Given Peter Jackson and James Cameron’s current embrace of high-frame-rate, there’s an added importance to Fox’s restoration of the roadshow “Oklahoma!,” which opens the TCM Classic Film Fest tonight at the TCL Chinese IMAX Theater. In addition to being shot in Todd-AO large format, the beloved 1955 musical from Rodgers & Hammerstein also experimented with 30 frames to solve the flickering problem and to better stave off competition from TV. The result is almost holographic.
Fox’s Schawn Belston (together with Foto-Kem and Chace Audio) have done a glorious job of adding the luster and grandeur back to “Oklahoma!” Granted, because of Fred Zinnemann’s overly theatrical and sometimes static direction, it’s not up there with “The King and I,” “Carousel,” or “The Sound of Music.” But visually Robert Surtees’ cinematography is stunning, thanks to both the larger format and the higher frame rate. And Agnes de Mille’s revolutionary “Dream Ballet” sequence looks better than ever on the big screen.
“It’s fascinating because it makes camera movements way smoother (just like high frame rate today), which is a weird persistence of vision, but there’s also additional level of detail and depth,” Belston suggests. “I’m interested to know what people think of it, only because it’s part of its benefit, but it’s pretty challenging.”
While the Fox restoration guru is concerned about the resistance in general to HFR and its unnatural, digital look, again, it didn’t bother me. The grain structure’s intact, the flicker has been removed, and it enhances the experience, which is very colorful.
However, there was a lot of work to do on “Oklahoma!,” not only because of the ravages of time but also because of the experimental nature of the production. The negative was unusable, so did an 8K scan of an interpositive and then proceeded with a 4K workflow. Other problems included intermittent color, large streaks that occurred during processing, and even splats on the camera as a result of Gordon MacRae spitting when he sang.
“We removed the camera shutter flicker and massaged rough, jarring optical transitions (such as the opening fade-up from black),” Belston adds. But even though it’s 30 frames and beautifully photographed by Surtees, they kept second-guessing the subtle clarity.
“Because they weren’t sure it would technically work (they had to build projectors and retro fit theaters), they shot two versions of the movie, one in 35mm CinemaScope and one in Todd-AO large format. They did this in different ways: typically, they’d shoot a scene twice with each camera, but for some big sequences (‘Everything’s Up to Date in Kansas City’), they built a rig to shoot with both cameras side-by-side similar to the way Murnau shot ‘Sunrise’ with multiple cameras.”
In terms of sound, Belston had the added pleasure of working with Oscar-winning sound mixer Andy Nelson (“Les Miserables”), who has a personal connection to “Oklahoma!” — he was mentored by mixer Buzz Knudson, a disciple of “Oklahoma!’ recording supervisor Fred Hynes. “The original mixing has crazy, wide dynamics, and he sweetened it a bit, just enough to take the strident, piercing quality out of the high frequencies, and added small sub woofer to some sequences to give the orchestra more warmth. Andy opened it up without overdoing it.”
Meanwhile, Fox just announced that “Oklahoma!” will be released on Blu-ray May 6 as part of an R&H collection also featuring for the first time “The King and I” and “Carousel” (along with “The Sound of Music,” “South Pacific,” and “State Fair”).