By the time Oklahoma! made it to movie screens in 1955, so many of the great movie musicals of that decade had already come and gone: Singin' in the Rain, The Band Wagon, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, Annie Get Your Gun, An American in Paris. And yet Oklahoma! had really been the one to blaze the trail ahead for all these films. Back when it started as a stage musical in 1943, Oklahoma! broke all previous records, introduced America to the creative team of Rodgers and Hammerstein, and introduced new standards for musical theater that would become quickly become commonplace. Before Oklahoma!, American musicals were generally backstage musicals, relying more on popular tunes, glitzy spectacle, and big solos that could be assigned to any random character they chose. There were a few plot-driven dramatic musicals pre-dating Oklahoma!, such as Show Boat in 1927, but Oklahoma! was the first popular success that really celebrated the lives of ordinary people; the first one to let the characters drive the songs rather than the other way round, and it was the first to use dance to reveal characters' emotions.
The shame of it all is that Oklahoma! did its job so well that by the time it was adapted to movie form, all of its best ideas had been pilfered. Its extended ballet number, in which the heroine imagines what the future holds for her, inspired similar interludes in An American in Paris and Lili. Its rustic charm and rollicking dance numbers had more than a little in common with Seven Brides for Seven Brothers. And the idea of following the lives of ordinary people expressing themselves emotionally through song was done brilliantly by Meet Me in St Louis, which arrived in theaters no less than a year after the Oklahoma! stage musical. But the wonder of it is that Oklahoma!, despite being old hat by 1955, was still one of the top movies of the year, and still loved by critics and audiences alike, evidenced by its recent transfer and release to Blu-Ray.
By now, Oklahoma! has been around long enough for all of its innovations to not only be copied but gradually be dismissed and forgotten. However, both the stage musical and the movie deserve to be remembered as more than a corny artifact of bygone days. In fact, aside from having a score beautiful enough to justify a whole field of corn, Oklahoma! still holds up as an interesting and frequently enchanting fable.
The plot of Oklahoma! is simple and so wholesome on the surface I wouldn't be surprised if it strikes some modern moviegoers like transmissions from an alien planet. Cowboy Curly (Gordon MacRae) is in love with farm girl Laurey (Shirley Jones). She loves him, too, but for pride's sake, neither one wants to be the first to admit it. Their bickering courtship is looked over fondly by the watchful eye of Laurey's Aunt Eller (Charlotte Greenwood), the town's high-kicking matriarch, and not at all fondly by the glowering Jud Fry (Rod Steiger), Aunt Eller's hired hand. Jud is determined to have Laurey, by fair means or foul. All the while the town prepares for the big box social, as another minor tempest is brewing with Laurey's friend Ado Annie (Gloria Grahame) who finds herself caught between her loyal but spendthrift beau Will (Gene Nelson) and the charming peddler Ali Hakim (Eddie Albert), all because she's 'a girl who can't say no.' But the problems of a girl who can't say no are nothing compared to the simmering hatred of a man who's heard 'no' his whole life, and Jud Fry is just that kind of man.
Really, it seems futile describing the plot of Oklahoma! in words; all you really need is a two-minute clip of Laurey and Curly's beaming faces singing together while Jud glares away at them and you'll have a basic understanding of the movie's structure. However, while Oklahoma! is simple, I don't think that necessarily makes it shallow or unworthy of analysis; it's far more dark and threatening than most people remember. Right alongside songs like 'Oh, What a Beautiful Morning' and 'People Will Say We're In Love,' you have 'Pore Jud is Daid,' a song in which our hero convinces the villain to sing along to his own imagined funeral. Not to mention the fifteen-minute ballet sequence in which our heroine, drifting along on an opium haze, imagines a doppelganger of herself being alternately courted and threatened by Curly and Jud, complete with visions of murder and high-kicking prostitutes. Sadly, the movie adaptation cuts the one song from the stage musical, 'Lonely Room' that really develops Jud's character, revealing the anger and isolation fueling his lust for Laurey. Still, there's something deeply unsettling about Jud and the way the story seems to tiptoe up to pitying him right before cutting back to the smiling faces of our heroes.
While you can criticize Oklahoma! for refusing to develop these characters beyond the needs of the plot, it's a technique harkening all the way back to the old medieval miracle plays and pantomimes. As Jud sinks lower and lower, he becomes the representation of everything evil and rotten in the territory, the one dark spot in an otherwise innocent way of life. The society needs to banish him so order can be restored.
The deeply ironic twist is that because this society is so warm and neighborly, their hands are seemingly tied in dealing with someone like Jud. So long as Jud goes through the standard motions of courtship (asking Laurey to the social, driving her in his carriage, bidding for her picnic basket), they can't kick him out. It says something about how rule-bound this world really is when one of the most suspenseful scenes in the whole movie is Jud bidding for Laurey's basket, winning himself nothing more than a single date, all while Curly and the rest of the town try to outbid him. As the scene escalates, we end with Curly selling off everything he owns and Aunt Eller, the auctioneer, frantically trying to head off Jud's bids, all while Laurey stands there helpless. It's laughable but rather frightening when you think about it.
The performances in Oklahoma! are, with one or two glaring exceptions, so perfectly cast it becomes difficult to judge them; you feel you know these characters from the moment they show up. Gordon MacRae and Shirley Jones are the ideal team, with their bell-bright voices and infectious happiness. Charlotte Greenwood is a scene-stealer as Aunt Eller, the lovable old woman who functions as some kind of cross between the town matriarch and the unofficial sheriff (she's the one called upon to preside over all social events). Rod Steiger, playing Jud Fry, seems like a bizarre choice for a musical at first, but he gives a strong performance, with the threatening posture of a wounded animal and a quick, fierce stare hinting at all kinds of dark thoughts. He's not really a singer but his dramatic capabilities make up the difference.
The one casting choice that really makes me squint (other than Eddie Albert as the 'Persian' peddler) is Gloria Grahame as the ever-so-easily-tempted Ado Annie. Casting Grahame, an actress who looks insinuating just by standing there and opening one eyelid, as the lusty Annie seems, on the surface, like an easy slam dunk. Grahame is no singer and she really talk-sings her way through 'I Cain't Say No,' but still, you'd think that she, like Steiger, could compensate through sheer acting power. However, either the folks at the studio were trying to de-sex Annie, or worse, they were trying to de-sex Grahame because Grahame is a fluttery mess of false notes. She looks befuddled, not tempted. When she's singing about how much she loves men, she moves in such a stiff, startled fashion you want to start checking her back for porcupine quills.
But over and above the story and performances in Oklahoma!, the thing we all keep returning to, no matter how many times we hear them, are the songs. The score still stands up as one of Rodgers and Hammerstein's greatest. Besides the inescapable classic songs like 'Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin',' 'The Surrey with a Fringe on Top,' 'People Will Say We're in Love,' and 'Oklahoma,' we also hear the underrated beauties of 'Pore Jud is Daid' and 'Many a New Day.' Not to mention Laurey's ballet, which brings back sweet melodies and turns them into an intricate nightmare of thwarted passions.
My hope is the new Blu-ray release of Oklahoma! will tempt new audiences into seeing it. It's one of the most famous musicals of all time and will continue to earn back that reputation.
Aubyn Eli blogs about color movies-and a whole of black-and-white ones-at The Girl with the White Parasol.