R&HcoverGrade: B/B-
Entire family: Yes (well, two-thirds, at least)
1945-1965, 838 min. (6 films), Color
20th Century Fox
Rated G
Aspect ratios: 1.37:1, 2.55:1, 2.20:1
Featured audio: DTS-HD MA 7.1, DTS-HD MA 5.1, DTS-HD MA 4.0, DTS-HD MA Mono
Bonus features: B-

Rodgers & Hammerstein are Broadway legends, having won a total of 34 Tony Awards for their work. They’ve done all right with film adaptations, too, earning 15 Academy Awards. So if you’re a fan of old musicals and want to share that with your children, it might be tempting to pick up this collection. But don’t do it because you think it will be a good resource should your children get a part in a future high school musical. According to The Broadway Scoop, not one Rodgers & Hammerstein musical ranks among the Top 10 Musicals currently being performed by high schools.

Does that mean they’re dated, or as corny as Kansas in August? Some of them, yes. For that reason, it might be better to wait (right now four out of six are only available through this collection) to buy these titles individually, rather than as an eight-disc, six-film collection, because while two of the films are surefire winners and two are entertaining-enough slices of rural Americana to where they will be of marginal interest to younger viewers, the remaining two musicals feature topics that won’t engage children much.

The King and I and The Sound of Music, with 10 Oscars between them, are the most likely to have wide family appeal. They’re colorful spectacles, and both of them have a large cast of children that will interest young ones.

Set in the 1860s, The King and I features Yul Brynner as the King of Siam, who, in his desire to become a more “scientific” ruler, has decided to educate himself and to hire a teacher to instruct his many children. Deborah Kerr is the English widow who arrives with her son and falls in love with the children (as we do). Audiences also love the give-and-take sparring between her and the KingandIscreenking, while everyone around him is so fearful of his authority. She helps him put on a state dinner for visiting western dignitaries to prove he’s no barbarian, and he charms her with his own grace and gratitude. The costumes are lavish, the songs are wonderfully catchy—like “Getting to Know You,” “Shall We Dance,” and “I Whistle a Happy Tune”—and they have core messages that will resonate, even with children. The ending is sad and it might take some discussion to frame it for your youngest, but The King and I still has wide appeal. Unfortunately, the film isn’t out on Blu-ray except in this collection.

The Sound of Music is already available as a stand-alone Blu-ray title, and in fact if your family likes bonus features the stand-alone is the better buy. That’s because the second disc of bonus features on the stand-alone is not included in this set—an unfortunate omission. But the film is a triumph. It overwhelmed audiences from the start with its story of the von Trapp family singers, who fled Austria for Switzerland during the Nazi occupation.

SoundofMusicscreenExteriors were shot on location, so there’s a beautiful authenticity to complement a storyline that’s classic: a woman studying to be a nun (Julie Andrews) doesn’t seem particularly suited to the convent and is sent to serve as governess to the children of a widowed Austrian captain (Christopher Plummer). There, she reintroduces song into the household, becomes beloved to the children, and falls in love with her employer. How do you solve a problem like Maria? Especially when she becomes part of a romantic triangle in this blended family tale set against the backdrop of war? The songs are some of the best that Rodgers & Hammerstein ever produced, including “Maria,” “Sixteen Going on Seventeen,” “My Favorite Things,” “Do-Re-Mi,” “The Lonely Goatherd,” “Climb Every Mountain,” and a song written especially for the film that’s so convincing as a national anthem that it almost brings tears to your eyes when Capt. von Trapp leads the crowd at the Salzburg music festival in a chorus, right in front of Nazi officials. It’s as stirring a moment as those dueling national anthems in Casablanca.  

Then there’s Oklahoma!, two versions of it. The one to watch is the Todd-AO version, which absolutely sparkles. Oklahoma! won an Oscar for Best Score with songs like the rousing title tune, “Oh, What a Beautiful Morning,” “The Surrey with the Fringe on Top,” “Kansas City,” and “People Will Say We’re in Love.” Gordon MacRae and Shirley Jones are both believable and compatible as a young cowboy and the girl that captures his fancy.

