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Blu-ray Review: 'The Rodgers & Hammerstein Collection'

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The Films:

Perhaps the most well-known of the musical duos, Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II produced a number of gigantic hits that included “The Sound of Music,” “The King and I,” and “Oklahoma!” The film versions of these hits and others struck a chord with audiences in the 40s, 50s, and 60s, and they still do so several decades later. Now six of these have been brought together for a new Blu-ray collection that showcases some of their very best work. As usual, I’m going to take it one film at a time, starting with what is perhaps their most successful show of all time.

“The Sound of Music” concerns a nun-to-be, Maria (Julie Andrews), who is having trouble adjusting to the nun’s life in 1938 Austria. Her Mother Abbess (Peggy Wood) believes that sending her out into the world would do her good, and so she arranges for her to become the governess of Captain Von Trapp’s (Christopher Plummer) seven children. At first, the children are rather difficult to control, playing pranks on Maria just like they did to their previous governess, but soon the children come to like her. Given their rather strict upbringing from the Captain, Maria decides that they should be allowed to be more like children, prescribing such activities as climbing trees, going on a picnic, and singing. It is this last activity that shows how much talent they have as a group, leading a family friend to enter them in a local competition, despite their father being very much against it. Adding to this situation is the progressing Third Reich, who has taken over Austria and ordered the Captain to report for naval duty as soon as possible. In their desperation, the family attempts to hatch a plan that will allow them to leave Austria and escape the Nazis.

Robert Wise’s screen adaptation would prove to be a powerhouse at the Oscars for its year (1965), winning five, including Best Picture and Best Director. The musical is an absolute delight, featuring several great and catchy songs (“Do-Re-Mi,” “My Favorite Things,” and, of course, “The Sound of Music”). The first half in particular flows very well, and while the second half of the film tapers off a bit with a few songs that could have been cut, we are still treated to the fantastic performances from Julie Andrews and Christopher Plummer throughout. In fact, if it wasn’t for the fact that Andrews won Best Actress only the previous year for “Mary Poppins,” it’s more than likely she would have easily won for her incredible work here. Shockingly, Plummer was not even nominated for his outstanding portrayal of the Captain, who undergoes a difficult transition from stern and overly-disciplined to more caring and compassionate. With its unforgettable characters and amazing songs, “The Sound of Music” stands the test of time as one of the great musicals, delivering a charming tale that is just as admired now as it was nearly 50 years ago.

“State Fair” tells the story of the farming Frake family as they visit Iowa’s State Fair, with each of them having their own little experience. The father, Abel (Charles Winninger), is hoping that his hog will win first place in a contest, while the mother, Melissa (Jeanne Craine), has entered various food competitions. Meanwhile, their daughter, Margy (Vivian Blaine), meets a man at the fair, Pat Gilbert (Dana Andrews), that she falls in love with, even though she is practically engaged to another. Their son, Wayne (Dick Haymes), also finds romantic interest in a singer, Emily (Vivian Blaine), performing at the fair. Everything seems fine, that is until the fair comes to its conclusion, which will force the couples to make some difficult decisions.

This lesser-known Rodgers & Hammerstein musical is basically comprised of a series of subplots involving romantic entanglements, which even features Abel’s hog. The problem is that none of them are engaging and all of them are excessively bland. The relationships that the Frake children engage in couldn’t feel stiffer and more by the numbers if they tried, and the subplots involving the parents, while they do make a decent attempt to act as comic relief, ultimately end up adding very little to the story. However, perhaps the film’s biggest issue is the completely random and tacked-on ending. There’s no explanation for how it comes to be that way, which is particularly bizarre based on the scenes prior, and yet somehow everything turns out fine, despite it not making much sense. Because of these major setbacks, “State Fair” becomes a dull and forgettable entry in the Rodgers & Hammerstein legacy, but at the very least, we know that there were bigger and better things to come.

South Pacific” takes us to an island in the titular location during World War II, where Lieutenant Cable (John Kerr) has been sent in order to make plans to place a spy on a Japanese-controlled island. While these plans are being made, he happens to fall in love with a native, whose mother wants to set them up as a couple. Meanwhile, the man Lieutenant Cable wants to act as a spy, Emile De Becque (Rossano Brazzi), has a romance of his own with a nurse, Nellie Forbush (Mitzi Gaynor), who has been asked by Cable and his superiors to find out why the Frenchman is on the island in the first place. As these relationships go on, complications arise, one of which makes all the difference when it comes time for Emile to make his decision as to whether or not he’ll take on the mission.

