Wednesday, September 10, 2014

OKLAHOMA!: Blu-ray (Magna Theatre Corp. 1955) Fox Home Video

I get a queer twinge of irony coursing through my veins every time I watch Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma! (1955); chiefly, because I can’t set aside the fact those golden rays of sunshine and vast, bucolic spaces I’m basking in are actually Arizona country, not Oklahoma territory; also, because I can’t help but think about the sort of movie musical Oklahoma! might have been, if produced just a few short years later, and, with a different director at its helm. Fred Zinnemann is a superior technician, as both the Todd A-O and Cinemascope versions of Oklahoma! attests. But he isn’t in tune – literally – with the demands of this socially conscious musical theater; neither with the pacing nor staging of a big and splashy Hollywood musical. Regrettably, the song and dance sequences in the film painfully illustrate this shortcoming. In general, Hollywood always did much better creating their own homegrown musicals, generally, cut from the traditional ‘boy meets girl’ ilk. In hindsight, Oklahoma! as conceived by Rodgers and Hammerstein is just too ambitious for Hollywood – even if half the creative brain trust toiling to bring it to the screen hailed from Broadway origins. Instead, Zinnemann and company are attempting a bit of the impossible: to straddle the chasm between those irreconcilable realms of stagecraft and more light-hearted movie pop-u-tainments.
Running 2 ½ hrs., Oklahoma! (its focus on reproducing the ‘stage experience’ including an overture, entr’acte and exit music) earmarked the decade’s foray into the roadshow presentation, soon to engulf the 1960’s with its’ too oft’ vacuous elephantiasis.  What we get in Oklahoma! is therefore something of a show; the proscenium of ‘traditional theater’ never breached; the bug-eyed lens of the Todd A-O camera keeping an even more obvious distance between the swirling/whirling dancers and the audience than its Cinemascope counterpart. We’re never part of the story or even beckoned to partake: production designer, Oliver Smith’s idyllic reimagined country life circa 1900, a completely sanitized and pristine wilderness, devoid of the rugged frontier quality so essential in our understanding of these lusty/hearty characters. The dancers perform some fractured Agnes DeMille choreography – DeMille unable to bottle the essence of her own magic for the film, somehow distilling her stage-bound terpsichorean brilliance into a cheap mime of its former glory. There’s just no spark to her hoppity-hoppity /pseudo-balletic kicks and twirls, principally performed by dancers, Bambi Lynn and James Mitchell during the lengthy – and alas, tedious – dream sequence.
Ironically, one of the film’s hindrances is Michael Todd; the man integral in coaxing Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein from their innate distrust of, and distaste for Hollywood. Todd may have achieved a minor coup in securing the rights to produce the first R&H show in Todd A-O. However, it is important to delineate Michael Todd as a showman rather than a film maker; Todd’s driving ambition in acquiring the rights to Oklahoma! merely to show off his newly inaugurated widescreen process developed by American Optical, giving his patented technology the cache of wildly popular subject matter for its debut; something for which Todd’s other foray into widescreen (as co-investor/founder of the cumbersome 3-camera panoramic process, Cinerama) had failed to do. Even more paradoxically, it was Todd A-O’s promise of ultra-clarity ‘coming out of one hole’ and Todd A-O’s startling reproduction of sound, employing a derivation of Cinerama’s six track magnetic stereo, that attracted Rodgers and Hammerstein in the first place.
