THE SOUND OF MUSIC (1965)
*½/**** Image B Sound B Extras B+
starring Julie Andrews, Christopher Plummer, Richard Haydn, Eleanor Parker
screenplay by Ernest Lehman
directed by Robert Wise
THE KING AND I (1956)
****/**** Image A Sound A Extras A
starring Deborah Kerr, Yul Brynner, Rita Moreno, Martin Benson
screenplay by Ernest Lehman, based on Margaret Landon's play "Anna and the King of Siam"
directed by Walter Lang
SOUTH PACIFIC (1958)
*½/**** Image A+ (Theatrical) A (Roadshow) Sound B Extras C+
starring Rossano Brazzi, Mitzi Gaynor, John Kerr, Ray Walston
screenplay by Paul Osborn, based on Tales of the South Pacific by James A. Michener
directed by Joshua Logan
**/**** Image A Sound A Extras C
starring Gordon MacRae, Shirley Jones, Cameron Mitchell, Barbara Ruick
screenplay by Phoebe and Henry Ephron, based on the Ferenc Molnár's play "Liliom"
directed by Henry King
****/**** Image B Sound B Extras B+
starring Charles Boyer, Madeleine Ozeray, Robert Arnoux, Roland Toutain
screenplay by Robert Liebmann, dialogue by Bernard Zimmer, based on the play by Franz (a.k.a. Ferenc) Molnár
directed by Fritz Lang
STATE FAIR (1945)
½*/**** Image B- Sound B- Extras A
starring Jeanne Crain, Dana Andrews, Dick Haymes, Vivian Blaine
screenplay by Oscar Hammerstein II, based on the novel by Philip Strong
directed by Walter Lang
STATE FAIR (1962)
**/**** Image A Sound A Extras C
starring Pat Boone, Bobby Darin, Pamela Tiffin, Alice Faye
screenplay by Richard Breen; adaptation by Oscar Hammerstein II, Sonya Levien, Paul Green
directed by José Ferrer
***/**** Image A (CinemaScope) C (Todd-AO) Sound B+ Extras B-
starring Gordon MacRae, Gloria Grahame, Shirley Jones, Gene Nelson
screenplay by Sonya Levien and William Ludwig
directed by Fred Zinnemann
by Walter Chaw God, The Sound of Music is so freakin' nice. Nazis are the bad guys, no controversy there; raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens--have you no heart, man? But when I like Rodgers & Hammerstein--and I like them quite a lot, truth be wrenched--I like their ambiguity, their irony, their goddamned fatalism in the face of eternal romantic verities. Consider the animal (jungle?) heat of "Shall We Dance," cut off like a faucet by the fascistic abortion of The King and I's secondary love story; or the persistence of love despite abuse and abandonment in Carousel; or the slapdash kangaroo court that justifies love in Oklahoma!. This is all so much more than the slightly shady (and ultimately redeemed) shyster of The Music Man--this is reality in the midst of the un-, sur-, hyper-reality of the musical form. Yet what The Sound of Music offers up is a military man shtupping an ex-nun with no corresponding sense of fetishistic eroticism. How is it that the two most popular adult Halloween costumes engaged in naughty Alpine sexcapades could be totally free of va-va-va-voom? It's so relentlessly wholesome that of course it's the most beloved artifact of its kind in the short history of the movie musical: If you're of a certain age, the plot of the thing is almost family mythology, resurrected every holiday like a dusty corpse at a decades-long Irish wake gone tragically awry. That ain't a grin, baby, it's a rictus.
What a waste of time to recount the tale of ex-novitiate Maria (Julie Andrews, buttermilk-fresh from her triumphant screen debut as another nanny in Mary Poppins), renouncing her habit to become helpmeet to imperious, irredeemable Captain Georg von Trapp (Christopher Plummer) and his brood of pathologically stage-worthy moppets. Of how Maria, new clan in tow, walks to freedom as the Third Reich invades their Austrian homeland. (The only thing most people probably don't know about The Sound of Music is that it was remade--at least in spirit--by Italian art-slasher director Dario Argento as Opera.) But in-between, there are creepy marionettes singing about amorous goats and their goatherds, insipid kid moments too many to count, and an altogether improbable main love story mirrored by an altogether intolerable love subplot that ends with a Nazi youth twinkie making the right decision while the hero ex-nun makes what for all intents seems the wrong one. Plummer's a lot of things, but romantic lead isn't one of them, and there aren't many fondly-remembered performances more out of tune than his dour Captain. Not enough to sink the ship by itself, certainly (and let's face it, the ship's fine without its Captain), but without the black heart of the best of R&H, The Sound of Music is treacle--happy horseshit, if you will, manufactured with nothing like fatalism on its mind, what with there being no room in there with all that uplift. The Sound of Music, in point of fact, is an overstuffed sausage; call it uplift-wurst.
The music is Rodgers even if the lyrics are not Hammerstein and everything can be encapsulated with "When anything bothers me and I'm feeling unhappy, I just try to think of nice things"--which gives me the chills, it's true, for all the wrong reasons. It isn't that it's almost lethally insipid if ever taken by the spoonful, it's that the pair responsible for explaining a heroine's stoicism as "I like to watch the river meet the sea" has replaced it with "How do you catch a cloud and pin it down?" The Sound of Music is the floodgates left open for the torrents of pop operetta melodrama that have made it pretty difficult to appreciate non-Fosse musicals ever since. It's less a narrative than a series of excuses to indulge in a cheery worldview--and use "wimple" in a song whilst professionally transforming Andrews into Mary Martin. Though Fred Zinnemann lamented late into his life the decision to direct Oklahoma!, the real compromise in this arena would appear to be Val Lewton-tutored Robert Wise following his astonishingly edgy musical adaptation of West Side Story (1961) with the legendarily squishy The Sound of Music a mere four years later. The '60s weren't slowing down, they gained momentum until the wheels came off; for all the offenses perpetrated by the picture, the worst of them is its dedication to turn a blind eye to the tide of revolution in our culture.
Gambolling through the production with the earnest brightness of a pea sprout, Andrews represents the arrested version of precocious Liesl (Charmian Carr, who's dreamy, and not just because of Wise's soft-focus crutch--hooray for 23-year-olds playing 16), the eldest of her charges and gifted with a creepy (a word I'd use endlessly here given free rein) scene with her boyfriend wherein he proclaims with earnest (there's another) confidence that as a seventeen-year-old, he's fully capable of governing the actions of his sixteen-year-old sex kitten. It's meant to be sardonic, I know, but it plays a little like a statutory molestation drama, just as the introduction to the children parading martially to their father's sharp whistles plays like a disquieting Nazi recruitment reel. You could argue that the frightening Plummer was miscast as the cast-iron bitch having his gooey centre brought out tenderly by the bright doll eyes of his children's governess, though I find Plummer to be the one true thing about The Sound of Music. He's a bastard--The Great Santini unrepentant. And in the character, you see a little of the Bavarian temperament that made the Nazis' legendary bellicosity so, well, legendary. It's telling that the sea change in their relationship, Maria and the Captain's, seems to come when he addresses her while she's soaking wet. Germans (well, Austrians) are kinky about their gender/power dynamics, whether or not they're also sexy. I do know one actor who could--and did--essay this role with the humanity intended as opposed to the irony unintended: Yul Brynner. If The King and I had a corpse, it'd be spinning in its grave.
