Directed by Fred Zinnemann. Running time: 145 minutes.
BY ROGER EBERT
Mr. Ebert saw Oklahoma! in May 1983 in Todd-AO at the USA Film Festival in Dallas. This review was originally written for the Chicago Sun-Times.
Oklahoma! opens with one of the most familiar moments in all of musical comedy, as a cowboy comes singing out of the dawn, declaring "Oh, What a Beautiful Morning!" I've seen that moment many times, and it never fails to thrill me, but I've never seen it quite as I saw it here last Monday night, when the movie played during the USA Film Festival.
That was because I'd never seen the film version of Oklahoma! as it was originally photographed, in the Todd-AO process that was revolutionary in 1955 and would still be revolutionary today, if Hollywood were interested in using it. The movie was shot by Fred Zinnemann in 70mm. Eastmancolor on Mike Todd's pioneering wide screen process, which used a wider screen that Cinemascope, VistaVision or any of the other mid-'50's attempts to stretch the size of the screen image. It was recorded on six-track stereo that was clearer and more brilliant than any other movie sound system.
click images for larger
A wider screen and better stereo were technical breakthroughs, but what made Todd-AO revolutionary was the speed at which the film moved through the projector. Since the introduction of talking movies in 1929, all movies had been photographed and projected at 24 frames a second. That was the industry standard, and nobody thought to challenge it until Mike Todd - showman, impresario and inventor - dared to ask what it might look like if you ran the film more quickly through the projector - if you ran it, say, at 30 frames a second.
The answer is that the film would look amazingly
brighter, cleaner and more brilliant, and it would have an additional illusion
of depth. Todd was making a two-fold advance in the quality of the image. His
70-mm. Frame could carry much more detail than standard 35-mm. film, and by
running six additional frames a second through the projector, he could increase
the visual richness and clarity by 25 percent.
The Todd-AO process required special projectors, since almost all existing projectors were 35-mm. and the tradition of the 70-mm. "roadshow attraction" was actually being launched by Oklahoma! The movie opened to spectacular reviews in 1955 and did good business, but wound up playing mostly in its 35-mm. version, the only one most people have seen.Some of the projectors installed for Oklahoma! and the other early roadshows are still in place, however, and they'll be used this summer when the resurrected original Todd version of Oklahoma! goes into national release. Rights to the movie have been purchased from the Rodgers and Hammerstein estate by the Samuel Goldwyn Co. which has struck new 70-mm. prints from the master negative and also restored a five-minute stereophonic overture, intermission and closing music.
The Goldwyn Co. hopes it will tap a natural vein of affection for its big, simple, cheerful and hopelessly energetic production. The movie version was personally supervised by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein, who had held if off the screen for 12 years. They insisted on a film version that would remain faithful to the stage production - and indeed, the characters, dialogue and songs remain essentially unchanged from the theater version.
But director Zinnemann, fresh from his success with From Here to Eternity (1953), added his own cinematic touches, including filming great sections on locations. Although sound stages and sets are used for some of the scenes, many of the big ones (including "Oh, What a Beautiful Morning!" and "Kansas City") were shot and recorded outdoors, with vast open spaces of cloud and land and cattle herds in the background. The movie picks up an exuberance from its locations (mostly in Texas, not Oklahoma), and it picks up additional freshness from its then-little-known stars, Gordon MacRae, Shirley Jones and Rod Steiger. It also got a show-stopping performance from Gloria Graham, whose version of "I'm Just a Girl Who Can't Say No" won applause from the Dallas audience.
Oklahoma! is a reminder of the kind of musical they don't make anymore, and probably will never make again.
Copyright © The Sun-Times Company