Viewing Oklahoma! today is like being teleported back to this exhilarating transitional period in movie-making when technological advancements in sight and sound superseded what was actually being shown on these bigger-than-life movie screens. Regrettably, Todd A-O’s failure to gain general acceptance (it proved too costly to retool every theater in America to accommodate Todd A-O’s unique projection requirements) necessitated the photographing of Oklahoma! twice for a more widespread theatrical release: once in Todd A-O, the other in the streamlined and cost-effective Cinemascope process, already fast becoming the industry standard bearer.  Ultimately, Todd’s edict to Fred Zinnemann was to ensure the Todd A-O version of Oklahoma! had all the advantages; the Cinemascope photographed almost as an afterthought, and often after optimal lighting conditions on location had begun to wane. They really are two separate movies to behold – Zinnemann, tweaking his staging as he went along, and Robert Surtees’ camerawork acquiring a modestly more agile approach to the material in the Cinemascope version. Todd A-O’s big ‘selling’ feature was that it could mimic the vast expanses of Cinerama without the unwieldy 3-camera setup; the bug-eye lens capable of taking in a breathtaking 180 degree vista. Too bad the staging of Oklahoma! did not lend itself to such visual grandiosity. With the exception of one or two establishing long shots, the bug-eye would be used sparingly – thus, rendering moot the whole point of photographing Oklahoma! in Todd A-O. 
Neither version of Oklahoma! is, at least in my opinion, a great musical; though the production had its obvious and undeniable assets to champion. Firstly, we get Gordon MacRae – an ex-Warner Bros. contract player, elevated to A-list stature as cowboy, Curly herein. With his rich and melodic baritone, looking sinfully handsome and extremely butch in his bright orange shirt, ten gallon and chaps, MacRae is the embodiment of every young cowgirl’s naughty daydream; Joe Studly of the farm sect and just the sort of man who could teach the pert and rigidly virgin-esque, Laurey Williams (Shirley Jones) a thing or two behind the barn. MacRae gets the cowhand’s share of the heavy lifting in Oklahoma! (musically speaking) and he’s more than up to the challenge; breaking into the R&H songbook with ‘Oh What A Beautiful Mornin’ (it’s middle verse inextricably omitted from the film – no ‘cattle standing like statues’ here, alas), tempting his would-be lover with ‘The Surrey with The Fringe on Top’ and later, ‘People Will Say We’re In Love’, belting out the boisterous anthem to the state, ‘Oklahoma!’ and finally, tempting fate with ‘Poor Jud is Daid’; a fairly morbid ditty, encouraging surly farmhand, Jud Fry to take his own life. Oklahoma! is Curly’s show and MacRae’s performance gives it the required ballast.
The film has less success with Shirley Jones as the ingénue of the piece in her big screen debut. Although undeniably in exquisite voice (her haunting and moody rendition of ‘Out of My Dreams’ will send chills down the back) – acquitting herself rather nicely of the sob-storied ‘Many a New Day’ too – her trilling soprano the perfect complement to MacRae in both their pas deux ballad and the title tune – Jones’ screen presence needs some work. Watching Laurey’s initial spurns of Curly’s advances is like listening to the shrill screech of fingernails across a chalkboard; Jones’ clipped delivery of lines like “Hmph…thought you was somebody!” acquiring a haughty ‘Minnie Mouse’ quality - more laughable than endearing. There isn’t enough of the virgin in Jones to convey it convincingly as Laurey and the translation becomes something of wounded sexual frustration, coupled with a schoolgirl’s persnickety investment in the tease, instead of a sweetly innocent – if fearful – lure towards this young buck’s truer intentions.
Okahoma!’s supporting cast is superb: Charlotte Greenwood – whom Rodgers and Hammerstein had desperately wanted for their Broadway show, assuming the role of Aunt Eller with all the aplomb of a ripe old sage; Gloria Grahame, shockingly good as the daft and oversexed, Ado Annie Carnes; Gene Nelson, never better on screen than as hayseed buckaroo, Will Parker; Eddie Albert, as comically vivacious peddler-man, Ali Hakim; Rod Steiger, a truly chilling Jud Fry, and finally, Jay C. Flippen as the courtly, Mr. Skidmore and James Whitmore, as Ado Annie’s caustic and short-fused pa. The best moments in the film are actually dedicated to one or more of these ancillary performers rather than the leads; just one of the awkward perplexities in the Sonya Levien/William Ludwig screenplay. As the audience, we’re much more fascinated by Ado Annie’s lovelorn plight; struggling to make up her addlepated mind and/or fickle heart between the devious peddler-man and Will, who really does love her with all his heart – and loins – proving it behind a haystack in the third act.