It's hard to put a finger on a group of tunes and scenes that could be this easily retrofitted as torture devices to offend the proper constitution. With its bestial love intrigue, the Goatherd set-piece recalls State Fair, never a good thing, while yodeling--especially children yodeling, it's well documented--is covered under the Geneva Convention. Never mind that this sequence of puppets and puppet-masters foreshadows the von Trapp's daring bait-and-switch escape (a scene also foreshadowed by a sequence where the sleepy darlings impress the Captain's snooty betrothed (Eleanor Parker), thereby coining the equation of Nazi Terror = Bad Marriage), or that most of the Goatherd show revolves around weird sexual tensions and an overweening interest in brood shenanigans. There's a hint of the astringent in here, you know, but I do wonder if that's just me being by turns bored and freaked-out. The Sound of Music is a devilishly empty confection about forms freed from intimations: Maria's abandoned habit; disembodied voices glowing from austere chapels; Plummer's horrible lip-synching; the opening aerial shots of verdant/empty landscapes; and the role of wife undertaken by ex-free spirit Maria. If the film prefigures anything thematically, it might be Tippi Hedren's domestication by a billion birds (and Rod Taylor) in Hitchcock's own glimpse of a specific social apocalypse. Weighted down dangerously with its kid reaction shots and viral jingles, The Sound of Music reveals the wellspring of the Broadway Blockbuster: stripped of inspiration, slick lucre pounded in the chasm left behind.
Dismiss the racism of Rodgers and Hammerstein's The King and I--especially the film version--no longer at your own peril, as it seems to have been consigned, somewhat permanently, to the contemporary forgiveness gulag. It is, besides, more fruitful to consider how a progressive paternalism, for all its good intentions, can, through time, become as distasteful as good old-fashioned bigotry, for extreme liberalism is as corrosive as extreme conservatism. (As I subscribe to the idea that radicalism is charted on a circle, allow me to clarify that the wackos on either side tend to meet at the bottom without indicting R&H as the worst offenders. See Stanley Kramer for that distinction.) There's no arguing Rodgers and Hammerstein's thoughtful treatment of the fatalistic vagaries of love through the prisms of miscegenation (South Pacific) and domestic abuse (Carousel), and a subplot that figures prominent in the play's interpretive ballet whereby slave girl Tuptim (Rita Moreno) borrows Uncle Tom's Cabin and falls in love with hunk Lun Tha (Carlos Rivas--at least there's consistency in casting two Latino actors as the lovers with respect to the dearth of Asians on the planet in 1956) re-configures Harriet Beecher Stowe into a universal yawp against not only colonialism, but also paternal racism and, of all things, the ease with which we disdain the curative of love. A lot of people talk about the "Shall We Dance" sequence as the highlight of The King and I (and it's pretty great, don't get me wrong), but for my money, it's this gorgeous presentation of "The Small House of Uncle Thomas" (which ironically soured Dorothy Dandridge on the Tuptim role), in all its audacity and passionate, romantic indignation, that defines the project's complexity and, ultimately, its enthralling--some might say surprising--sophistication.
The King of Siam (Yul Brynner) hires Anna (Deborah Kerr) to educate his children in the Western tradition. A tinderbox of political imbroglio and romantic misunderstandings, the scenario is based on the stylized (aren't they all?) memoirs of Anna Leonowens, which, heaping meta-irony upon post-modern affectation, is itself--as Rodgers and Hammerstein's musicals often are--considered a bit of archaic, embarrassing Orientalism. The harder truth, though, is that the R&H collaboration is more often guilty of sledgehammer proselytizing than of gross insensitivity, and that despite his best efforts, the modern viewer might find himself distracted by the expedient, cross-racial casting and the portrayal of the King as a provincial bumpkin. (Though I abhor the escape clause of "consider the time," it's not altogether unfair in assessing The King of I's major complaints.) More, much of it is dispelled by Brynner's magisterial performance and the sometimes-stunning ability of Kerr, perhaps the finest actress of her generation, to be completely human while being completely alien. The rest of it is catalyzed by the "Small House of Uncle Thomas" sequence and the reaction to it, which addresses art as intrinsically political, unerringly revealing, and ultimately a corrective of sorts to society's more impenetrable ills. When Anna and the King finally fall into each other's arms in a rapturous ballroom waltz, it's the culmination of a film's worth of subsumed sexual longing and becomes in that instant, in high R&H style, a metaphor for the union of cultures and ideologies finding common ground, inevitably, at the hip.
It's at this moment that all those other moments of violence and love/intolerance and acceptance/ambition and fatalism in the R&H pantheon find their junction in the rapture of complementary movement: the combination of Anna's courtly order and the King's energetic bounding is more than physical comedy--it's sexy as hell. What's forgotten, too, is that the "Shall We Dance" sequence is coitus interruptus, Anna and the King brought to a dead standstill by the reintroduction of the treasonous slave girl chasing her heart, thrown prostrate before the King at the place so recently graced by the metaphorical consummation of a détente. Although Tuptim's fate is somewhat softened for the film version, the King's is not (and neither, you could argue, is Anna's), and in there is the suggestion that whatever the vagaries of cultural reconciliation suggested by the piece, at the end is this tickle that love is temporary, understanding is fleeting, and the more things change, the more things never can. The King and I, by the fact of it (Yul Brynner is still the last Asian male sex symbol in American cinema) and even more by the magnificent execution of it, is a testament of doom--a chronicle of colonialism that poses itself as an easy-to-dismiss artifact, yet reveals itself through its near-perfection of form to be as enduring a statement about why people (men/women, East/West, tradition/change) can't get along as more obviously subversive pieces like West Side Story and Cabaret.
Based on James A. Michener's Tales of the South Pacific in much the same way that "Cats" is based on T.S. Eliot (in other words, it is but it isn't), Joshua Logan's South Pacific is, as was so often the case, a castration of a Broadway institution. It's fair dinkum to wonder if stage musicals ever really benefit from an expansion into film--if there isn't something inherent in the theatre medium that precludes completely successful "expansions." When Logan (who also originated the production, Rodgers & Hammerstein's most conventionally successful musical) opens the picture with panoramic Todd-AO vistas of Michener's glazed South Pacific locale (well, Kauai) before sliding into a deathly expository prologue inside an airplane cockpit, that warning light's already blinking like mad. South Pacific is pinioned, too, on the fulcrum of needing to compete with television on the one side and wishing to honour the more respected tradition of the theatre on the other, resulting in the controversial use of dreadful colour filters (fuscia, puke green, orange--more on this momentarily) and dreamy feathering over each of the songs, which are likewise blocked for maximum wooden claustrophobia. It's the worst of both worlds (even the text's anti-racist message comes through as shrill in this context), and the only reason it doesn't bubble down to brine is due to the durability of R&H's sharp, clever music and lyrics.
