Oklahoma! debuted on Broadway in 1943, but didn't make it to movie screens until 1955, toward the end of the movie musical's golden age. The show's originators, Richard Rogers and Oscar Hammerstein II, retained the rights, and they were eager to show off their property to its best effect. To that end, they produced it as a big-cinema-only "roadshow" attraction, shot simultaneously in two competing widescreen formats, Cinemascope and Todd-AO. They also sought to make the movie version of Oklahoma! as innovative as the stage production, which was one of the first American musicals to use songs and ballet interludes to advance the story. They hired From Here To Eternity director Fred Zinnemann, a novice to musicals, though not to big-budget features. Zinnemann split the difference between expressionism and realism, shooting much of the film on location, but with bold colors and fluid camera moves. Mostly, he stayed out of the way of an American passion play that the country already knew by heart.
The new double-disc Oklahoma! DVD treats the movie like the classic it is, providing both the subtly different Cinemascope and Todd-AO versions in full (with separate commentary tracks on each), and adding a couple of TV performances and oddly hypnotic Todd-AO demonstration reels. The extra frills replicate what it was like to see Oklahoma! in a theater in the mid-'50s, when everything from the advertising to the venue shouted "importance." That may seem like too heavy a come-on for what's essentially a soft-centered trifle, with farm-girl Shirley Jones trying to choose between the affections of charismatic cowboy Gordon MacRae and rough farmhand Rod Steiger. But there's something eternal and primal both in the love triangle and in Rogers & Hammerstein's framing of it, via songs like "Oh, What A Beautiful Mornin'," "The Surrey With The Fringe On Top," "I Cain't Say No," and "Kansas City," all of which make sexual yearning and overweening pride seem as natural as a corn stalk.
Ten years before the movie of Oklahoma!, Rogers & Hammerstein made their collaborative film debut on State Fair, a musical adaptation of Philip Stong's novel (already filmed straight in 1933). It's a quasi-sequel to Oklahoma!, in that both are about the rituals and presumptions of heartlanders. Dick Haymes and Jeanne Crain star as a small-town brother and sister who find romance at the fair (with singer Vivian Blaine and journalist Dana Andrews) while their parents sweat out the judging of livestock and baked goods. The DVD includes the 1962 version (with Pat Boone, Ann-Margret, and Bobby Darin) and a 1976 TV pilot, plus commentary tracks and footage of Rogers & Hammerstein explaining how the melody of "It Might As Well Be Spring" fits its words. Both State Fair and Oklahoma! exemplify the composers' re-imagining of the musical form, which relied on more subtle vocal techniques, and songs that were catchy without always being hooky. The movies also catch the pair's unique version of nostalgia, which salutes provincial values while suggesting that they may not be enough to satisfy.