Set during the time when Oklahoma was poised to become a state, Oklahoma! features big dance numbers, comic relief from Ado Annie (Gloria Grahame as the girl who “cain’t say no”), and Rod Steiger as the brooding, Phantom of the Opera-style ranch hand who wants Laurey (Jones) for himself. Oklahoma! translated well to the big-screen, and when you compare it with the less successful South Pacific you can see that it’s partly because of the performances. MacRae and Jones don’t just hit their marks, they fill the frames. Oklahoma! has a rousing score, engaging characters, a strong storyline, and beautiful scenery (it was shot in Texas and won another Oscar for Best Cinematography). But perhaps most importantly for a romantic musical, the leads have compatible voices and great chemistry.

Also of possible interest to the whole family is State Fair, a 1945 musical that delivers a picture-perfect glimpse into midwestern farm life and that annual institution that’s as big, for rural folks, as the Academy Awards: the state fair. Now, as then, there are still harness races, livestock competitions, home economics competitions, carnival midways, and band pavilions. Some will watch State Fair and think it corny; others will just recognize it as a snapshot of Rockwellian America at it’s wholesome, toothy-smiling best.

Jeanne Crain and Dick Haymes really sell it as young-adult brother and sister who go to the fair with their parents, and each have romantic entanglements—she, with a slick reporter (Dana Andrews) who’s used to big city women, and he with a well-known band singer (Vivian Blaine) who comes to his rescue in a dispute with a carney. The film manages to convey a real sense of rural America while also staying on track for a dual romantic plot that’s offset by mom and dad’s exploits in the pickle judging and swine competition. The worst cuss word you’ll hear uttered is a strange one (“Christmas!”), everything is so gosh-darned wholesome. But I’m here to tell you that it’s also gosh-darned accurate—especially for a WWII-era film. The most memorable songs are “Our State Fair (is a GREAT State Fair),” “It Might As Well Be Spring,” and “It’s a Grand Night for Singing.”

Of less interest is South Pacifc, which stars Mitzi Gaynor as a wide-eyed American nurse serving on a Pacific island during WWII, and older opera star Rossano Brazzi, who plays a French planter who lives on the island. I never really buy their romance, and that’s a problem. When Brazi bursts into an operatic bellow just three inches from Gaynor’s ear, it’s almost comical. There are some good songs, but the whole idea about servicemen and a September/May romance and coast watchers probably won’t appeal to the whole family as much as the previous four films, even with a few good songs like “Bali ha’i,” “A Cockeyed Optimist,” “Some Enchanted Evening,” or “There Is Nothing Like a Dame.”

Same with Carousel, which is a strange, dark musical that, if it were an opera, might well have been been penned by Richard Wagner. Inspired by “Liliom,” a play set in Budapest, it was relocated to the New England coast by R&H and fitted with another full complement of songs, including the haunting “Carousel Waltz,” “If I Loved You,” “June is Bustin’ Out All Over,” “When the Children Are Asleep,” and “You’ll Never Walk Alone.” It was MacRae and Jones again, with MacRae playing rougish Billy Bigelow, a carousel barker and womanizer who, against his better judgment and instincts, marries the woman he falls for. But he also falls in with a petty crook who asks him to get a knife and help him hold up the girl’s rich employer.

I’m not giving a thing away by saying that Billy dies, because we know that from the very beginning. He’s shown in a stagey “heaven” polishing stars that look like gigantic Christmas ornaments and is given the chance to go back to earth to help a teenaged daughter he didn’t know he had. Their story is told in flashback, with location scenery providing some measure of interest. It may have been Rodgers’ favorite, but it’s not much of a family musical.

Still, four out of six films isn’t half bad, if you can pick this up for a good price.

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