Thirty-two minutes into the film, the stage version's book begins with the now-jarring, inexplicable introduction of May-December lovebirds--Mitzi Gaynor as Nurse Nellie Forbush (and who isn't?) and Rossanno Brazzi as Emile--having a classically-ironic R&H conversation on an island patio. He's a "cultured Frenchman" with a secret, she's another R&H naïf from another backwater (Little Rock this time) looking for escape (and who's to say that she's not already a success as the play begins?), and the whethers and wherefores of how they come together fade into the background of a little miscegenation subplot that isn't nearly as successful as a similar sidebar in The King and I (there commenting on gender politics, slavery/colonialism, and tradition vs. modernity) but nonetheless remains a noble attempt at immortality. Then the screen is swallowed beneath a piss-yellow filter; cue "Some Enchanted Evening," impossible to enjoy objectively because you spend so much time wondering what the hell anyone could've been thinking in literalizing an "enchanted evening" as a toxic cloud. Logan quickly disavowed this colorization process (without specifically mentioning the diffusion filters), though a letter written at the time of filming has the director rapturous over the yellow-haze effect, describing it as something like the most romantic thing he's ever seen memorialized on celluloid. It's easily argued that Logan, not a natural film director by any measure, was always a stage director trying to hide his tricks on a thirty-foot screen and thus probably not the best person to ask.
The basic structure of South Pacific, though, is built on some interesting bedrock. Aside from a song-list that was for a while the most popular and well-known of any musical's, there's Nellie's rejection of lover Emile not for having killed a man sometime in the hazy past, but for having had the poor taste to sire mulatto children with a now-dead native (well, Vietnamese) wife. (Art imitating life, during the play's original London and Broadway runs, the minority actors hired to play Tongonese token Bloody Mary (Juanita Hall in the film) had trouble finding hotel rooms.) Mirroring her plight is the general attitude of brown vs. white in the occupation of the Hebrides by our jolly, horny marines and a twee love story between taciturn Lt. Cable (John Kerr) and island wahini Liat (France Nuyen) that ends with Cable and Emile off as advance spotters: the one to be rewarded for being French (by way of Ricardo Montalban) and not a coward and the other to be punished for being about to engage in race-mixing instead of simply resigning himself to the a priori fact of it. The ascription of tragedy in South Pacific is a little discomfiting, in other words, where the acknowledgment of bigotry is punishable by death, where the gradual working-through of one's specific bigoted feelings so one doesn't spend one's life a greying spinster is rewarded with a fairytale ending on a windswept pinnacle. Whatever. Give credit where credit's due for a picture that, in 1958, seemed to tap into the spirit of an age that was already having its resistances battered to kindling by Tennessee Williams and Actors Studio brats. It's too bad that Logan fails in honouring the stage and fails, too, in retrofitting the piece for the movies, leaving South Pacific marooned somewhere in the giant gulf in-between. It's ultimately "Gilligan's Island" with singing and a "creative" cinematographer.
The stage version of Rodgers & Hammerstein's Carousel opens at the fair with our heroine rapt at the sight of our hero--conventional stuff, save for the fact that the hero is a roughneck carousel barker, that there's nothing like a prologue or formal introduction to these people (not even so much as an overture to introduce the score's motifs), and that what's to follow is possibly the best, most complex, most challenging musical in R&H's storied collaboration. The hero's not averse to slapping around his lady fair, the lady fair's not averse to being slapped around--and once the two sing a song to one another announcing their dreams and desires, the sum of it all seems to be that it had to happen some time, with someone, so it might as well be you. It's a perfect synthesis of musical theatre with operetta: light themes of pairing off under a harvest moon coloured indelibly with overtures to high tragedy and turbulent emotions. Afterwards, you feel like you've been hit with the sledge over at the Test Your Strength attraction, but damned if you saw it coming, swaddled in cotton candy as it was. When it premiered, Carousel live justified R&H's practice of eternal casting sessions--their unyielding open-door policy of auditioning any and all comers to fill roles that demanded, in addition to a nightingale voice, an ability to convey knotty emotions in rapid, intricate, sometimes contrary succession.
Carousel on screen is something less, alas, losing not only Agnes de Mille's choreography (she had to sue to get credit for her role in the play's inception, thus heralding the end of her collaboration with the boys) but also, thanks to a framing device straight out of It's a Wonderful Life, the source material's stifling immediacy. The point, of course, is that it's not a wonderful life in R&H musicals: It might be a beautiful morning adorned with Edelweiss or Siamese children, but romantic couples are doomed, lovelorn, melancholic, and philosophical. Jumping arbitrarily from location to studio sets and back again in a distracting bait-and-switch that should by all rights have convinced the creative team to just shoot the whole shebang on a soundstage where it belonged, King's Carousel is bland and its emotions are tepid. If some R&H benefits from venturing outside (such as The Sound of Music), Carousel is typical in that it only really comes alive in a bell jar. Metaphors are fatalistic in the team's best work: leaves fall from the trees because that's what they do; the river meets the ocean because it has no other choice carved out for it from the limitless expanses stretching to either side away from its Technicolor banks. Likewise, everyone in the auditorium knows that whatever may happen along the way to prove their irreconcilable incompatibility, the main girl will wind up with the main guy. Even when it's a happy ending, a certain self-awareness of the genre's strictures paints it as bittersweet.
The girl this time is rather dim Julie Jordan (Shirley Jones, rather dim); her object of lust is brutish Billy (Gordon MacRae, subbing at the last minute for Frank Sinatra and essentially assuming the role of Jud after his turn as unassuming Curly in Oklahoma! the year previous); and their opening courtship in the gathering twilight, following shows of bluster and bouts of bad judgment, remains a marvel of simmering menace and dramatic irony. Billy, addled by too much testosterone, takes to domestic abuse and agreeing to badly-outlined criminal plots before dying--"accidentally" in this incarnation--and receiving one last chance in the hereafter to make something of his wasted life. How the film squanders the rough poetry sketched out by R&H can be traced more generally to why one almost never sees the musical performed at their local high school or dinner theatre. Bucking tradition, "Carousel" was written with no stars in mind: its integrity came first and prospective players were expected to treat it as they would any other work of performance art from any other medium. It seems common sense to say so, but in its casting (the principals are merely adequate) and choice of director (dedicated block of wood Henry King), this adaptation betrays itself as especially afraid of the exceptional. In first its panicked insertion of MacRae into a reunion of Oklahoma!'s bride and groom without considering that audiences would likely be repulsed by the transformation of Curly into a wife-beating illiterate, then its substitution of falling for suicide, Carousel loses esteem for its courage; and in keeping the violence offscreen, it seems coy about said violence. For me, too, this mania for filming on location--a symptom of the cinema's early battle against television--can only injure works like Oklahoma! and Carousel, since they gain a poignant, claustrophobic, surreal quality through their very stage-bound artificiality. (Small wonder that this material, inspired by Ferenc Molnár's "Liliom", once attracted the attention of German Expressionist master Fritz Lang.) The fever dream ballets Agnes de Mille conceived for the stage productions of Oklahoma! and Carousel (again truncated/elided in Carousel: strike three) are collectively the pulse of each because she understood that the poetry lurks in the junction between high fantasy, allegory, and Freudian nightmare.
