Friday, January 10, 2014

Movie – Oklahoma! (1955)

Okay, all together now: “Ooooooooooooooooh-klahoma, where the wind comes sweeping down the plain!”  There, now that that’s out of our systems let’s talk about this film.

Oklahoma! is among the biggest and most popular of musicals.  When it opened on Broadway in 1943 it ended up setting what was then a record with more than 2,200 performances.  Both the Broadway cast album and this film’s soundtrack album were immensely popular, spending years on the Best Seller charts.  There are a number of songs that even today many people will recognize.  But this isn’t your standard nice, innocent, happy musical.  If you stop to actually listen to the lyrics you find that they go to some dark places.  And some of the more suggestive lyrics from the stage musical had to be censored to make it past the Production Code requirements for films.

I’m frankly surprised they got away with as much as they did with the character of Ado Annie.  She’s beautiful, sexy, and man crazy.  As she herself sings, “I’m just a girl who cain’t say no” and there’s no doubt as to exactly what it would be that she can’t say no to.  That’s getting pretty risqué for movies in the mid 1950s.  There wasn’t much question on who would be a good fit for this part given her onscreen persona.  Gloria Grahame stepped into the role despite being completely tone deaf and not able to sing in the slightest.  In an era where dubbing was done almost as a matter of course, for some reason they did not do that with Grahame.  Legend has it that her song recordings were crafted by literally connecting them syllable by syllable from among the best ones she was able to produce.  Even though this turned out to be another good role for Grahame, complications in her personal life made this her last performance of real note.

Almost no one from the stage musical ended up in the movie.  The film started over by casting all new talent.  Gordon MacRae, a man with very straight hair in real life, stars as Curly.  His lack of curls proved to be as big a problem as Grahame’s lack of singing ability.  He refused to get a permanent, but partially relented and let his wife hand curl his hair in her fingers each morning.  Curly’s love interest in the film is Laurey, played by Shirley Jones in her film debut.  I had only ever seen Jones as the mother on The Partridge Family and then as an older woman in later things.  I’m here to say that she is absolutely gorgeous in this film, with a real fresh-faced appeal.

Casting a dark shadow over these two is Jud Fry, played by Rod Steiger.  Jud also has feelings for Laurey, and unlike Curly, he’s man enough to admit to them.  When Curley balks at asking Laurey to a big outdoor dance, Jud steps up and does so.  (The film is set about 1905, just before Oklahoma became a state.)

While this is going on we also meet Ado Annie (Grahame) who is being wooed by traveling salesman Ali Hakim (Eddie Albert).  Annie still has enough sense left to at least feel some guilt over the fact that she already has a suitor, Will Parker (Gene Nelson), but since he’s in Kansas City, it’s “out of sight, out of mind” for Annie.  Hakim wants her to run off with him, but he won’t promise to marry her.  That’s the only thing that keeps her where she is, and because he is interested, it keeps Hakim around, too.  And Will soon returns from Kansas City to find Annie in this situation.  Which man will she choose?

I mentioned darkness.  It is literally embodied by the character of Jud Fry.  When we are introduced to him he is this glowering, thuggish man.  Everyone hates him, although we’re never given a reason why.  Laurey almost shudders at the idea of Jud being attracted to her, but when push comes to shove she’s willing to use Jud to make Curly jealous.  She agrees to go to the dance with Jud, but then does nothing but complain to him on the way, and eventually kicks him out of the buggy and rides off with it, leaving him miles from the dance, in the middle of nowhere.

Jud finally makes it there and finds that the auction is still going on.  What happens is that the single women have baked some goods.  The single men bid on them, but what they’re really buying is not the food, but a date with the woman to eat the food together.  Jud starts to bid on Laurey’s “goods”, but soon finds every single person trying to prevent him from beating Curly, who is also bidding.  Things soon come to a head with Jud.

Now here’s the thing.  The viewer is just supposed to accept that Jud is evil from the beginning and that this then justifies the actions of all the good characters.  Curly even sings a song with Jud where Curly essentially is telling him to go kill himself since no one likes him.  That’s cold.  There is never any explanation given for why people hate Jud; they just do, so we are supposed to as well.  Unfortunately, I just couldn’t buy into this.  If they want me to hate the character prior to the end of the film then they need to show him doing something more evil than asking a woman to a dance.

And I even sympathized with Jud some.  Put yourself in his place.  He likes a woman who he thinks likes him back because she said yes when he asked her to the dance.  He doesn’t realize she’s just using him to make another man jealous.  That man, a rival for her affections, then tries to convince him to kill himself.  Jud takes Laurey to the dance, but on the way all she does is complain that it’s not a grand enough carriage.  She then tricks him into getting out and steals his horse and carriage, leaving him in the middle of nowhere, miles from the dance.  He runs all the way to the dance in order to still bid in the auction and finds that every single person is helping Curly to outbid him by giving Curly all the money they possess.  I don’t know about you, but I’d be pretty pissed off, too.  Yes, Jud’s final actions do go beyond the acceptable, but up to then I was frankly more on his side than on Curly’s.

I mentioned earlier that there are a number of songs that many people will still recognize today.  Among them are: Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin’; The Surrey with the Fringe On Top; Kansas City; I Cain’t Say No; People Will Say We’re in Love; and, of course, the title song.  And it’s actually the title song because it became so associated with the stage musical that the original title of “Away We Go!” was changed to match the song.

For me, the standout acting performance is Rod Steiger as Jud.  He is perfectly cast both physically and emotionally.  You can tell he’s suppressing his rage and that at some point it’s probably going to erupt.  He does a serviceable job with the singing, and during a dream ballet sequence he even dances for his own character even though they had doubles for the Curly and Laurey characters.  (You try finding a ballet dancer whose body looks enough like Rod Steiger's to be able to double him.)

Gordon MacRae and Shirley Jones do a great job with the singing.  Grahame plays more sexy than funny – a change from the stage version.  In fact, director Fred Zinneman (High Noon, From Here to Eternity) actually pumped up the roles of two female backup dancers to insert more comedy into the film.

If you hate musicals because there’s no explanation for why people are suddenly bursting out into singing and dancing, then this film won’t change your mind.  While the songs are all related to the plot, it’s just presented as part of the style of a musical where it’s ordinary for people to do this.  If you tend to dislike musicals because they are too happy, then this one might provide you with an interesting change.  For everyone else, if you like musicals and/or it sounds interesting, then I recommend you give it a try.

Chip’s Rating: 3 out of 5 stars


  1. As you know, this is one of those musicals that I actually liked pretty well, which proves that my problem isn't so much with musicals themselves as it is with the things that surround musicals. I was also really surprised at how dark this gets. "Pore Jud is Daid" (or "Poor Jud is Dead" for those of you trying to interpret that) is about as dark a song as shows up in a musical outside of Repo. And that's not a spoiler for those of you who haven't seen it--Jud is involved in that song.

    Steiger is the best part of this, but he's hardly the only good part of it. I'd happily watch Oklahoma! a second time, no arm-twisting involved.

  2. Yes, the song Curly and Jud sing really surprised me. I like happy musicals and I like middle of the road musicals, but I don't like them when they get too depressing. I'm in the minority in that I didn't like The Umbrellas of Cherbourg.