had there been more to crow about over these 1080p transfers. But no. I have to say, both State Fair and Oklahoma! still have issues; their viewing experience remains a grand disappointment. Let’s begin. Its’ original camera negative long ago destroyed in Fox’s ridiculous mid-1970’s purge of archival elements, State Fair has been remastered in hi-def from a second generation print master that hasn’t held up particularly well over the decades. I’ve seen Fox work miracles in hi-def with similar offerings like The Black Swan and Niagara. But State Fair seems to have flown under this radar, transferred from old digital files. Apart from the obvious loss of clarity and absence of its once robust Technicolor imagery, the overall characteristic of State Fair’s visuals is dull and drab; also dark and softly focused. What a shock and a disappointment, factoring in some digital anomalies that render film grain digitally harsh in spots.
Moving on, I was more hopeful about Oklahoma! Alas, such aspirations were immediately dashed when accessing the ‘restoration’ extra. The two line footnote that immediately pops up on the screen explains the Todd A-O version included herein has been remastered in 1080i – not 1080p; presumably because Todd A-O’s 30 frames per second conversion could not be accommodated in 1080p. What?!? Fox has given us 1080p remasters of South Pacific, The Agony and The Ecstasy, and the Burton/Taylor Cleopatra – all of them shot in Todd A-O!!! Clearly, there were no conversion issues on these discs!
The elements used on the Todd A-O incarnation of Oklahoma! are admittedly sharper than they appeared when Fox released Oklahoma! to DVD back in 2003. But the improvement is marginal at best. We still have an image that is relatively dull by comparison to the other aforementioned features shot in Todd A-O, with some weird light bleeding around the edges, and a residual softness that belies the format’s claim of motion picture high fidelity. Alas, colors still appear washed out. There’s modeling and streaking throughout this transfer, intermittently drawing undue attention. Flesh tones look pasty, occasionally with a bizarre jaundice yellow tint.
The news was even more abysmal when I popped in the Cinemascope version of Oklahoma!; excessively marred by age-related dirt and scratches, built-in flicker and marginal color fading. Honestly, doing a side by side comparison with Fox’s old DVD from 2003, I detected similar anomalies on both discs and in the very same spots, leading me to deduce they are using the same extremely flawed digital files to create this hi-def master. Bottom line: Oklahoma! on Blu-ray in either format looks careworn and unimpressive. If a restoration has been done on the Cinemascope version, it’s among the poorest I’ve seen. What a shock and a sham!
Better news was forthcoming on The King and I and Carousel – each receiving a new hi-def scan from original elements. Of all the early R&H movies, these two look the most impressive; partly owed to Cinemascope 55’s superior photographic method. On both titles, we get a relatively smooth visual presentation, unencumbered by age-related artifacts, with richer than expected color fidelity, very solid contrast, and, a light smattering of accurately reproduced film grain. The image on both movies is also very sharp without suggesting any untoward digital tinkering. There’s no edge enhancement.
Next up, is South Pacific. I am assuming this incarnation is exactly the same as the previously issued Blu-ray. Doing side by side comparisons with the previously issued Blu-ray of South Pacific, I detected virtually no differences in quality; the visual presentation looking identical. Like Oklahoma!, South Pacific gets two discs; one showcasing the movie’s theatrical presentation, the other offering us the extended road show cut - but without any of the reinstated footage receiving the necessary restoration and color correction to properly reintegrate it back into the main feature. Last, but certainly not least, is The Sound of Music. Again, this appears to be the exact same hi-def transfer Fox made available in their lavish box set almost three years ago. It’s picture perfect and will surely NOT disappoint.
The audio on all these discs – with the exception of State Fair – has been given a meticulous 5.1 DTS upgrade. State Fair is in DTS mono. The best sounding of the lot are The King and I, South Pacific and The Sound of Music. Carousel remains, marginally compromised. Carousel’s soundtrack has always incorporated a modicum of built-in distortion. It tends to sound scratchy, the higher frequencies frequently grating on the ear. As for extras: Fox has given short shrift to the collector; purging the second disc of goodies that accompanied The Sound of Music. So we also lose ‘Rodgers and Hammerstein: The Sound of Movies’ – a fantastic 2-hour tribute to the composing team and their illustrious history. I have to say, Fox’s willy-nilly inclusion of superficial extras ‘music machine’ and ‘sing-a-long’ features, while ditching the more comprehensive interview pieces and other extras (we get Liliom, which is not an R&H title, as example, but neither the 1933 nor 1962 versions of State Fair) like vintage advertising and stills – to mis-quote Yul Brynner’s King, is more than a bit of a puzzlement.
My biggest grievance is over the image quality on State Fair and both Cinemascope and Todd A-O versions of Oklahoma! These movies are not represented in a way that will likely endear them for posterity and this is a shame. Frankly, I consider it an insult, as well. I was all set to praise Fox for finally getting around to releasing these movies in hi def. But what’s here is hardly stellar. Just Fox’s repackaging two already pristine transfers (South Pacific and The Sound of Music) with competent 1080p transfers on The King and I and Carousel. Why Oklahoma! – either in Todd A-O or Cinemascope - did not rate such consideration is a question I cannot answer. I wish I had better news – but this is the best I can offer. A pity Fox Home Video felt about the same.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)
State Fair 4
The King and I 5+
South Pacific 3.5
The Sound of Music 5+
State Fair 2
Oklahoma! (Cinemascope) 2
Oklahoma! (Todd A-O) 3
The King and I 4
South Pacific 5+
South Pacific (roadshow) 3.5
The Sound of Music 5+