Speaking of Lang's Liliom, the second disc of Carousel's phenomenal 50th Anniversary Edition contains a restoration of the rare 1934 French noir in its entirety, subtitled in easy-to-read yellow. It's a marvel, a joy, and something that would justify a purchase of the DVD by itself. In this one, the great Charles Boyer, lithe and muscular, is the "Billy," while Madeleine Ozeray's Julie is an innocent who's not so innocent as to deny her animal attraction to gigolo Liliom. Their courtship on a carousel spinning madly out of control to a chorus of laughter and antic rhythm (an intrigue involving a flower is one of the great bits of causal slapstick--inspiration to Jeunet/Caro's Delicatessen at least) is still current, and a groggy point-of-view shot from a felled carnival rival must be one of the earliest examples of such a thing. Every drop of the inky black missing from King's Carousel is here in spades; Liliom is only ever what her lover is: self-destructive, literally so, and stubbornly barbaric when offered the chance to redeem himself through the salvation of a daughter he's never known. But his meting out of abuse never seems calculated as it does in Carousel: here it's an inarticulate animal lashing out at the mere threat of emotional weakness. Completely unsentimental despite its themes concerning the ineffable mysteries of love, Lang's film, with its shadows and fog, its quintessential framing (which is underestimated), the way its characters threaten--then court--the tactile camera eye, is at once typical of his genius and worthy of mention.
A transitional film for Lang, made in France after he bid farewell to Nazi Germany, Liliom is haunted by avatars of totalitarianism and atrocity--the heavenly gatekeepers, pulling Liliom's damned soul to purgatory (the obvious inspiration for large swaths of Alex Proyas's Dark City), is Kafka as a transcendentalist--and breathtaking in capturing the wicked zeitgeist. Lang's futurism, oft-heralded in connection to his kangaroo court in M and his futurama in Metropolis, discovers another outlet here in the prediction that visual documents will become our history as well as the diary of our inhumanity. Though Julie's "acceptance" of Liliom's spousal abuse is a sticking point for many modern viewers, it occurs to me that political correctness is a bigger fantasy than good girls making bad choices from which they cannot (or are loath) to extricate themselves--itself a remarkable analogy for the abuses a people will endure from cruel overlords out of a sense of loyalty to an idea of patriotism (or a kind of love). (Besides which, Stanley beats the crap out of Stella on what is implied as a regular basis, yet A Streetcar Named Desire suffers no commensurate censure.) Julie's first victimization is answered with outrage within the film: when she takes him back, it's not cupidity (as it is in Carousel) so much as melancholy fatalism. A single, glowing tear of recognition as Julie learns of her daughter's rough treatment at the hands of a mysterious stranger encompasses the ambiguity of love, regret, and shame of a character--like every character in this masterpiece--carefully constructed from frailty, complexity, and finally the only flawed nobility of which they are capable. Liliom is a major work and, compared against King's Carousel, a useful criticism of exactly what's lost in the desperate need to homogenize things for popular consumption. The world ain't a feather bed, and only genuine idiots need to believe it is.
Though it appeared, chronologically, a full decade before Fred Zinnemann's film version of Oklahoma!, Walter Lang's monstrous State Fair is the second collaboration between Rodgers and Hammerstein--a quick cash-in on the surprise success of the stage production of "Oklahoma!" (which opened two years previous) that paired the duo with literary source material (it has no stage antecedent) for one of those glossy Hollywood juggernauts that would become their métier. The nicest thing that could be said about the film is that it's ridiculous; the worst is that it's sort of icky in a sexual sense, finding currency in the equation of its star-cross'd lovers with a giant hog and its fuck-object sow. The simile might be apt--far be it for me to separate the affairs of insipid men (and Jeanne Crain) with the rutting of farm animals--but does the music need to be so terrible, or the scenarios so ripe with sloth and bad thinking? It doesn't help that the "comic" subplots involve a couple of demented oldsters, one obsessed with the abovementioned swine and the other with the fate of her pickles in a judging contest that hinges on an alcoholic member of the effete, bumpkin jury. State Fair represents everything for which Oklahoma! is accused, its unflattering provincialism tied tourniquet tight to its condescension towards the rural. If it's meant as propaganda, appearing as it did at the peak of a bloody, costly war, it takes its "simpler time" conceit far too literally. According to State Fair, country folk are members of the enlightened hayseed as moral savage that is, as an unfortunate side effect, also retarded. Even among dyed-in-the-wool fans of R&H, this one's largely remembered, if remembered at all, as a dud.
Margy (Crain) hobbles around the homestead in a collection of Dorothy-goes-to-her-Quinceañera dresses, dolled up like the trophy wife of a deluded studio executive and delivering her lines with a brittle emptiness matched echo for echo by her glassy stare. Matched, too, as it happens by a picture directed and paced with all the pizzazz of a Protestant wake: any ten minutes of State Fair are the equivalent of two or three hours of perceptual time. The picture bows with a gimmick that verges on audacious--an opening tune carried along by all the principals (and the pig, of course) sets the scene as a Clampett jalopy putters along a dirt road on the eve of the titular hoedown. Any sense of jauntiness, of rules stretched or sensibilities challenged, is shoved to the backburner as soon as the story centres itself on wet rag Margy, the drippiest of R&H heroines: she has no sense of herself or of irony in her detachment, no courage in the midst of the universe's chaotic indecision. She's not a cipher, this Margy, but rather a prettyish ornament in an otherwise drab menagerie. She dreams of a beau to sweep her off the farm, resigning herself in the meantime to leading on poor, no-duller-than-she-but-certainly-dull Harry (Luke's barbecued Uncle Owen from Star Wars, Phil Brown), who has big dull dreams, though again no duller than Margy's fantasy of doe-eyed domestic servitude. The chief problem isn't that Margy is as dumb as a bag of hair, but that the anxiety we feel about her future is on behalf of any poor asshole tricked into sharing it with her.
Said poor asshole is schlep journalist Pat (Dana Andrews), a kind-hearted guy who, though he has too much going on to realistically want to spend much time with fallow earth like Margy, is required by convention to be true, despite that the main obstacle to their happiness--his going back to civilization--is the only sensible thing for a man in his position to desire. The film's like Brigadoon (just like it, in fact, when it comes to the styrene sets, toxic costumes, and painted backdrops), except the fantasy burg that appears every now and again ain't no great shakes if we're to be brutally frank. Whiling away the hours wondering who your pig's going to mount is no way to spend a couple of hours in front of the television, much less the rest of your life. Two subplots parellel Margy's, the first involving her forward-pointing dimwit brother's (Dick Haymes) wooing of a fire-wigged lounge singer (Vivian Blaine) and home to a couple of gross courtship sequences followed by an icky breakfast entendre-fest; the second is, of course, that pig and its love sow. Much would be forgiven if the songs were any good and the choreography were more than a few awkward shuffles and jazz hands. (It'd be better, too, if the piece didn't rely so heavily on everybody stopping to put on a show instead of the more typical late R&H hallmark of advancing the narrative through its song and dance.) Calling the flick "fluff" is misleading: while there's no question to there being any substance to it, the consumption of it is a distasteful, artificially-tainted, interminable chore.
