Alternate universes show up so much in science fiction, they’re not exactly wondrous anymore. But lo, behold the amazing mirror-world materializing where the wavin’ wheat can sure smell sweet, along the windswept movie-musical plains of Oklahoma! For anybody familiar with earlier video editions of the big-screen adaptation of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s seminal 1943 Broadway show, this new disc and tape incarnation will feel like a transmission from the twilight zone. Since when did the elaborate dance sequences look so kinetic yet impeccably tight? How did ingenue Laurey (Shirley Jones, in her movie debut) go from acting borderline bored to coming off irresistibly pert? Did her would-be suitor, skeevy farmhand Jud (Rod Steiger), always ride that runaway wagon right through a fence? Why does this feel like exactly the same movie and yet a completely different movie?
Because it’s both, thanks to a weird, anomalous warp in Earth film history that even Data might have trouble untangling. Stardate summer 1954: Oklahoma! was about to become the first feature ever shot in 65 mm Todd-AO, a defunct system that worked something like the way IMAX does today. A super-sized negative ran through both camera and projector at 30 frames per second instead of the usual 24. Result? Incredibly sharp, detailed, dimensional, flicker-free renderings of such sights as Curly (Gordon MacRae) clip-clopping through what must be the world’s tallest cornstalks.
The catch was, hardly any theaters had the pricey equipment to show Todd-AO prints. So to ensure a wider audience, director Fred Zinnemann (From Here to Eternity, High Noon) had to get everything down on celluloid twice. First he shot a scene with Todd-AO cameras. Then he had the scene relit and reshot in the far-grainier 35 mm CinemaScope format, which was already widely in use. (This laborious approach was taken only once more, on 1956’s Around the World in 80 Days; after that, Todd-AO productions were shot just once, in 65 mm and at 24 frames per second — whereby they could be copied into any format.) Since the ‘Scope takes came last, they couldn’t help but suffer. The sun was often out of optimal position, and the actors tended to get stale after multiple run-throughs.
Zinnemann maintained that the ‘Scope version was a po’ relation, and to his chagrin, it’s the one everybody’s been watching on home screens all these years. Why? Until very recently, no machine existed to transfer the jumbo, 30- frames-per-second Todd-AO negative to video.
Compare the ”old” Oklahoma! with FoxVideo’s new ”original” edition, and you’ll see what a difference a retake makes. Case in point: Gloria Grahame, who’s a sublimely oversexed Ado Annie in either version, apparently filmed her two separate performances of the minx’s lament ”I Cain’t Say No” on the same afternoon. But in the new-to-video Todd-AO take, her balletic bedroom-eyed + swayings are way naughtier — and funnier. Now that both versions are circulating in video stores, make sure you seek out the genuine AO article: The jacket shows MacRae and Jones in close-up in front of a cornfield. It tops the old also-ran the way an opening-night Broadway cast tops a tired bus-and-truck troupe. New disc: A; New tape: A-; Old discs and tapes: B+