Monday, March 8, 2021

Rodgers & Hammerstein Films: Ranked Best to Worst

Deborah Kerr and Yul Brynner.
1. The King and I (1956) - Yul Brynner's Oscar-winning per-formance as King Mongkut of Siam anchors this clash of cultures (a popular R&H theme) and unlikely, ever-so-subtle love story. Deborah Kerr provides strong support as Anna Leonowens, a British widow who accepts the position of teacher to some of the king's many children. The king's efforts to propel his country into the 19th century make him a fascinating figure and Brynner portrays his inner struggles beautifully. The many songs includes some of R&H's most melodic compositions: Hello Young Lovers, We Kiss in the Shadows, Something Wonderful, and Shall We Dance. My only complaints: The Small House of Uncle Thomas ballet is too long and Anna's son disappears for most of the film. The King and I won Oscars for Best Actor, Art Direction, Costume Design, Sound Recording, and Music Score.

Julie Andrews as Maria.
2. The Sound of Music (1965) - R&H's biggest box office hit played theatrically for over a year in my hometown. Julie Andrews, who snagged a Best Actress Oscar for Mary Poppins the previous year, earned another Oscar nomination. She plays Maria, a novice nun in a abbey near Saltzburg in the late 1930s, who is sent to serve as temporary governess to widower Captain von Trapp's seven children. In the hands of veteran musical director Robert Wise (West Side Story), The Sound of Music bursts with lively production numbers, often filmed against visually stunning on-location backgrounds. Julie Andrews is effervescent in the lead and well matched with Christopher Plummer's stern von Trapp. The score includes many of R&H's most famous songs: the title tune, My Favorite Things, Do-Re-MiEdelweiss, and Climb Ev'ry Mountain. The Sound of Music won Oscars for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Music Score, Best Sound, and Best Editing.

Gordon MacRae and Shirley Jones.
3. Oklahoma! (1955) - R&H's first stage musical was hailed as innovative when it debuted in 1943. However, by the time it was adapted for film, Hollywood had already copied its formula. There's still much to enjoy with its elaborate musical numbers and director Fred Zinneman's dazzling use of outdoor locations (with Arizona substituting for Oklahoma). However, the narrative compares unfavorably to The King and I and The Sound of Music. The plot essentially revolves around farm girl Laurey's unwillingness to acknowledge her love for confident cowboy Curly. Its popular score includes: Oh What a Beautiful Mornin', The Surrey With the Fringe On Top, People Will Say We're In Love, and the title song. As with the later King and I, there's a lengthy ballet (presented as a dream sequence) that probably worked better on stage. It was surprisingly ignored at the Oscars, only earning wins for Best Sound and Best Music Score.

4. Flower Drum Song (1961) - R&H return to their favorite theme of contrasting cultures, only this time it's a clash between the old and the young among the Chinese-Americans living in San Francisco. The older residents wants to retain many of their culture's traditions while the younger folks want to embrace their new freedoms. The first Hollywood film with an all-Asian cast, Flower Drum Song is an ensemble piece filmed almost entirely on studio sets. While it boasts its share of clever songs (I Enjoy Being a Girl) and pretty ballads (You Are Beautiful), there were no breakout hits. Flower Drum Song was also a box office disappointment and didn't win any Oscars. It's a more intimate film than its predecessors and the cast imbues it with charm and warmth.

Mitzi Gaynor as Nellie.
5. South Pacific (1958) - Racial prejudice is the dominant theme in this musical drama set on a South Pacific island during World War II. The plot follows two romances: the first is between a U.S. Navy nurse (Mitzi Gaynor) and a French plantation owner; the second is between a Navy lieutenant and a young Polynesian woman. The problem is that the first romance is joined in progress and the second one is never fully developed. Star Mitzi Gaynor shines throughout, delivering her uptempo songs with energy and her passionate ones with subtlety. However, Joshua Logan's decision to shoot the musical numbers through color filters is a major distraction. (To his defense, his intent was to use softer colors, but the processing was muffed.) Musical highlights include: I'm in Love with a Wonderful Guy, Younger Than Springtime, and Some Enchanted Evening. Happy Talk, though, may be the worst R&H song in any of their movies.

Dana Andrews and Jeanne Crain.
6. State Fair (1945) and (1962) - This musical is the only one that R&H wrote expressly for the silver screen. The basic plot is the same in both versions: The Frakes, a farming family, spend several days at the state fair. Father Frake aims to win a blue ribbon with his prize hog Blue Boy. Mother wants to win the mincemeat competition. Their kids Margy and Wayne fall in love with, respectively, a journalist and a carnival show singer. I've lumped the original and the remake together because the quality is about the same. Margy's romance works better in the 1945 film with Jeanne Crain while Wayne's relationship is better developed in the 1962 remake with Pat Boone. State Fair is a lighthearted affair compared to the other, more ambitious R&H musicals. However, since it featured songs written expressly for the film, it earned its composers an Oscar for the bittersweet It Might as Well Be Spring.

7. Carousel (1956) - It was a bold risk to build a musical around an unlikable character: a handsome, self-centered carnival barker named Billy Bigelow who marries an naïve young woman. It was also intriguing to have Billy tell his story in flashback, while taking a break from polishing stars in what appears to be Heaven. Unfortunately, it's extremely hard to root for Billy, who constantly makes poor decisions and only redeems himself (somewhat) in the final three minutes of the movie. Oklahoma! star Gordon MacRae and Shirley Jones sing beautifully and, for musical die-hards, the June Is Bustin' Out All Over number is pretty elaborate. The big hits were If I Loved You and the inspirational I'll Never Walk Alone.


  1. I'm glad to hear there is a defense for Josh Logan's filters. Perhaps now I will stop shaking my fist every time I see his name.

    I am currently on one of my Richard Rodgers kicks. Oklahoma! usually ends up on top (I played Gertie once), but right now Flower Drum Song is my obsession.

    I've tried a couple of times but have never been able to get into the 1962 State Fair. The other versions (music or none) hold my interest easily.

  2. Supposedly Doris Day lost South Pacific cuz she wouldn't sing at someone's party.

    Shirley Jones' husband said she has the prerecords Sinatra did for Oklahoma.

  3. "Shirley Jones' husband said she has the prerecords Sinatra did for Oklahoma."

    You mean the ones Sinatra did for CAROUSEL, right?

  4. I like finding out about creative decisions on film shoots, as in the use of color filters on "South Pacific," which is news to me. Thanks for the info.

  5. The first time I saw South Pacific and the color filters appeared, I thought I had a defective disc. Over time, I've come to really enjoy the movie but still wish it was shot "normally". I'll have to rewatch Oklahoma, that one never ranked high for me...but State Fair is a favorite. Great music, great cast and very well executed.