In the 1950s, many strategies were unleashed to woo Americans away from their shiny new television sets and back to the movie house. What united them was the desire to reclaim the cinema as an unreproducible event, to rekindle some of the magic from half a century prior. The simplest way for the big screen to beat the small was for it to get even bigger. Among the several techniques that sprung up for producing widescreen films, one of the most spectacular was the high-definition 70 mm format called Todd-AO. Developed by Mike Todd, the format was intended for enormous concave screens that would mimic the human eye’s field of vision. The first major production to use this film stock would be the long-awaited adaptation of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s musical Oklahoma!
There was only one problem. Not many theaters in the country were equipped with screens adequate for the Todd-AO presentation, or its predecessor, Cinerama. The producers settled on two solutions. First was to highlight the exclusivity of the film by nodding to its stage roots. Oklahoma! would be released in major cities for special “roadshow” engagements, to which the audience was encouraged to dress up and where patrons would receive programs instead of popcorn. But a wider release was also desirable, so the film would need to exist in a 35 mm format, CinemaScope, as well. As a result, Oklahoma! was effectively shot twice simultaneously. The CinemaScope version debuted thirteen months after the Todd-AO version’s New York City premiere. In the years that followed, CinemaScope remained closer to the norm for most theaters, and the Todd-AO film has only been screened sporadically. The 50th Anniversary DVD in 2005 and a Blu-ray edition in 2014 included both cuts of the film.
In my “Both Versions” series thus far, the competing versions of each film have all presented one clear reason to consider them discrete films instead of clones; namely, the fact that the actors don’t speak the same language. (In the original cut of The Gold Rush, of course, they don’t speak at all.) Oklahoma! presents a very different situation. What distinguishes the Todd-AO from the CinemaScope? The performers, dialogue, songs, blocking, choreography, sets and camera placement are all practically identical. The roadshow film is slightly longer, but only because it added an overture, intermission, and exit music. Two things change from one version to the next: aspect ratio and frame rate. These are highly technical subjects about which I know very little, so putting things into layman’s terms will be easy.
CinemaScope actually produced a wider image than Todd-AO, with a width-to-height ratio of 2.55:1 as opposed to 2.20:1. In the post-video era, cropping a film to fit the screen is a simple matter, and the simplicity has been abused from the beginning (the dreaded “pan and scan”). Naturally, in the analog era, it required different film and different cameras. Photographs exist online of the two cameras placed side-by-side, and I’ve read that for a few shots in the film they were run simultaneously. I haven’t found a rundown of all the shots that were executed this way, but presumably they were exterior shots for which weather was a concern. Mostly, the two versions of the film consist of separate takes. Noticing this would require an eagle eye for the most part, with a couple exceptions. For the establishing shot of the Claremont train station, the Todd-AO uses a wide angle lens to take in the whole scene at once. In the CinemaScope, the shot pans from right to left in order to view first the approaching wagons, then the station itself, then the train. (The other moment I noticed, less significant but more amusing, was at the end of the auction, when Curly finally outbids Jud. Aunt Eller smacks the gavel down with such force as to knock its head off. In the Todd-AO but not the CinemaScope, the head smacks right into the camera lens.) Repeatedly, the CinemaScope tries to reproduce the same shots from the Todd-AO, which results in cramped compositions. Fred Zinnemann had never directed a musical before, and neither version is especially concerned with keeping the dancers’ feet in view at all times, but it’s always apparent that Todd-AO was the focus and CinemaScope the insurance policy.
On the level of individual frames, the Todd-AO and the CinemaScope are never absolutely identical. But there’s another difference when the versions are viewed in motion. The incredible clarity of the 70 mm Todd-AO image had an unintended consequence: the flicker effect inherent to the standard 24 frames-per-second rate was so noticeable it was expected to be a distraction. To better fool the eye into processing continuous motion rather than individual photographs at high speed, the rate was increased to 30 fps. The effect was similar to the “motion-smoothing” settings on today’s high-def television sets. When I first put on the Blu-ray earlier this week, I was initially taken aback by the effect, not having done my homework beforehand. Among cinephiles, motion-smoothing is generally considered an abomination, and I’m prone to agree. The slickness and ever-so-slightly sped-up quality of the higher frame rate can be downright eerie. It doesn’t feel like a movie to me. That said, it’s possible that the frame rate looks more natural when projected onto the intended screen. (Seeing Oklahoma! at the the 2014 TCM Classic Film Festival, with Shirley Jones in attendance, would have been pretty neat.) In short, both the Todd-AO and the CinemaScope have their own drawbacks, which is frustrating.
Oklahoma! was experimental in form and traditional in content. Sixty years later, cinema is as beleaguered as ever by competing sources of entertainment. Peter Jackson has released films with higher-than-normal frame rates. Quentin Tarantino has released a film in the roadshow format. Beyond these flourishes, perhaps the most modern aspect of Oklahoma! is the opening credits sequence, at least as it exists in the Todd-AO version. The titles fade in and out over a simple black backdrop. The rest of the film is satisfied with the past, not only looking back a dozen years to the beloved source material, but to earlier eras of filmmaking when unembellished recordings of stage plays were produced. Between the untested Todd-AO system and the watchful eyes of Rodgers and Hammerstein, this was no time to reinvent the wheel. Meanwhile, the story itself takes a sentimental look at the Old West. The angst of young love is as close as Oklahoma! gets to exploring how rough life was at the time. Passions boil over into stampedes and burning haystacks. But by the end, civilization arrives. The hero literally trades his horse and gun for a life on the farm with his one true love. For every conceivable reason, Oklahoma! fails to reach the heights of cinematic achievement. But the songs are wonderful, and they were pre-recorded, so it doesn’t matter which version you see.