The 2014 TCM Film Festival launched in epic style tonight with a new restoration from 20th Century Fox of the Todd-AO widescreen musical “Oklahoma!” at the TCL Chinese IMAX theater in Hollywood.
The 90 year old Shirley Jones, who made her impressive film debut at the early age of only 19 with Oklahoma! (1955), kicked off the Festival with charm, poise, a sharp wit, and genuine appreciation to the packed house of festival fans at the TCL Chinese theater. With TCM host Robert Osborne, she described the events that lead to her selection for this groundbreaking musical (the first to travel the country as a Todd-AO event, and the first Broadway musical to stylistically integrate many of its musical numbers thematically with the unfolding drama). She also described the unusual process and lengths Rodgers and Hammerstein went to cast her in the lead role of Laurey, including flying her out Los Angeles to screen test with the actor Gordon McCrea and director Fred Zinnemann, an unusual step given it was uncommon for such an ingenue to test with both the lead male (already cast in McCrea) and the director. Jones, never intending to make a career in Hollywood (“I was planning to be a Vetenarian!”), was discovered from her screen tests for South Pacific (1958), and plucked from traveling theater gigs (where she was working with Shirley MacLaine). From her debut here, she benefited from the critical and commercial success of Oklahoma, eventually going to work again on another Rodgers and Hammerstein musical, the Todd-AO roadshow Carousel (1956), also with McCrea.
The digital print at the festival was stunning, with bright crisp tones and subtle splashes of color and nuance unlikely to have been seen from Robert Surtees impressive cinematography in decades (certainly in any theater). Probably one of the greatest epic outdoor cinematographers of his generation, Surtees’ work in the film simply looks breathtaking at times and holds up to the likes of many great Westerns being filmed in this period. With few staged sets and mostly outdoor photography, this presentation of the film lit up the festival in a stunning debut.