One of several highlights for me at this year’s TCM Classic Film Festival was standing on the red carpet interviewing celebrities invited to the restoration of Oklahoma! Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to get into the movie itself, but 20th Century Fox had my back and sent me the Rodgers and Hammestein Collection on Blu-ray containing Oklahoma! and five other R&H classics all remastered on Blu-ray. So, this week we’re getting musical with Rodgers & Hammerstein starting with Oklahoma!
I’m a lover of musicals, yet several R&H adaptations eluded me. I can’t pinpoint why I never watched Oklahoma! before now, but I was really missing out. You’ll hop, skip, and jump through the cornfields alongside the ebullient cast of characters. It is a beautiful morning when you’re watching Oklahoma!
A group of people living in the Oklahoma territory experience love leading up to a big dance. The main couple is the materialistic Laurey (Shirley Jones) who resists her love for cowboy Curly (Gordon MacRae).
Oklahoma! is the defacto musical for theater geeks (I say that lovingly) everywhere; the one commonly considered a “must-watch. Maybe the hype is the reason I stayed away so long. Either way, I’m a fool because Oklahoma! lives up to its praise and then some. There’s a grandiosity to this movie, unparalleled in other musicals. The box set comes with two versions of the film-one shot in Todd-AO and another (released a year later) shot in CinemaScope. There are discernible differences in line readings and pacing because they actually reshot the movie to serve two formats. For my first-time I went with chronology and viewed the Todd-AO cut. Either my TV’s HD got infinitely better, or Fox’s Blu-ray transfer with the Todd-AO technology turned this into a near-3D picture! The Todd-AO process benefits the movie in keeping the land and sky always in view, even when closing up on the actor’s faces. The blue of the sky, the green of the grass, everything comes off majestic and real. The movie isn’t filmed in the Oklahoma of its name, but the on-location shooting in Arizona is lovely from the first moment the camera moves up from the cornfield.
Scarlett O’Hara reminded us in Gone With the Wind “the land is the only thing that stays,” but Oklahoma! reminds us the land is far more exquisite than love or Shirley Jones! And that’s saying something because Jones is breathtakingly beautiful in her film debut. More on her in a minute. Oklahoma! is a movie where you appreciate the camera and how unobtrusive it is. Director Fred Zinnemann in his musical debut, shies from moving the camera too much or over-editing in order to retain the material’s Broadway feel. There are several expansive views of the rich Arizona (standing in for Oklahoma) landscape where the characters are swallowed up within the majesty of it all. Even when the camera zooms out, the land is framed against the characters in such a way they’re balanced with it. Famed cinematographer, Robert Surtees’ camerawork is so distinctive. I barely notice camera movements in such detail, but the camera is highly expressive in Oklahoma! One scene, a thrilling moment involving a runaway horse and carriage, is filmed in POV, putting the audience right under the carriage where any moment could be its last. The camera, almost continuously pointed at the horizon, acts as a seamless transition between God and his creations. The blue sky looks endless. The movie may be set in one single state, but the way nature takes over leaves you bound up within the unity of it.
With such attention paid to the filmic techniques, it’s easy to forget there’s a story here. Everyone knows at least one song from the Oklahoma! soundtrack, whether it’s the lilting opening strains of “Oh, What a Beautiful Morning” or the title song; each musical sequence is given equal consideration. However, those two songs are so epic it’s easy to see why the other songs aren’t as well-placed within the popular landscape. I couldn’t escape the fact all the songs sounded similar. Sure, I remembered which characters sang what, but I couldn’t tell you the difference between “The Surrey With the Fringe on Top” vs. “Kansas City” when they played the instrumental versions. The aforementioned “Kansas City” is infectious, especially in its bits of blue humor involving cowboy Will (Gene Nelson) and the ladies in his life. This is a song where everyone is compelled to join in despite their initial resistance to hearing about all the advancements in Kansas City. (A running gag is a townsperson’s retort of “I don’t like it.”)
The surprising song and character combination is “I Cain’t Say No” performed by former femme fatale Gloria Grahame and her character Ado Annie. Grahame was immortalized as the sinful betrayer in several films noir and as Ado Annie she’s removed from her dark past and plopped into a musical. (It actually isn’t too surprising. She was in It’s a Wonderful Life.) Ado Annie is authentic in the ways of love, yet remains chaste. Grahame may have had a sexy past, but there’s nothing but kissing for this Oklahoma girl. Laurey is almost prudish compared to Annie, telling her “You can’t go around kissing everyone.” Grahame was tone-deaf so her big musical number, “I Cain’t Say No” certainly sounds as if it was cobbled from individual recordings. Ado Annie is, at first glance, a totally unique character for Grahame, but contains some of the key elements which made her famous. Several of Grahame’s scenes are hilarious, particularly her unrequited romance with conman Ali Hakim (Eddie Albert). Albert in brownface is ironically appropriate, from the minute you notice his fake makeup you can’t buy anything he says. And yet Albert’s lines are some of the best in the film: Will: “I’m gonna marry her [Ado Annie]. Ali Hakim: “On purpose?” The love triangle is hilariously untangled with Hakim becoming ensnared by an Oklahoma woman no matter what he does. Similarly, Ado Annie and Will come to an understanding as ridiculous as it is funny. Will: “You gotta stop having fun….I mean with other fellas!”