Where to begin with the problems that “South Pacific” presents? Perhaps the biggest issue of the entire film is that it is, without a doubt, far too long. Granted, this was the roadshow version that runs about 172 minutes, but the theatrical cut is only about 14 minutes shorter, and I can’t imagine that a mere 14 minutes of cuts would be enough to make the film better. But perhaps I’m getting ahead of myself. The reason as to why the film is too long is because there is not nearly enough story to support it. “State Fair” had been dull and very basic, but at least it wasn’t stretched out to death. “South Pacific” presents us with a myriad of scenes that could have easily been cut or trimmed down in order to help improve the pacing and bring more focus to the story, but since it wasn’t, we’re forced to sit through such stretched scenes as Emile and Nellie’s first meeting, Cable’s first visit to the island where he meets the woman he falls in love with, and a completely unnecessary Thanksgiving pageant put on by the troops. When you look at what story it does have, we once again find a pair of romances that just aren’t engaging, and which merely make you wish that the film was more about the mission rather than whether or not these pairs will end up together. On top of that, there are some nonsensical plot twists that aren’t integrated very well, making them feel forced and absurd. With its multitude of plot and pacing problems suffocating what little potential this story may have had, “South Pacific” becomes nothing but another forgettable entry in the Rodgers & Hammerstein library of musicals.

“The King and I” is the classic story of an English schoolteacher, Anna (Deborah Kerr), who becomes the tutor to the King of Siam’s children. The King (Yul Brynner) is attempting to modernize his country by having his children and servants learn English, in addition to a variety of other subjects. The King is a very proud man, always used to having his way, but Anna can be just as stubborn as he is, causing the two to clash every now and again. However, Anna soon learns that the best way to help him is to make him think that her advice is something that he has come up with himself, so when the opportunity arises for him to clear the barbarian image that other countries have of him, the two decide to plan a banquet for the English ambassadors that is to include all kinds of entertainment. In this way, he hopes that they will see him as the civilized king that he so firmly believes he is.

This musical would prove to be another big hit not only on stage, but also on screen. The film was nominated for nine Oscars (including Best Picture and Best Director) and won five (including Best Actor for Yul Brynner). Along with “The Sound of Music,” “The King and I” is another charming entry in the Rodgers & Hammerstein library. Perhaps it’s a little long at 133 minutes, but it hardly ever feels like it slows down. A large part of why that is is because of the outstanding performances from Brynner and Kerr, who become so invested in their roles that you can’t help but become enraptured in their scenes together. Then, of course, there’s the music. There is a mixture of songs that are great and forgettable, but the score is always top-notch. In terms of what doesn’t work so well for the film, there’s a relationship that seems squeezed into the story that could have been expanded on, and the ending is a little flat because of a random event, but overall there’s so much more to like than to dislike. On top of all the positive elements mentioned already, the film is just plain beautiful. From the lush production design to the gorgeous costumes (two more Oscars it won), this is basically a film that you can just sit back and take in as a work of art, made even more incredible by the amazing Cinemascope 55 picture. With its sheer elegance and a pair of amazing leads, “The King and I” ends up as one of the better examples of adapting a Rodgers & Hammerstein musical for the screen, for even with its flaws, it remains a grand piece of entertainment, even after nearly 60 years.

Carousel” tells the story of Billy Bigelow (Gordon MacRae), a former carousel worker who has been dead for 15 years. When he hears that there’s trouble with his family back on Earth, he attempts to get permission to go back for one day to see if there’s anything he can do to help. However, he must first tell his story to the man in charge. Through this, we learn about the kind of man he was and how he came to meet and marry his wife, Julie (Shirley Jones). He’s certainly not the best husband around, unable to find work and even hitting his wife at one point. Upon hearing that he’s going to be a father, he takes it upon himself to do whatever’s necessary to provide for his family, which leads him to take up a friend’s offer of pulling a robbery, but, as you can probably guess, things don’t go exactly according to plan.

