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Oh, What a Beautiful Movie!

A Todd-AO screen capture from "Oh, What a Beautiful Morning!" in "Oklahoma!"

DALLAS -- "Oklahoma!" opens with one of the most familiar moments in all of musical comedy, as a cowboy comes singing out of the dawn, declaring "Oh, What a Beautiful Morning!" I've seen that moment many times, and it never fails to thrill me, but I've never seen it quite as I saw it here last Monday night, when the movie played during the USA Film Festival.

That was because I'd never seen the film version of "Oklahoma!" as it was originally photographed, in the Todd-AO process that was revolutionary in 1955 and would still be revolutionary today, if Hollywood were interested in using it. The movie was shot by Fred Zinnemann in 70mm. Eastmancolor on Mike Todd's pioneering wide screen process, which used a wider screen that CinemaScope, VistaVision or any of the other mid-'50's attempts to stretch the size of the screen image. It was recorded on six-track stereo that was clearer and more brilliant than any other movie sound system.

A wider screen and better stereo were technical breakthroughs, but what made Todd-AO revolutionary was the speed at which the film moved through the projector. Since the introduction of talking movies in 1929, all movies had been photographed and projected at 24 frames a second. That was the industry standard, and nobody thought to challenge it until Mike Todd--showman, impresario and inventor--dared to ask what it might look like if you ran the film more quickly through the projector--if you ran it, say, at 30 frames a second.

The answer is that the film would look amazingly brighter, cleaner and more brilliant, and it would have an additional illusion of depth. Todd was making a twofold advance in the quality of the image. His 70-mm. film was twice as large as standard 35-mm. film, so it could carry twice as much detail. And by running six additional frames a second through the projector, he could increase the available frames by 25 percent.

The Todd-AO process required special projectors, since almost all existing projectors were 35-mm. and the tradition of the 70-mm. "roadshow attraction" was actually being launched by "Oklahoma!" The movie opened to spectacular reviews in 1955 and did good business, but wound up playing mostly in its 35-mm. version, the only one most people have seen.

Some of the projectors installed for "Oklahoma!" and the other early roadshows are still in place, however, and they'll be used this summer when the resurrected original Todd version of "Oklahoma!" goes into national release. Rights to the movie have been purchased from the Rodgers and Hammerstein estate by the Samuel Goldwyn Co. which has struck new 70-mm. prints from the master negative and also restored a five-minute stereophonic overture, intermission and closing music.

This version of "Oklahoma!" is actually part of a boomlet in the resurrection of classic films. After the spectacular success of Abel Gance's "Napoléon" (1927), a four-hour silent classic restored by film historial Kevin Brownlow and presented in a series of hard-ticket bookings in 1982 by Francis Ford Coppola, distributors began looking around for other lost or misplaced classics that might still have life at the box office. Later this year, in addition to "Oklahoma!" there will be six other major re-releases.

"A Star is Born" was the 1954 version of a durable Hollywood tragedy that had been filmed twice before, as "What Price Hollywood?" (1930, and as "A Star is Born" (1934) with Janet Gaynor and Fredric March, and would be filmed again in 1976 with Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson. For the 1954 version, director George Cukor (who also directed "What Price Hollywood?") cast Judy Garland as his heroine, opposite James Mason. The movie was a critical success and has become a cult classic, but it was also the center of a 30-year controversy concerning 30 missing minutes.

The story is Hollywood legend. Cukor finished his film and moved on to another assignments. The studio, Warner Bros., decided that at three hours the film was too long, and so half an hour was cut out. Those 30 minutes included three complete musical numbers starring the legendary Garland ("Lose that Long Face," "Here's What I'm Here For" and "Shampoo Commercial"), as well as parts of dramatic scenes.

They were not simply cut. They were destroyed, lost in both their positive and negative forms--or so everyone, Cukor included, believed for three decades. Then film historian Ron Haver of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art got the backing of the Motion Picture Academy for a marathon search through the Warner Bros. archives. And in a long-neglected New York warehouse he fund 20 minutes of the lost footage, including all three musical numbers.

The restored version of "A Star is Born," using production stills to represent the 10 minutes still missing, will premiere on July 7 at Radio City Music Hall, and then play Chicago, Los Angeles, Dallas and San Francisco.

For at least 10 years, and in one caes for 35 years, five films by Alfred Hitchcock have been held completely out of sight. This autumn, they will return. They were the five that Hitchcock personally controlled the rights to, including all four movies he made with James Stewart.

They included "Rear Window" (1954), with Stewart and Grace Kelly, which ranked with "Psycho" and "North by Northwest" as one of the master's most famous films; "Vertigo" (1958), with Stewart and Kim Novak, considered by many critics to be his best film; "The Man Who Knew Too Much" (1956), with Stewart and Doris Day, "Rope" (1948), with Stewart and Farley Granger; and "The Trouble with Harry" (1955) with John Forsyth and Shirley MacLaine.

"Rope," based on the Leopold-Loeb murder case was an experiment Hitchcock believed had failed; he tried to create the illusion that the entire movie had ben filmed in one uninterrupted shot. "The Trouble with Harry" was a macabre comedy about as dead body that kept popping up; Hitchcock liked it, but the public hated it. The other three movies were box-office hits.

Hitchcock kept them out of release to increase the demand for them, enhancing their value to his estate. Now the estate has sold them to Universal Classics, which is striking new prints from the master negatives.

"Oklahoma!" will be be the first of these rediscovered classics to play around the country, and the Goldwyn Co. hopes it will tap a natural vein of affection for its big, simple, cheerful and hopelessly energetic production. The movie version was personally supervised by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein, who had held if off the screen for 12 years. They insisted on a film version that woudl remain faithful to the stage production--and indeed, the characters, dialogue and songs remain essentially unchanged from the theater version.

But director Zinnemann, fresh from his success with "From Here to Eternity" (1953), added his own cinematic touches, including filming extended sections outdoors. Although sound stages and sets are used for some of the scenes, many of the big ones (including "Oh, What a Beautiful Morning!" and "Kansas City") were shot and recorded in vast open spaces, with cloud and land and cattle herds in the background. The movie picks up an exuberance from its locations (mostly in Texas, not Oklahoma), and it picks up additional freshness from its then-little-known stars, Godon MacRae, Shirley Jones and Rod Steiger. It also got a show-stopping performance from Gloria Graham, whose version of "I'm Just a Girl Who Can't Say No" won applause from the Dallas audience.

How will these revivals perform at the box office? It's hard to say. All of them are being pitched to film buffs, of course. In addition, "Oklahoma!" is being pitched directly to middle Americans as a reminder of the kind of musical they don't make anymore, and probably will never make again. "A Star is Born" has something really special to offer (not just a new print, but three never-before-seen Garldn production numbers). And Hitchcock's "Rear Window" is such a good, thrilling movie that it could plausibly become a box-office hit all over again for a new generation.

All of these revivals are looking for audiences much larger than those found on the traditional "revival circuit." And why not? If a Frenchman named Abel Gance can make box-office history 54 years after his movie's premiere, why can't Judy and Hitch and Rodgers and Hammerstein sell some tickets, too?

"Okalhoma!" played in Todd-AO at Ebertfest in 2000.

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

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