Fluff that's at least kind of fun in a zero-aspiring, Pat Boone sort of way, a Pat Boone-starring State Fair remakes the groovy scene, Daddy-o, seventeen years later in a splash of low-aspiring, Technicolor perversity. When Boone is a step up in casting in anything, that's "trouble" with a capital "T"--though Alice Faye and sex kitten Ann-Margret (and Pamela Tiffin, fresh off Billy Wilder's One, Two, Three, in place of Crain), on the other hand, are such marked improvements that it's almost bedazzling. (Let's call co-star Bobby Darin a push.) The brother, Wayne (Boone), takes centre stage this time around as a racecar driver hell-bent on competing in a dangerous race while dull boyfriend Harry (David Brandon) is now a wind-swept motorcycle rebel. Where many of the best films of the subversive, tumultuous Sixties were the antithesis of Wild One morality, intent on lip service to freethinking while bending in half to restore traditional societal order, this State Fai makes no bones about its fogeyism. Rodgers contributes a couple of new, just-as-unmemorable tunes (one for Boone on the race track, natch) as the parents again are distracting in their silly obsession with pig/mincemeat. Helping immeasurably, though, is the breaking out of the songs into actual narrative pieces instead of a series of suffocating bandstand and cocktail-party performances. The courtship song that suggests that "maybe I'll never be the one for you" but "isn't it kinda fun makin' vows," anyway, is presented, in high R&H ironic style, as a surreal-verging-on-brilliant play-within-a-play that veers from carnival to Ann-Margret burlesque revue. Yeah, it sucks mightily while beggaring sense, but if there's any way to interpret this material, it's probably this way: one part beach blanket bingo; one part Lawrence Welk; one part completely incomprehensible, sexy Mexican variety show.
Christening one of the most successful marriages in the history of the Great White Way, Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II collaborated (along with ballet-trained choreographer Agnes de Mille) in 1943 on the show that would conveniently become, against all rules and conventions of the stage musical to that point, one of the most successful shows in the history of Broadway. Oklahoma! was a provincial story in a provincial setting, an adaptation of a stultifying and failed play called "Green Grow the Lilacs"; you wouldn't be completely wrong in saying that the worry of the piece has to do with which of two bumpkins is going to take the heroine to the dance. But as Ethan Mordden noted so eloquently in his extended coffee-table musing on Rodgers & Hammerstein, the musical is really about the decision the United States has before it at the time of the play: form a more perfect union or try to make it out there in the vast nothing alone. Its message had something for the city folks, clearly--for every red-blooded American who, then in the thick of WWII, wanted a solid, unsubtle reminder of the kind of boggle-eyed pluck it takes to romanticize the great, sloppy creation of this sea-to-shining-sea. Every deceptively-guileless refrain of Oklahoma! reeks of the spoonful of sugar masking the force-feeding of growing up in a world in the active process of losing what's left of its innocence. If Oklahoma! (exclamation point a late addition to try to distract from the fact that the play is about, of all things, Okla-freakin'-homa) is also about the encroachment of modernity, its enduring power has a lot to do with the suggestion that the only defense against the rough vagaries of time is that reliable standby of good, old-fashioned love.
In the beginning, Rodgers, freshly--and by all reports reluctantly--broken from long-time lyricist Lorenz Hart, sought out Hammerstein ("Show Boat"), one of his pre-Hart lyricists, and, breaking from protocol, allowed him to write the words before Rodgers set them to music. (It was innovative to the point of revolutionary.) Their collaborators included director Rouben Mamoulian and the aforementioned de Mille, herself fresh from a triumphant spin with Aaron Copland's expressionistic "Rodeo" (elements of which find their way especially into the dream ballet of Oklahoma!), together providing for the foundering twenty-four year old Theater Guild the "hit of the century." The touring show alone went for over a decade, closing just prior to the release of this film and chosen, essentially, as a can't-miss proposition designed as a launching pad for an expensive new widescreen format, Todd-AO (inventor Mike Todd + fabricator American Optical).
Boasting a faster frame-rate (30 fps vs. the standard 24) and a series of four lenses for "one hole" that simulated Cinerama's laborious three-panel system, Todd-AO was envisioned as a synonym for spectacle--something for which folks would pay a premium and that, at least in its rollercoaster demo reel, had the potential to make people physically ill. (In the meat of Oklahoma!, Laurey's flight from Jed on the night of the big box social has a few snippets of IMAX-style POV in that spirit of motion-sickness-as-entertainment.) Because the majority of theatres would not be willing to tear out their projection systems to install this pie-in-the-sky gizmo, legendary director-for-hire Fred Zinnemann had to consecutively reshoot every scene in CinemaScope (a traditional 24fps & 35mm process). Needless to say, there are performance discrepancies between the two versions, the most striking for me during the "Kansas City" number as Gene Nelson revels in his newly-discovered, fascinatin' rhythm.
By itself, this moment is enough to recommend the CinemaScope version over the Todd-AO, but the scene in either also demonstrates the extreme limitations of Zinnemann as a director of musicals. He lamented his decision to helm the picture in a story related to me by English director Michael Radford, claiming that it took over a decade for him to recover his compromised artistic virginity; and indeed, Oklahoma! seems to mark a changing point for him creatively, though I'm more inclined to attribute that to a natural flagging of the man's abilities than to the pernicious affects of a project beneath him. Oklahoma!, if anything, is one of the most sophisticated musicals of all-time, proving itself current across generations and cultures as a testament to the specific variety of idealism that blooms in our hearts once we begin to define ourselves as a culture through personal unions. It's as socially-aware and classist as Zinnemann's High Noon; as infected with the doom of calamity encroaching concurrent with the tide of human desire as his From Here to Eternity; and as infused with the inexorable pull of love against masculine resistance as his The Men. Zinnemann is perfect for the book, just not so much for the song-and-dance--and in the "Kansas City" sequence most lamentably, all that glorious tap-dancing is shot from the thigh up. His gifts for exposition, however, serve the narrative well in the "Surrey with the Fringe on Top" sequence, which is already a landmark in the integration of music with narrative. Before Oklahoma!, the great preponderance of musicals were about putting on a show; after, they were by and large about telling character and action through lyrics and choreography. Don't believe me? Check out Curly (Gordon MacRae) a-courtin' Laurey (Shirley "Mrs. Partridge" Jones) as dirty Aunt Eller (Charlotte Greenwood) churns butter. Oklahoma! isn't the first to do a lot of the things that it does, but it's the first to give a lot of those things its wings.