The first of Rodger and Hammerstein’s major stage works to be adapted to film; 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 wisdom of the Broadway musical revue: hummable songs sandwiched between that ‘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 from conventions of the day was in its first act finale – a lavishly appointed and prolonged ‘dream sequence’ ballet – ‘Out of My Dreams’.
This would be carried over to the film almost verbatim, staged against impressionist backdrops that, lamentably – at least for the film – tear the viewer out of the fresh-aired vistas of the Arizona location shoot; replacing the almost tangible scent of tumbleweed and cornfields with a jarring effect, back to the clinical trappings of the Broadway stage; Agnes DeMille’s impressionist choreography now contributing to the overall artifice, but regrettably, also embalmed artificiality of the moment. On stage, ‘Out of My Dreams’ was a mesmerizing extension of the already artificially realized Oklahoman backdrop recreated for the stage; the moody and unsettling shifts of a dream cum nightmare, amplified and given over to an interplay of shadow and light, with wildly shifting locales, themes and emotions expressed in conflict and running the gamut from lover’s elation to sheer terrorization.
It is interesting to note, with the exception of their 1945 contribution to the screen, State Fair, Rodgers and Hammerstein vehemently resisted transforming any of their stagecraft into movies until the mid-1950's; a decade marred by the decline of the studio system and the loss of audiences to television;  the movies’ no longer exclusively the purveyors of mass entertainment. In hindsight, Rodgers and Hammerstein’s apprehensions likely had more to do with the fact they were both constantly busy producing one play per annum. Arguably, their hiatus from Hollywood allowed the movie musical to ‘catch up’ to the intellectual gravitas of live theater. But in director Fred Zinnemann’s case, he brings nothing fresh to Oklahoma!  The movie is astonishingly faithful to its stagecraft roots, although on occasion brutally stagnant as a movie experience. Nevertheless, the cache of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s own popularity, as well as that of their pre-sold works made the roadshow run of Oklahoma! at the Rivoli Theater in 1955 the sensational hit of the season. Ultimately, the Cinemascope version would be screened by a much wider audience. 
Depending on the version being screened, Oklahoma! either opens with some sparkling red and white credits set against a jet black backdrop (Todd A-O version) or with our first glimpse of that famous ‘corn… as high as an elephant’s eye’, the camera zooming past its towering stalks to reveal a vast, green and fragrant countryside (also, an obvious backdrop of Arizona mountains), our first glimpse of Curly astride his noble steed, Blue. Immediately following either main title sequence, we get Curly singing ‘Oh What A Beautiful Mornin’ as he approaches the homestead of Aunt Eller, who lives on the land with her niece, Miss Laurey Williams; also an impertinent and unkempt farmhand, Jud Fry; the latter, built like an ox and about a sociable as a long-horned bull stricken with mad cow disease.  Curly woos Laurey by enticing her to accompany him to the boxsocial in his ‘Surrey with the Fringe on Top’. Even with all his charm and handsomeness it’s a tough sell; Laurey believing Curly to be too brash for his own good and giving him the cold shoulder treatment. Aunt Eller is a different story, openly telling Curly if she wasn’t an old women he’d be having amorous difficulties of a decidedly different kind with her in Laurey’s stead.
As a show of her own moral strength (stupidity, is more like it) and conviction, Laurey elects to go with Jud to the party; Aunt Eller agreeing to Curly’s proposal. To complicate matters, Curly also asks Gertie (Barbara Lawrence) – an absolutely obtuse flirt with a hideous cackle for a laugh – to be his date. Aunt Eller leaves for the train station in her rig to meet Will Parker, who has gone to Kansas City to pick up some decorative lanterns for the Skidmore party; also, to win $50 for bronco-busting, the necessary dowry old man, Andrew Carnes requires in order to very reluctantly grant Will his daughter, Ado Annie’s hand in marriage. We get a hint of Jud’s ominous predilection for very young girls; his spying on Laurey through an open window as she undresses and prepares for everyone’s arrival at the farm, really lending an air of disturbing creepiness; also foreshadowing the film’s penultimate showdown between Curly and Jud for Laurey’s affections.