Other characters who also impressed in small but memorable roles include Aunt Eller (Charlotte Greenwood) and Mr. Carnes (James Whitmore). Both of these elders are left to stand around while the young ‘uns make fools of themselves. Aunt Eller gets in on poking fun at Laurey’s competition for Curly’s heart, the cackling Gertie (Barbara Lawrence). “Heard she’s 18. Bet she’s 19!” Mr. Carnes, Ado Annie’s father, also gets some sassy zingers in there, coming down the barrel of a loaded shotgun pointed at Ali Hakim. Mr. Carnes is desperate to offload his daughter to anyone, and yet he continuously self-sabotages by upping the “price” so Will can’t have her.
The whole idea of buying and selling women presented problems for me, but they’re mitigated by the “it was 1907” argument. The third act climax involves the buying of hampers (lunchboxes) with the intent of taking out the girl who made the meal. This eventually turns into an auction between Curly and Jud (Rod Steiger) over Laurey. It wouldn’t bother me so much, but right before Laurey’s basket is bid on we watch others forced into bidding on Ado Annie’s basket. The woman’s beauty/morality/femininity are in direct proportion to her monetary worth. Again, you can easily ignore it, and it would have stuck out more if I wasn’t already engaged in the two hours before, but it is irksome.
Let’s talk about the core romance because there isn’t enough to talk about (note sarcasm). I’ve already waxed rhapsodic about the immense beauty of Shirley Jones, but she is the hope for the future of Oklahoma within the narrative. She starts out as a highly materialistic young lady, only interested in the carriage Curly can take her out in, but you’re as seduced as Curly by her youthful innocence. You want to impress her, too!
The legendary “Dream Ballet” places Laurey in the middle of her own movie (one of two moments I noticed where the movie turned self-aware; the Dream Ballet is the lynchpin). It’s a moment where the use of sets enhances the surreal quality of Laurey’s life-altering choice between Jud and Curly. The sweeping musical variations, the opening leap into Curly’s arms are enchanting and the ultimate marriage of cinema and music. A moment where the white-gowned Dream Laurey (Bambi Linn) is in a brothel with a group of painted ladies is macabre and a prophecy of where Laurey could be if she marries Jud. It is hard to believe Laurey would consider Curly vs. Jud a difficult choice, other than her selfishness. Jud is taking her to the dance; it’s not meant to be a marriage proposal, right? Unless I misinterpreted it, I never truly saw this as a decision affecting her the rest of her life.
Gordon MacRae is decent as Curly, a man who’d do anything for Laurey. However, he’s the stable guy leaving Jud to hold more complexity. Curley is a bit gruesome in his lone attempt to dissuade Jud from Laurey culminating in the song “Pore Jud is Daid.” Yes, a song advocating a character commit suicide at the behest of our hero! The song is pure black comedy, and a shocker for those expecting a homespun Southern chuckler.
For all the support for Laurey and Curly, I was driven more towards Jud. The last time I reviewed a Rod Steiger performance he was the racist cop paired up with Sidney Poitier in In the Heat of the Night. As the surly Jud, there’s a brief moment of sympathy for him as he recounts Laurey’s kind-hearted caring of him during an illness. You believe he’s misunderstood and looked down upon for being a farmhand. The sympathy lasts all of a minute before he becomes a straight stalker, obsessed with winning Laurey as proof of his elevated social standing. Steiger takes a character who, under the wrong circumstances, would be an outright villain, and creates a multi-layered character with motivations for both of his differing personalities. The ending really wastes the potential for an epic showdown between Curly and Jud. Jud disappears until the final ten minutes of the film where he lights a haybale on fire and then is squashed by Curly (okay, he falls on his knife but it looks like he’s squashed). A thirty-second final confrontation in the final ten minutes of the movie sounds like poor planning to me.
Almost 2000 words on a musical I’d never seen before is a blog record (I can’t verify that at the moment, but I’m sticking with it). Oklahoma! is a magical, majestically striking musical with intriguing characters and beautifully filmed and choreographed. It tops out as one of the best musicals I’ve watched!
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A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.