This is perhaps the darkest musical to come from Rodgers & Hammerstein, dealing with the heavy topic of death and having one of the most unlikeable main characters in their repertoire. The story this time around is decent, but the major issue that the film faces is its lack of focus on it. “Carousel” may be one of their shorter musicals, running just 128 minutes, but it still feels very stretched out with several songs and dance sequences that were just completely unnecessary. When you have dance sequences that go on for about 10-15 minutes (“June is Bustin’ Out All Over,” “Billy Makes a Journey”), along with entirely pointless songs (“This Was a Real Nice Clambake”), that add absolutely nothing to the story, it should be clear that they should be cut, or at the very least trimmed down a little. There are a couple of good songs in here, but it simply becomes too distracted from the plot to be worth the two hours. With a little focus, “Carousel” could have been a deeply-emotional tale, but instead, what we end up with is a heartfelt story that gets smothered by so many unnecessary elements, turning this into a pretty big missed opportunity.

Finally, “Oklahoma!” concerns a couple of women and the men who are trying to win them over. Laurey (Shirley Jones) has two men fighting over her. One is a cowboy, Curly (Gordon MacRae), while the other is a farmhand, Jud (Rod Steiger), who works on Laurey’s family’s farm. Another woman, Ado Annie (Gloria Grahame), has been promised to a peddler, Ali Hakim (Eddie Albert), who was forced at gunpoint into becoming engaged by her father. Meanwhile, the man who really loves her, Will Parker (Gene Nelson), has recently returned from Kansas City with the $50 her father says he needs to marry her. Both situations become strained even further due to the impending box social, which will have each woman end up with a man based on who bids highest for their basket lunches. With love on the line, some of these men will do whatever’s necessary to get their girl, or in the case of the peddler, whatever’s necessary to get away from their girl.

There are many who consider “Oklahoma!” to be a classic musical with several great songs, but while this may be true, the attempt to turn it into a film is another matter. In that respect, it suffers from some of the same problems that other Rodgers & Hammerstein adaptations suffer from, including having an incredibly stretched-out plot. This time around, we have a musical that runs for nearly two and a half hours based around the simple story of the characters trying to get together with their sweethearts. While this isn’t a bad story for a musical, it does become an issue when it becomes drawn-out with songs that don’t add anything to the story and dance sequences that go on for far too long, an issue that would plague “Carousel” the very next year. The film’s distracted nature makes the first 90 minutes of the film feel like they really don’t get anywhere, and while the second act (approximately the last hour) does get better when it finally starts to focus on the fight for Laurey and the strange situation involving Ano Annie (the auction scene is particularly well-done), it’s never able to fully recover from the overlong setup. This adaptation of “Oklahoma!” is certainly not a bad film, especially with a handful of really catchy tunes (“Oh What a Beautiful Mornin’,” “I Cain’t Say No,” “The Farmer and the Cowman,” etc.), but when faced with a lengthy adaptation where most of the result is not worth seeing, my recommendation would be just to stick with the album.

Video/Audio:

All six films come to Blu-ray in their original aspect ratios, with gorgeous transfers that have been remarkably restored to the best possible quality these films have had since they were first released. There are a few things to take note of here. First, “State Fair” is the only film not featured in widescreen, and as is usual for full screen films, it has been given the “shrunken box” treatment, which puts black bars on all sides instead of just presenting the film as it should be by filling up the entire picture. Second, the roadshow version of “South Pacific” contains about 14 minutes of additional footage that has a different look to it than the footage from the regular theatrical version. It’s still very watchable, but it is of a lower quality, a fact that they warn you of when you select “play” on the roadshow version. Finally, “The King and I” and “Carousel” are presented in Cinemascope 55 (the only two films to be made using the process), while “Oklahoma!” is available in both Todd-AO and Cinemascope versions.

As far as the audio goes, each track has been painstakingly restored, giving you the best possible experience with each score and each individual musical number. The only one that seemed to stand out from the others was “Oklahoma!,” where the audio seemed much softer than the other films, but with a quick adjustment of the volume, it sounds just as great as the other tracks. Just like with the video, the audio probably hasn’t been of such a good quality since the original release. It is truly doubtful that these films could look or sound any better.