The virtuoso dream sequence that pushes the film into its third act, featuring fantasy versions of Dudley Do-Right Curly and "Christine's World" naïf Laurey (roughneck ranch-hand Jed, the hypotenuse to Oklahoma!'s triangle, is played in reality as well as in dream by Rod Steiger--a double for whom could not be satisfyingly cast), is a gauzy de Mille ballet that refined the interplay of costume, motion, and story. If it feels like convention, this is for all intents and purposes the wellspring. In one of the more disturbing moments in a film that already hosts a lament by a lovable, unrepentant, possibly-retarded whore (Gloria Grahame), Laurey awakens from a nightmare of murder to discover her fantasy murderer standing before her gussied-up in the brief accoutrements of civilization. Following fast are the abovementioned headlong flight, then an auction for the companionship of the young ladies in this one-horse community, then the big finish: a near-murder with a child's gadget (something to do with porn and switchblades) and an actual death and kangaroo-court in a field of burning haystacks. Calling Oklahoma! innocuous family fare is as off-base as thinking of it as naïve and without subtext. Born of its makers' desperation and string of recent failures and riding, every step along its creation, the presumption that it would wither instantly on a vine fat with conventions that it was flouting, the show is rousing without patronization and ferociously independent because, like its characters and like its creators, it has nothing to lose and everything to gain--but only if that victory is won on its own terms. Oklahoma! isn't merely American, it speaks of the human desire to come together: man/wife, rancher/wrangler, city/state. Doesn't hurt that the music is sublime and the dancing its perfect counterpart. Short of peeking through a porthole back to Mamoulian's original staging, Zinnemann's imperfect Oklahoma! will have to do--and, unlike the mutilated Carousel or the genuinely awful State Fair, damned if it isn't, despite a director out of his element and a couple of bad casting decisions (Eddie Albert is simply horrific as a Persian peddler), pretty fun in spite of itself.
Before the animated menu cues up on the first disc of Fox's two-disc 40th Anniversary Edition of The Sound of Music, sit stunned before that stupid anti-piracy short, a trailer for the full Rodgers & Hammerstein box set, and a new, 2-minute introduction to the film in which Julie Andrews asks in rhetorical, self-aggrandizing fashion why it could possibly be that the film is awfully, awfully popular. It's written and delivered like the introduction to one of those retrospective Oscar montages, meaning it sounds like a eulogy for a doll written by a dim child. (Not a bad introduction to the film, in other words.) The sparkling 2.22:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer reproduces the original theatrical aspect ratio in often-stunningly-saturated Todd-AO grandeur. Alas, status quo techniques (such as the (over)use of diffusion filters) mean that much of it, however opulent colour-wise, is also soft and muddy. Evidently they tried to boost fine detail through edge-enhancement, but it doesn't take and simply adds insult to injury. A highly-directional DD 4.0 track sourced from the 6-track master accompanies the image--and truth be told outshines it. Still, the presentation is a damn sight better than prior attempts to wrangle the film onto the format.
Robert Wise's occasional yakker, ported from previous DVD incarnations, is meticulously scripted, if not necessarily scene-specific. This is far from a criticism: Wise shows immense respect for the audience by coming to the table prepared and ready, self-deprecatingly, to cede the mike to the isolated score when he doesn't have anything of particular interest to say. Wise's anecdotes, too, prove indispensable for any fan of the film--it's a masters' course in the picture. Andrews, Plummer, Carr, Dee Dee Wood, and the real Johannes von Trapp contribute a piecemeal commentary that is generally insipid self-congratulation and useless stories about non-events fighting for time with well-known production lore. (The helicopter's downdraft kept knocking Andrews on her ass during shooting the aerial opening, yadda yadda yadda.) I did like Plummer's admission that he hates children and enjoyed treating his screen charges as though he were "a Nazi martinet"--explaining in large portion, intentionally or not, why his performance still comes off as icy and, yes, creepy. One anecdote concerns how the littlest von Trapp girl, a very naughty thing as Plummer recalls, blossomed into a "real knockout chick" in her later years (meaning "hot"); seeing her now, you'd forgive her anything, chuckle, chortle. It's weird. Gross, too. In spite of the number of folks assembled, there's a lot of down-time, bless their hearts. The best of the commentary fragments comes from Johannes, the tenth von Trapp, who reveals some interesting truths behind the fiction. A singalong and Songs-Only menu round out the first disc.
Disc Two begins with a Julie Andrews introduction to the making-of documentary assortment. I'm serious. Kicking off the supplements proper, the comprehensive "My Favorite Things: Julie Andrews Remembers" (63 mins.) alternates interviews with virtually every surviving principal with observations from a slew of historians and archival photographs, giving the impression that the film is as important as its popularity suggests it is--though if you watch it after the patchwork yakker, great swaths of it prove redundant. "Julie Andrews and Christopher Plummer: A Reminiscence" (18 mins.) sees the aged thespians sitting together in Barbara Walters repose, with Plummer referring to his character, again and gleefully, as some kind of monster. "On Location with The Sound of Music" (23 mins.) is a brief travelogue of Salzburg narrated by a still-lovely Carr, who is forced to say things like "Before the Sound of Music, before even the stage play, there was Salzburg," and "It seems the word 'charm' was invented to describe Salzburg," and "[Salzburg] seems alive with the sound of music." Enough to make you puke? More than enough.
"From Liesl to Gretl, a 40-Year Reunion" (29 mins.) catches up with the onscreen von Trapp moppets in a fairly straightforward fashion: the actors submit to "where are they now"-style surveys, sharing information like the number of children they've had, what businesses they're involved in, etc.. For the record, Kym Karath (Gretl), is, indeed, really hot, so, Plummer? I take it all back. Their recollections with one another form the body of the piece and it's not the worst way to spend a half-hour. "When You Know the Notes to Sing: A Singalong Phenomenon" (13 mins.) follows The Sound of Music's devolution into The Rocky Horror Picture Show minus "virgin"-mocking and starch-throwing. Ground zero for this production is an event at the Hollywood Bowl that shows fanatics of the film to be as odd and pathetic as Star Trek devotees, only with more drag queens and children dressed as nuns. The spectacle of the reunified von Trapp child actors singing "Edelweiss" before 18,000 adoring, undiscriminating fans is, well, creepy. "Biography"'s biography of the real von Trapps, "Harmony and Discord" (37 mins.), is easily the most interesting thing on either platter, revealing the problem of Maria to be a bad temper and control issues. Bless Maria's heart that she didn't like the musical much. A "Restoration Comparison" (1 min.) is an interesting look at how gauzy-looking and crappy has been transformed into gauzy-looking and wow, while a too-short Mia Farrow Screen Test (1 min.) has the actress singing a snippet of "Sixteen Going on Seventeen" and prancing about. It splits time with seven trailers and TV spots and three comprehensive stills galleries in wrapping things up.
Fox continues their Rodgers and Hammerstein DVD collection with a wondrous 50th Anniversary Edition of The King and I that presents the film in a clean and startlingly-saturated 2.53:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer. Blacks are positively inky, but the velvet blues and crimsons and golds are the bread and butter. The unimpeachable image is married to full DD 5.0 audio that spreads the timeless score across the discrete channels with logic and fidelity; the orchestrations probably haven't sounded this meaty since the movie was in first-run. Astute cineaste Richard Barrios returns with another feature-length yakker, though he's been paired with theatre historian Michael Portantierre, who just can't resist mentioning a continuity error--revealing himself as not really a good choice for a film commentary. It should be mentioned that somewhere in the middle of the track, the two seem to run out of things to say, as Showgirls is mentioned somehow and a few shots are taken at Joshua Logan's use of colour filters in South Pacific. I'm not saying it's a bad thing, exactly... A startup trailer for the R&H box set, a sing-along feature, a songs-only chapter list, and an option to watch the picture with its score isolated round out the first platter.
