This is the first Todd-AO production and the only such production to be shot twice, first at 24 fps (to produce the general-release version in 35 mm) and finally at 30 fps (to produce the roadshow version in 70 mm). By the time Around the World in Eighty Days was made, a way had been found to convert Todd-AO to 35mm without having to film twice. The 35 mm version of "Oklahoma!" is presented in CinemaScope; the 70 mm version is presented in Todd-AO.
Shot on location in and around Sonoita, Arizona, because the real Oklahoma in 1955 was so heavily farmed and developed that few suitable areas could be found that resembled the highly-rural and undeveloped Oklahoma of the turn of the century when the musical is set.
The general release version, shot in CinemaScope, is the one that played most theatres throughout the USA. This version was not released until late 1956, after the first-run Todd-AO version had played New York for more than a year and after the film versions of two other Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II stage musicals, Carousel and The King and I, had already been released throughout the United States.
The song "Kansas City" was edited for censors. Will sang it, "I could swear that she was padded from her shoulders to her heel. And then she started dancing and her dancing made me feel that every single thing she had was absolutely real." In the original play script it went, "I could swear that she was padded from her shoulders to her heels. And later in the second act when she began to peel. She proved that everything she had was absolutely real."
Although James Mitchell and Bambi Linn danced the parts of Curly and Laury in the Dream Ballet, Rod Steiger did his own dancing in that sequence because there was no one who looked enough like him from the back. Despite his initial uncertainties, and after considerable coaching from choreographer Agnes de Mille, Steiger actually did a credible job, later calling it one of the biggest challenges he ever had.
The world premiere was preceded by a parade of fringed surreys, led by Oklahoma's Governor Raymond Gary, which made its way from the St. James Theater, where the stage version of "Oklahoma" had opened 12 years earlier, to the Rivoli Theater for the film premiere. There, standing atop a carpet of transplanted Oklahoma soil, Gov. Gary helped raise the Oklahoma state flag from the theater staff and officially proclaimed the Rivoli to be Oklahoma territory.
The musical that this film is based on was originally entitled "Away We Go!" The title was changed to "Oklahoma!" after the popularity of that song with the play's initial audiences. It was the first Broadway musical in which every single song had a direct relation to the plot, and in which there were none that were simply musical interludes. (Even "Show Boat", which actually is the first Broadway musical in which most of the songs have a direct relation to the plot, originally had one or two numbers which were simply thrown in so that something could be going on while the scenery was being changed, or even to suit certain cast members who perforned "specialties" in the original 1927 production. These specialties were deleted from later productions of "Show Boat".)
The film's soundtrack album became one of the most successful movie albums ever released, more successful than the 1943 original Broadway cast album of "Oklahoma!", although the Broadway production was the biggest stage hit of its time, and for many years after. The film soundtrack album continues to be a popular seller even to this day.
Finding "corn as high as an elephant's eye" proved to be quite a challenge. Since filming was to take place out of season, no tall cornfields were to be found anywhere. The job was given to the people of the University of Arizona Agricultural Department, who planted each stalk in individual containers and held their breath. With rain and good luck, the corn grew to a height of 16 feet, causing Oscar Hammerstein to quip: "The corn is now as high as the eye of an elephant on top of another elephant."
In the Todd-AO version of the movie, there is more picture visible in the periphery than in the CinemaScope version. While the peripheral picture on each side of the main action is very detailed, it is visibly distorted at times when there is physical action such as movement on the periphery in long-shots.
In Sheila MacRae's autobiographical book "Hollywood Mother of the Year" in her chapter titled, "Curly, Billy, and Me", she revealed that Gordon MacRae had very few waves in his hair. This posed a problem since he would be playing a man who got his nickname from his curly locks. Movie hairdressers tried to fix it but Oscar Hammerstein was unhappy with the results and suggested that Gordon get a permanent. Gordon refused but instead agreed to allow his wife Sheila to finger-curl his hair each morning so his character's name, Curly, was believable.
The two teens infatuated with Will Parker were an invention of director Fred Zinnemann and choreographer Agnes de Mille. Lizanne Truex (blonde) and Jane Fischer (brunette) were originally slated to appear only in the "Kansas City" routine. Zinneman and de Mille liked the girls' work so much that they decided to add them - and their characters "The Goon Girls" - to the entire film. Zinnemann wanted the part of "Ado Annie" to be played comically, but Gloria Grahame kept putting a sexy twist to the part, so he told the "Goon Girls" that he would use them more extensively as comic relief to compensate for Ms. Grahame's interpretation. They appeared in every dance scene and had more screen time than some of the co-stars. Since the girls were going to have so much exposure, there was some discussion as to what to call them. Zinnemann said that because they were always "gooning" (fooling) around, they should be called "Goon Girls", and the epithet was born. Truex also had three one-liners, somewhat unusual for ensemble dancers. While waiting for the film to be released, she joined the European tour of the stage version of "Oklahoma!" which starred Shirley Jones and her then-husband, Jack Cassidy. In this tour, Ms. Truex played the role of "The Girl Who Falls Down," performed in the film by Virginia Bosler.
The ending scene in the "Kansas City" routine proved to be rewarding for the "Goon Girls" (Lizanne Truex and Jane Fischer). Jumping off a moving train into the arms of the waiting cowboys entailed perfect timing. Just before the first take, a union representative called for an "adjustment", which turned out to be an additional $250 for each jump because of the hazard. Seven takes later, director Fred Zinnemann was satisfied, leading Lizanne Truex to remark that they must remember to call "Adjustment!" more often as she had a 1951 Ford to pay off.
The poignant scene in "Many a New Day", where the blonde "Goon Girl" Lizanne Truex rests her head on the shoulder of Shirley Jones, came on the 43rd take. Director Fred Zinnemann was unhappy with the way the girls gathered around Ms. Jones, and he came up with this idea.
When asked about her distinctive haircut in the film, Lizanne Truex said that because of the innocent tomboyish behavior of her "Goon Girl" character, the studio hair stylist changed her "Pixie Cut" to a "Bowl Cut" - "Like the little kids of the period were given." During the filming, she was primping before a mirror backstage, bemoaning the results, with Jane Fischer looking on. Director Fred Zinnemann included that charming vignette in the "Many a New Day" dance routine at the suggestion of Agnes de Mille, who happened to see the incident and liked what she saw.
In her autobiography 'Playing the Field', Mamie Van Doren recalls her campaign to play Ado Annie. Van Doren claims one of the reasons she lost the part was that her acting coach, who happened to be Gloria Grahame's mother, mentioned Van Doren's interest in the part to her daughter; Grahame suddenly became interested in playing the part herself, launching a campaign of her own to win the part--which she did.