At the depot, Will warbles ‘Kansas City’ – all about the wonders he has witnessed while away in this relatively cosmopolitan capital. He also shares with some of the cowhands lingering at the station a gift he bought for Ado Annie’s pa; a kaleidoscope viewfinder known as ‘the Little Wonder’; apparently featuring several photographs of a scantily clad woman. What Will does not know, and neither will we until much later on, is the ‘Little Wonder’ also comes with a booby-trap; a hidden switchblade that, when improperly twisted, shoots like a projectile into the eye of the unsuspecting person viewing its images. Aside: why such…um… novelty would be invented in the first place is never entirely disclosed in the movie. Something from the Marquis de Sade collection, no doubt!
In the meantime, Laurey has gone to the nearby sump to bathe. Ado Annie arrives, revealing to Laurey that, in Will Parker’s absence, she has begun a new romance with the peddler-man, Ali Hakim who, frankly, is only interested in one thing – and it isn’t love. In short order, Annie lets this cat out of the bag with her pa too. Mr. Carnes, shotgun in hand, declares that any man plying his daughter with such obnoxious ‘sweet talk’ ought to consider it as prelude to a marriage proposal…or else. Will arrives with $50 of gifts for Annie’s pa. With his natural disdain for cowboys, Mr. Carnes refuses to honor their agreement on a technicality: $50 in merchandise is not $50. A quiet rivalry ensues between Will and Ali Hakim; the latter doing everything in his power to give Ado Annie back to Will and thus avoid having the barrel of her father’s rifle stuck in his backside for the rest of his days.
Meanwhile, back at the farm, Laurey and Gertie momentarily get into a skirmish over Curly. Curly is pleased, as Laurey’s jealousy confirms for him he still has a fighting chance to win her heart. No kidding…people will say they’re in love. Besides, he really doesn’t want to be with Gertie anyway. Having purchased an elixir from the peddler-man, reported to have magical properties of helping one see into their own future, Laurey takes a snort of the perfumed water and promptly hallucinates the ‘Out of My Dreams’ ballet. Begun as euphoric elation of falling in love with Curly, the ballet’s mood turns ugly – then, sinister – as Laurey finds herself standing next to Jud instead of Curly on her wedding day; fleeing from the alter, but cornered in Jud’s sty, transformed into a house of ill-repute. Jud paws and tears at Laurey’s bridal veil and dress; the symbolic deflowering of the virgin begun. To his own detriment, Curly intervenes. He is mercilessly pummeled and eventually strangled to death by Jud; Laurey awakening from her horrific nightmare, only to discover Jud standing over her with a baleful – if slightly cherubesque - grin; inquiring whether or not she is ready to go to the Skidmore party.
Immediately following the Intermission, we cut to Jud, deliberately slowing the pace of his rented rig with Laurey in tow until the pair is isolated and relatively alone in the moonlit wilderness. Attempting a grotesque seduction, Jud is surprised when Laurey instead takes hold of his whip and strikes their horses; the team panicking, tearing off and away from the chosen path, racing in sweaty competition with a raging locomotive. In the Todd A-O version, we get some truly visceral imagery; the bug-eye lens rigged to the undercarriage and careening left to right, the sound of galloping hooves flooding the soundtrack. Moments before the horses run into the oncoming train, Jud regains the reigns, leaping from the rig to subdue his team. Laurey now takes hold of the reigns and whip, racing the team toward the Skidmore barn-raising where the party is in full swing. Declaring her love for Curly, Laurey attends the highlight of the night’s festivities; an auction of home-cooked baskets made by the local girls, sold to the highest bidder. Jud’s arrival necessitates a confrontation; Jud attempting to outbid Curly for Laurey’s basket and thus, effectively win the right to possess her. Unable to match Jud’s bid with cash, Curley sells off his six-shooter and then his beloved horse to pay for the basket.