A completist's dream but a reviewer's nightmare, Disc Two opens with the entire pilot for the failed "The King and I" television series starring Samantha Eggar as Anna and Brynner reprising (as he would repeatedly in various incarnations) the King. Compounding the unpleasantness is an episode-length commentary by Eggar, playing over a fullscreen transfer riddled with age defects ranging from a few scars to patch edits. In other words, the source is badly-compromised and worthy of tolerance mainly for the kind of diehards who, in another genre, throw parties to watch "The Star Wars Holiday Special". If you've always wanted to see a bastardization of the musical sans music, redolent with dramatic zooms and fitted with a vintage laugh track that makes the most of the film's racial discomfort (when the King protests that he's not a barbarian, the mecha-chortle is deafening--what an adorable barbarian), you've hit the jackpot. If that's not pleasing enough, there's also a hysterical bit about how stupid different religions are. "Something Wonderful" (23 mins.) is a fresh making-of that finds Lawrence Maslon delivering an interesting discourse about Gertrude Lawrence originating the Anna role and, in fact, pushing the project with R&H at its inception. Essential stuff, although Barrios's appearance here is a bit redundant. "The Kings of Broadway" (11 mins.) likewise goes over much of the same origin stories, but this time, recollections by son James Hammerstein bring the anecdotes home with a little more intimacy. Yuricho, the originator of the Tuptim avatar in Jerome Robbins's interstitial ballet, is interviewed at length as well and voices her objections about the "un-Asian-ness" of the piece, making this little bit essential as well.
"The King of the Big Screen" (5 mins.) touches on the desperation of the movies to battle the rise of television with the rise of Zanuck's CinemaScope (and The Robe), covering the abortive Todd-AO revolution and segueing into CinemaScope 55--the medium through which The King and I was brought to the screen. "The King and I: Stage Version" (17 mins.) talks of Zanuck's passion for the project and dedication to remaining faithful to the stage triumph (Rivas is interviewed and first asked if this man of colour would "work with a woman of colour"); "The Royal Archives" (3 mins.) examines in short shrift Leonowens's book and Margaret Landon's novelization of the same; and the centrepiece, as has been the case with every one of Fox's R&H DVDs thus far, consists of clips from a 1954 television special featuring "live" performances of songs from the musical. Here, Brynner and Patricia Morrison (Lawrence, quite ill, was apparently unavailable) do "Getting to Know You" and "A Puzzlement" in a total of ten minutes. An additional song, cut from the film, "Shall I Tell You What I Think of You" (4 mins.), is sourced from the cast recording to accompany a series of B&W photos from the production. Capping the sterling package: "Restoring CinemaScope 55" (7 mins.), an instructive piece that's unsurprising but worth a spin; seven Movietone reels covering the premiere, the Oscars (with Ingrid Bergman's and Yul Brynner's wins), and so on--none of them running longer than two minutes; three trailers for the film plus one for John Cromwell's 1946 Anna and the King of Siam, in which the Siamese lovers are burned together on the stake by evil King, Rex Harrison; and an extensive stills gallery.
The third film shot in the Todd-AO process but the first to not require two versions to be shot simultaneously, South Pacific initially found life in a travelling roadshow version running fourteen minutes longer. Restored as the centrepiece of the second disc of Fox's new Collector's Edition, the elided elements are of a markedly poorer quality, making running commentator Richard Barrios's trainspotting of them largely unnecessary--although the rest of his observations and anecdotes add immeasurably to a historical appreciation of the piece. The same can't be said for the commentary from R&H Association president Ted Chapin and theatre scribe Gerard Alessandrini, who team up for a breathless, useless journey through continuity errors and suspect analysis. Their saying that the original South Pacific was written for Mary Martin and Ezio Pinza stands in tension against every history of the play I've read and, more, in contrast to the play-first mentality that is Rodgers & Hammerstein's primary influence in the rethinking of the modern musical. To drop this little bombshell and then wander away from it in a cloud of giggles and empty praise speaks to me of a little sloth and a lot of arrogance. Who'd challenge these guys, right? At any rate, Disc One houses a beautiful 2.20:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer of the Todd-AO source that reproduces the brilliance of the natural locations with fidelity and separation. The "I'm Gonna Wash That Man Right Outa My Hair" sequence, shot without colour filters of any kind, practically sparkles; it's a glimpse at what might've been had Logan and company not decided they were responsible for inventing planetarium reefer shows. At the end of the day, it's probably just another example of the untenable responsibility of justifying the expense of new technology harpooning good old-fashioned common sense. Lively, directional Dolby Digital 5.0 audio accompanies the feature.
Disc Two's supplements (after the roadshow version, consisting of mostly-recycled video and a DD 2.0 stereo downgrade of the soundtrack) include an archival "Making of South Pacific" (14 mins.), which follows in grainy B&W the struggles of the film crew in taking a well-paid Hawaiian vacation during the shooting of this "seven-million dollar operation." A vintage "60 Minutes" segment (24 mins.) that takes Michener back to the Hebrides to revisit the inspirations of his awkwardly-written war idyll on the arm of Diane Sawyer (same haircut) is as superfluous as it sounds (ditto the perfunctory pair of Movietone reels about the film's gala opening and the State Department's endorsement), but an excerpt from that now-familiar R&H television special, featuring Martin and Pinza reprising their roles to sing a medley of "I'm Gonna Wash That Man Right Outa My Hair," "Finale," "Some Enchanted Evening," and "A Wonderful Guy" (8 mins.), makes it all worthwhile. What I wouldn't give for Martin's "Honey Bun," though. One thing about Martin is that, with her bubbly effusiveness, she seems a better match for clueless Nellie than does the innately intelligent Gaynor. By the time "South Pacific" was getting readied for the silver screen, however, Pinza was on his deathbed and Martin had become too closely associated with her Peter Pan performance. Ah well--imagine Audrey Hepburn. Gaynor's screen test (7 mins.) is a nice example of an always-titillating relic. South Pacific's trailer and voluminous stills gallery round out the second platter while a forced preview of the R&H boxed set, a sing-a-long option, and a songs-only menu finish out the first.
Nick Redman gently interviews Jones for a feature-length yakker attached to Carousel that's full of anecdotes and the tiny recognition that this track was recorded consecutive to their less-successful one for Oklahoma!. Both parties establish that the original musical is their absolute favourite of R&H's collaborations, leading to a few nice, pointed comments about the elision of specific numbers (the most egregious in my mind, "You're a Queer One, Julie Jones"; just by its title, you can tell exactly how much was lost on the way to the silver screen), while Jones demonstrates a good head for the history of the piece in context and out. An isolated score, sing-along karaoke option, by-song chapter list, and forced trailer for all the films in the R&H box set round out the first platter's supplements, which join a fairly-breathtaking 2.53:1, first-time-anamorphic widescreen transfer. Meanwhile, glorious DD 5.1 audio fills the discretes with much ado--particularly in the "Spring is Bustin' Out All Over" bit.