Special Features:

The extensive list of extras for each film are as follows:

The Sound of Music

  • Commentary by Julie Andrews, Christopher Plummer, Charmian Carr, Dee Dee Woods, and Johannes von Trapp
  • Commentary by Robert Wise
  • Your Favorite Things: An Interactive Celebration (Images, Facts, Quiz)
  • Music Machine
  • Sing-Along

State Fair

  • Commentary by Richard Barrios and Tom Briggs
  • Music Machine
  • Sing-Along
  • From Page, to Screen, to Stage: State Fair
  • Still Galleries

South Pacific

  • Commentary by Richard Barrios (Roadshow Version)
  • Commentary by Ted Chapin and Gerard Alessandrini (Theatrical Version)
  • Sing-Along
  • Passion, Prejudice, and South Pacific: Crafting an American Masterpiece
  • Making of South Pacific
  • 60 Minutes: The Tales of the South Pacific
  • Vintage Stage Excerpts
  • Fox Movietonews
  • Screen Test: Mitzi Gaynor
  • Still Gallery

The King and I

  • Commentary by Richard Barrios and Michael Portantiere
  • Composer’s Isolated Score
  • Sing-Along
  • Music Machine
  • Something Wonderful: The Story of The King and I
  • The Kings of Broadway
  • The King of the Big Screen
  • The King and I: Stage Version
  • The King and I: The Royal Archives
  • Anna and the King: TV Pilot
  • Vintage Stage Excerpts
  • Additional Songs
  • Restoring Cinemascope 55
  • Movietone News
  • Still Galleries

Carousel

  • Commentary by Shirley Jones and Nick Redman
  • Music Machine
  • Sing-Along
  • Isolated Score
  • Liliom
  • Turns on the Carousel
  • Vintage Stage Excerpts
  • Additional Songs
  • Movietone News
  • Still Galleries

Oklahoma!

  • Commentary by Shirley Jones and Nick Redman (Todd-AO Version)
  • Commentary by Ted Chapin and Hugh Fardin (Cinemascope Version)
  • Film Restoration
  • Music Machine
  • Sing-Along
  • Cinemascope vs. Todd-AO
  • The Miracle of Todd-AO
  • The March of Todd-AO
  • Vintage Stage Excerpts
  • Still Galleries

Rather than double the length of this review by talking about each extra individually, I’m just going to talk about them generally, especially because they all pretty much fall under the same few categories. Each film comes with several special features including commentaries, behind the scenes featurettes that trace the history of the show and film, stage excerpts, and a sing-along option. The commentaries and featurettes are particularly worth your time given the amount of information they have about each musical. As I dug through these hours and hours of extras, I didn’t come across any that I thought weren’t worth a look, so overall, you should definitely spend some time looking through this fascinating collection of goodies.

Conclusion:

With four out of six musicals that I would be forced to recommend skipping, unfortunately The Rodgers & Hammerstein Collection doesn’t quite come up to a recommendation. If there had been three worth seeing, I might have been able to let it slide, especially given the amazing assortment of special features, but with only two in the collection worth the time to sit through, my recommendation would simply be to buy “The Sound of Music” and “The King and I” individually (the latter will be available on Blu-ray later this year for individual purchase). Rodgers & Hammerstein were indeed brilliant collaborators whose work greatly influenced the musical genre, but sometimes adapting it to the screen just didn’t work out, something we see with several of the films in this collection. However, when it worked, it worked very well, so in the end, we’re left with at least two grand cinematic tributes to their great work together, guaranteeing that they’ll never be forgotten.

Score: 3/5

Now available on Blu-ray.

Recent Blu-ray/DVD releases: Stalingrad, The Monuments Men, Pompeii, 3 Days to Kill, Grand Piano, Her, Orange is the New Black: Season One, I, Frankenstein, Final Exam, Evilspeak, Star Trek: Enterprise - Season Four, The Legend of Hercules, Dead Shadows, Sorcerer, Copperhead, The Wolf of Wall Street, The Best of Bogart Collection, Beneath, American Hustle

Now playing in theaters: The Amazing Spider-Man 2, Draft Day, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Nymphomaniac: Volume Two, Nymphomaniac: Volume One, Bad Words

Follow me on Twitter @BeckFilmCritic.

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