Defeated, Jud recedes into the background, rumors persisting he was involved in a house fire elsewhere in the county, resulting in the death of a widow woman and her young daughter, about Laurey’s age. Laurey and Curly are married posthaste. Having purchased all of the items from Will, originally bought for Mr. Carnes, the peddler-man avails himself of the responsibility to marry Ado Annie. Will now has $50 and Mr. Carnes must honor their original agreement. On the eve of Laurey and Curly’s honeymoon tragedy strikes. The townsfolk, adhering to a very old custom - forcing the bride and groom to ascend a haystack while they pitch rice and other sundry homemade items at them in jest - are caught off guard as a nearby haystack appears to catch fire; thus, drawing the panicked extras away to put out the blaze. Jud now makes his presence known to Laurey and Curly, setting fire to their haystack. Curly throws Laurey to relative safety, then leaps in her defense toward Jud, who is impaled on the knife he intended to use to gut Curly like a pig.
Having thwarted the prospect of a double homicide, Curly is nevertheless forced to endure a trial for Jud’s murder. As Oklahoma is a territory and not a state, Mr. Carnes assumes the responsibilities of the judge; the trial held inside Aunt Eller’s parlor where, after some pensive moments of debate, it is decided Curly acted in self-defense and Jud’s death was more an accident than anything else. Relieved and desperate to begin their lives as man and wife, Curly and Laurey depart for the depot as the early dawn breaks with the town’s folk trailing behind them in their carriages, an ebullient reprise of ‘Oh What a Beautiful Mornin’; the camera tilting upwards into a vast blue sky dotted in white fluffy clouds.
The ending of Oklahoma! is a wee too optimistic and rushed;  perhaps already aware his lengthy preservation of the stage show has run well past the allotted time where the mind and buttocks can be sustained without growing proportionately as numb, director, Fred Zinnemann,  seems a little too anxious to expedite his final act to its inevitable conclusion. And yet, despite this, and other misfires made along the way, the virtues of Oklahoma! shine through; the inescapable hummable quality of the Rodgers and Hammerstein score; the superb performances scattered throughout; the sumptuousness of Robert Surtees’ glowing cinematography. These conspire toward delivering a movie that, alas, remains less than greater than the sum of its parts.
In the late 1990’s Oklahoma! had a very limited 70mm revival on the big screen to which I was privy and privileged to attend. I will say just this; that properly projected in Todd A-O, viewing Oklahoma! on the big screen really did add another dimension to the experience of it; one that remains absent – or, perhaps, lacking - from any review of the movie on any home theater monitor and equipment.  Home theater has come such a very long way in a relatively short amount of time. But like the ‘smile-box’ versions of This is Cinerama (1952) or How The West was Won (1962) or even Ben-Hur (1959), something is lost in the inevitable paring down of the image for home video presentation.
Alas, if only Fox Home Video had given us perfection in hi-def I wouldn’t mind this shortcoming so much. Sadly, neither version of Oklahoma! currently satisfies. Where to begin? Since it is rather obvious Fox would prefer us to embrace the Todd A-O presentation (as more time, money and effort has gone into its remastering this time around) I’ll begin with a critique of the larger gauge presentation of this iconic R&H catalog title. In its earliest incarnation, Todd A-O utilized an exposure rate of 30 film frames per second; irreconcilable with present day Blu-ray which has a standard HD output of 24fps. By utilizing 60i, however, Blu-ray can mimic the original 30 fps experience.  So Oklahoma! on Blu-ray is 1080i rather than 1080p.  It all sounds fine and dandy in theory. But how does Oklahoma! in Todd A-O actually look? Well, anemic is perhaps the best way I can describe it. Colors generally don’t seem to pop as they should. Remember, we’re talking about 70mm here; a vastly larger canvas to crib from for color density and fine detail rendering.