Subsidizing the beautiful, if mercurial, fullscreen presentation of Liliom (in French Dolby 2.0 mono)--which, despite obvious nitrate erosion, is apparently superior to the Kino release in virtually every respect--on the second platter is "Turns on the Carousel" (22 mins.), a featurette tracing the roots of the musical that provides a few comparisons of scenes from the definitive staging which instantly lay waste to almost anything in the finished film. As these things go, let's call it "indispensable." A "Stage Excerpt" rescues "You're A Queer One, Julie Jordan" from the cinematic dustbin and features "If I Loved You" as well. "Additional Songs" have Jones performing "You're a Queer One" again and Cameron Mitchell singing "Blow High, Blow Low" to the accompaniment of b&w stills from the picture. It gives me chills, I have to admit, every time I hear Julie's response to her long, quiet, reveries out the mill window as "I like to see the river meet the sea." What better summary of R&H than this devilishly complicated bit of inscrutable philosophy? It's almost a zen koan. An old "Movietone News" reel (2 mins.) drums up non-excitement over the introduction of CinemaScope 55 and the arrivals of Carousel's the principals at the gala premiere, leaving a trailer and stills galleries to round out the presentation.
The worst way to interpret State Fair is illustrated by a one-hour television pilot that begins with stock footage of terrified farm children on dangerous mobile carnival ride equipment and proceeds into the shocking revelation that Vera Miles has been wrangled into this crapulence via the role of shock-haired matriarch to the Clampetts. There's a little boy now for doe-eyed reaction shots and altogether too many faux-dramatic movements (Margy's the mommy of the little boy, who, because daddy's in Chicago, has turned into Damien) that mark this piece as the "Twilight Zone" antecedent to "Eight is Enough". No singin' and carousin' in this one, which, after watching the previous two incarnations, you'd think would be a blessing. An actual blessing is that it's entirely sans special features on Fox's two-platter spread devoted to all things State Fair. Not so the 1945 incarnation, offered on Disc One in a bright 1.33:1 video transfer that's hamstrung at the outset by the AWOL status of the original negative, but as a digital patchwork it's immanently forgivable. The DD 2.0 monaural audio is similarly adequate. A commentary track featuring historian Richard Barrios and Tom Briggs, co-writer of the Broadway musical of "State Fair", is excellent, informative, and respectful while providing enough impetus to make one actually consider sitting through the thing a second time. Meanwhile, "From Page to Screen to Stage" (30 mins.) recaps the story, mentions the 1933 novel on which the film was based, and generally eschews real criticism while providing a cozy retrospective of the material's long, strange journey. A fuzzy-looking trailer (that piggy-backs Oklahoma!'s success the way that the 1962 State Fair's trailer piggy-backs The Sound of Music's), a dedicated Stills Gallery, and Sing-Along and "Songs Only" options round out the first platter.
The second disc, housing the 1962 State Fair and the 1976 pilot of the same name, includes an intermittent yak-track by Pat Boone that's accompanied in the menu by the unintentionally hilarious disclaimers that long stretches of silence are the hallmark of the thing. The 2.38:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer is bright and free of defect--really lovely--with DD 4.0 audio that's faithful and tonally appealing. The telefilm, ported over with a wave of the hand, is in the standard full-screen aspect ratio of '70s television and looks every bit as terrible as it seems like it ought to. Closing out the package along with the abovementioned trailer, Mary Martin sings "It Might As Well Be Spring" (2 mins.), part of a 1954 television tribute to Rogers & Hammerstein.
Fox's remarkable DVD release of Oklahoma! contains the Todd-AO and CinemaScope incarnations on separate platters. Starting with the (preferred) CinemaScope version on disc one, you note instantly that its 2.59:1 anamorphic widescreen presentation trumps the Todd-AO (2.23:1, 16x9-enhanced) transfer in terms of everything from brightness to clarity to black levels to colour. I don't know if a pristine Todd-AO negative was unavailable, but the one sourced here looks like it's on the verge of disintegration. It's dark and soft like an old banana--scenes that you imagine were once dazzlingly brilliant look a lot like they were shot in the hours just after twilight (or before dawn). Buffs say that the Todd-AO version is superior because it represents the "first" take of a lot of these scenes; I say that practice made for a more perfect CinemaScope performance. The similarly-remastered DD 5.0 audio of each sounds nice, though.
The CinemaScope Oklahoma! sports a feature-length commentary from Rodgers biographer/historian Hugh Fordin and the president of something called the "Rodgers and Hammerstein Organization," Ted Chapin, that is by turns insulting and reductive. ("Oh ho ho, look there, where'd the corn go?! Ha ha!") There's something so hostile and violent about picking out continuity "errors" in film (one potential boss once asked me to run a contest for people who could catch the most flubs in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly) that Chapin and Fordin's bland bonhomie manages mainly to highlight their incomprehension and puzzling lack of respect. The rest of the track is full of useless factoids and a sense of smug self-satisfaction. Though I don't expect them to proclaim Oklahoma! the foundation and saviour for all things Yankee, I would have appreciated something like insight for my time. If I want to talk about how the lighting setups don't quite match between shots, I'll rent out a third-grader. A trailer looks to be pulled from a different issue of the film and a sing-along feature might prove to be a nice diversion in the wee, sauced hours of a Korean New Year's party.
The Todd-AO Oklahoma! is supplemented with a yakker by Shirley Jones that's moderated by Nick Redman. Jones trods familiar ground, giving her creation story and underscoring how she apparently continues to identify unhealthily with her Laurey character (who, let's face it, ain't the most polished fork in the drawer). No dirty laundry here and while there doesn't have to be, it's also not terribly interesting to learn that Greenwood became Jones's "mother figure" who carefully put her on the path to bad eating habits and body dysmorphia. What a sweet old broad. "CinemaScope vs. Todd-AO" (12 mins.) is a nice survey of the differences between the two media along with the standard explanation for why the explosion of new technologies around this time (i.e., television). "The Miracle of Todd-AO" (12 mins.) is a super-cool promo for the technology restored to a brighter sheen than Oklahoma! proper, densely packed with skiing POVs, rollercoaster shots--everything you need to puke your popcorn back into its bucket. "The March of Todd-AO" (18 mins.), a 1959 reel, includes invaluable footage of the Navy 6th fleet, captured in Todd-AO technology as they flew patrol missions over Lebanon. Holy crap. A less nifty but still impressive travelogue follows our sailors on leave in Vatican City.
Coolest by far, however, is a pair of stage clips featuring, in one, Gordon MacRae singing "Oh What a Beautiful Mornin'" (3 mins.) in a rare 1954 telecast that was simulcast across networks. The minimal sets--apparently recreated from the original staging--serve the music a helluva lot better than does the on-location lushness of the film itself; in hindsight, those cornfields are more interested in showcasing the capabilities of Todd-AO than in serving the essential intimacy of the play (at least to the extent that Zinnemann was capable of framing it). An impossibly young Florence Henderson (what is it with Laurey and TV moms?) joins MacRae in an operetta-pocked rendition of "People Will Say We're In Love" (2 mins.)--one of the great songs in the Hammerstein tradition of lovers proclaiming love while backing away from the actual professing of it, though Henderson seems to completely miss the complex shading of the song. A theatrical teaser (1 mins.) is sort of fun in a "Hey, this is just the prologue of the picture with an excited narrator" way (ditto for the most part the theatrical trailer (3 mins.)), but a stills gallery showcasing behind-the-scenes shots, lobby cards, and one-sheets is worth the slavering for memorabilia geeks. Originally published: March 12, 2007.