Rodgers and Hammerstein Movies

Over the course of their careers, Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein wrote hundreds of songs. They created Oklahoma!, Carousel, The King and I, South Pacific, and The Sound of Music — and in the process, they revolutionized musicals as we knew them.

In the new book Something Wonderful, Todd S. Purdum examines the pair’s prolific work on the stage, following them from their separate early careers through their partnership and death. But he also looks behind the scenes at the movie adaptations of their work, which employed daring new technology and shattered box office records. They also, arguably, contributed to the demise of the film musical in the 1960s. And it all began with a less than auspicious introduction to Hollywood.

First Films

By Purdum’s account, Rodgers and Hammerstein’s first forays into the movie business left them hating Hollywood. Hammerstein briefly moved to California in 1929, signing a contract with Warner Brothers to write four musicals over two years. But his first film, Viennese Nights, was a dud. Although Hammerstein completed his second musical, Children of Dreams, Jack Warner quickly bought out his contract before the writer made the final two films. Hammerstein went home to New York.

Rodgers had a similarly bad time. Like Hammerstein, he headed west to chase the success of The Jazz Singer, which had led to a huge demand for movie musicals. Rodgers arrived in 1930 and also signed a contract with Warner Brothers. But he hated his first movie, The Hot Heiress, and apparently the moviegoing public did, too. After it bombed at the box office, Jack Warner bought out the rest of Rodgers’ contract, but the composer didn’t head home just yet. He ended up working on a much more successful Paramount musical, Love Me Tonight, with director Robert Mamoulian, who would become a frequent fixture in Rodgers and Hammerstein productions. But the movie work that followed was hardly as satisfying, and by 1935, Rodgers was also back in New York.

After working with different partners, the pair officially joined forces in 1943 with their stage hit Oklahoma! It was considered a Broadway revolution at the time, since it was the rare musical that fully integrated the songs and dance into the story, making the numbers pieces of plot development rather than disconnected spectacle. Oklahoma! was an instant hit, and its success led to an avalanche of offers. Despite their aversion to California, Rodgers and Hammerstein took a job offer on State Fair, the musical remake of a 1933 Fox family comedy. They’d contribute original music under one stipulation: they had to write it in New York. The studio agreed. Rodgers and Hammerstein picked up an Oscar for Best Original Song in the process, but they quickly resumed work on new shows and closed the book yet again on Hollywood. They wouldn’t work on another movie for nearly a decade.

Box Office Bonanza

The duo could only avoid Hollywood for so long, and by the mid-1950s, Rodgers and Hammerstein decided to give movies another go. They started with their career-defining smash hit, Oklahoma!, which was the first movie to use a new wide-screen process called Todd-AO. Producer Michael Todd developed the format to improve upon Cinerama; Todd-AO films were shot in 65mm and projected on a wide, curved screen to give the footage a panoramic feel. It was perfect for the sprawling landscapes of Oklahoma!, and Rodgers and Hammerstein would use the process for South Pacific and The Sound of Music as well.

Other experiments were less successful. For South Pacific, director Joshua Logan decided to use tinted filters to echo the song lyrics about “bright canary yellow” skies and give certain shots a blurry border. Initially, he shot everything with and without the filters, but this process soon proved too arduous. He opted to shoot just with the filters, reasoning he could remove any colors he didn’t like in post-production. But those filters tinted the negatives, making any later corrections exceedingly difficult. Critics savaged the choice, dinging Logan for “smear[ing] ‘mood’ all over the big scenes.”

But despite some missteps, Rodgers and Hammerstein movies proved to be instantly, massively popular. According to Purdum, Oklahoma! brought in $9.5 million, ranking as the fourth-highest grossing film of 1955. The King and I and South Pacific amassed even larger profits, before The Sound of Music shattered records everywhere. The movie made $158 million worldwide, or about $1.2 billion when adjusted for inflation. It still ranks as the third highest grossing movie of all time on the adjusted box office charts, right after Gone With the Wind and Star Wars. And people weren’t just seeing the movie — they were memorizing the music. The Sound of Music soundtrack would stay at the top of the Billboard charts for a whopping 14 weeks, longer than albums from Elvis Presley or The Beatles.

These films, like the original musicals, were bursting with postwar optimism and sentimentality. Although they frequently delved into dark subject matter, they promoted a sunny worldview which was essential to the duo’s work. Theses stories were also steeped in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s own social values, values that included tolerance and inclusion. These were themes that permeated much of their work, not just South Pacific with its, at the time, controversial screed against racial prejudice, “You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught.” It’s also evident in their lesser known movie adaptation, Flower Drum Song, would prove to be a rarity for 1961 with its almost entirely Asian-American cast.

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