Regrettably, I don’t see a lot of ‘amazing’ imagery here; more often just a fairly middle of the road rendering with a modicum of fine detail revealed; also with some sporadic built-in flicker factored in. Again, at 30fps (or a reasonable facsimile thereof) we shouldn’t be seeing ANY flicker – period! I’m not exactly certain if, or how much, color balancing was applied to this transfer; since flesh tones (particularly during sequences shot at night) have adopted a rather jaundice yellow pallor.  Drawing on my own theatrical experience of seeing the revival of Oklahoma! – and, while memory does indeed fade and play tricks – I am fairly certain Aunt Eller then never looked like she needed a liver transplant. So, I have to reiterate that I don’t believe this Blu-ray accurately reproduces flesh tones at all!
Also, contrast seems to be an issue. When Curly serenades Laurey with ‘People Will Say We’re In Love’ background information looks bleached out to say the least, the cast of natural sunlight falling on skin and clothing creating a muddy mess with glaring white halos. Yuck and no thanks!  The Todd A-O version has a lot more sequences with ‘stylized’ color than its Cinemascope counterpart; ‘Poor Jud is Daid’ and the harrowing runaway rig with Laurie and Jud aboard, these sequences used color filters – a slightly copper-toned one for the former and a magenta for the latter. Alas, both sequences herein look underexposed and much too dark. Even viewed in a completely blackened room it’s hard to make out background detail in either scene.   
If I seem critical of the mastering efforts put forth on the Todd A-O version - get a grip - because it remains a miracle of loveliness compared to what’s going on with the Cinemascope version. This has obviously not been given anywhere near the same consideration as its predecessor and the results are embarrassingly subpar. We get minor hints of color bleeding throughout, a ringing of reds (check out the letters in the opening credits) that actually register more like a garish orange than true red. There’s also a hint of video-based noise. This is absurd, unless, as I suspect, Fox is cribbing from an old digital transfer made for the DVD release back in 2005. Owning that DVD release has helped me spot age-related artifacts reoccurring in the same frame captures on both the DVD and this Blu-ray, only now, the imperfections are ten times more obvious in hi-def. Scratches, nicks, chips, etc.
Really?!?!? You didn’t even run this puppy through a blue wash?!?!?! For shame, Fox! Worse, color balancing is out the window. Check out ‘Out of My Dream’ in Cinemascope: Laurie’s flesh is pumpkin orange! Finally, the last shot in both versions is of the carriages riding off into the sunlight, the camera tilting upward into a vista of clouds. On the Cinemascope version there is a horrendous tear that appears and causes the entire middle section of the screen to fluctuate moments before ‘The End’ appears. This anomaly has been ever-present on virtually every home video version I’ve ever seen of this movie: even the old TV broadcasts and VHS tapes lopped off to conform to 1.33:1. It remains glaringly obvious on this Blu-ray. And ‘no’ – I do not believe this damaged print is the only one currently at Fox’s disposal. Badly done, indeed!  
So, how rough does the Cinemascope version look? VERY! I can’t image the mentality of the brain trust responsible for this version. In this condition, Oklahoma! is an ugly film to muddle through. I use ‘brain trust’ very loosely. The audio on both versions is DTS.  The Todd A-O, with its vastly superior recording methods and six track sonic experience remains vastly superior to Cinemascope’s 4.0 original audio remix herein. Extras featured have all been ported over from the aforementioned DVD release. Aside: these are the same discs Fox Home Video trundled out earlier in the year as part of their exclusive to Amazon.com, Rodgers and Hammerstein box set. Don’t get me started on that set’s inadequacies. You can read about them on this blog in a review of that set.
There are two audio commentaries – one for each feature; with historian Nick Redman, President and Executive Director of the R&H catalog, Ted Chapin and actress Shirley Jones. We also get a few vintage junkets used to promote Todd A-O; a pair of featurettes, and the ridiculous ‘music juke box’ option; but NO documentary – or even a featurette on the actual making of the movie. Clicking the ‘restoring Todd A-O’ feature actually produces a tiny box in the middle of the screen that scantily explains why this version is 1080i not 1080p.  Overall, fairly lousy, if you ask me. Bottom line: not recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)
3.5
VIDEO/AUDIO
Todd A-O version – 3.5
Cinemascope version – 2
EXTRAS

2.5      

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