Oklahoma! is one of the great scores of American musical theatre but not the greatest of musical films: the two often get confused, Rodgers and Hammerstein’s own South Pacific being the most obvious example (though it can be argued that even that isn’t Rodger’s and Hammerstein’s best work; the film, however, is dreadful).
The stage show, coming as it did in 1943, just after America’s entry into WWII, was thought, erroneously, to introduce American musical theatre to the integrated musical (Show Boat, produced in 1927 with music by Jerome Kern and lyrics by Hammerstein came considerably earlier and has a greater claim to the honour).
The Broadway show of Oklahoma did nonetheless revolutionise American musical theatre, showing as it did, how musical theatre was capable of bringing not only joy but also depth, seriousness, unity, and cutting edge inventiveness (with Agnes De Mille’s dream ballet in the show receiving particular praise for this. The dream ballet here inspired all the subsequent dream ballets in Hollywood musicals. So blame Agnes de Mille.). The show was thought so important it won a special Pulitzer Prize for literature to acknowledge its contributions. It was certainly influential, and from the mid-forties onwards, the integrated musical became the norm on Broadway.
The score is one of the great wonders of American musical theatre. Hearing the rising O’s in ‘Oklahoma!’ alone is enough to put a smile in my face. But the score also contains ‘Oh What a Beautiful Mornin,’ The Surrey with the Fringe on Top’, ‘People Will Say We’re in Love’, ‘Many a New Day’, ‘All er Nothing,’ and many more hits. It’s no exaggeration to say that it became the soundtrack of a generation throughout the forties and well into the fifties and is known to be a particular favourite of the Queen. The songs have been covered by pretty much all the great singers (from Sinatra and Lena Horne to Blossom Dearie) and are considered staples of ‘The Great American Songbook’.
Both the show and the film convey the way America liked to see itself in the middle of the last century: equal (‘I’m no better than anybody else but I’ll be danged if I ain’t just as good’), modern (‘everything’s up to date in Kansas City, they’ve gone about as far as they can go’), inclusive (Persian peddlers marry in, cowboys and farmers end up friends, a territory becomes a state), with a cornfed energy and open-air sexual innocence (‘People Will Say We’re in Love’) that often enveloped or was a front to more exciting things (‘I’m just a girl who cain’t say no’). The tone throughout is one of homespun hickness layered in the common-sense toughness so prized by Americans.
But the film of Oklahoma! is a stately and ponderous affair, a dilemma for a show that’s got an exclamation point in its title. Zinnemann has no fun with this material. Everything is filmed to highlight the seriousness and importance. We get to see Curly (Gordon McRae) riding from a low angle amongst the corn so rendered majestic. Even Will Parker (Gene Nelson) jumping of a train onto a horse is rendered unexciting, from far away in a long take that emphasises the landscape rathe than the action. Many scenes are shot full-on frontal, in compositions that seem haphazard. And whilst songs are often shot in long takes from a fixed angle (see the clip below), Agnes De Mille’s great dream ballet is butchered so that sometimes all you see of the dancers is from the waist up. And often one notices how landscape is favoured over character, and though it is beautiful, and the show is meant to be about Oklahoma, it distances us from the characters.
The film was shot in two versions, the then new 70 mm Todd-AO process for select theatres and a CinemaScope 35mm version for wider distribution. They are in fact two different versions, made up of different takes. I saw the 35mm version, meant to be the weaker one, as the first takes where generally used for the Todd-AO version, and though the restored version is generally a handsome affair, some shots still look quite murky.
In spite of my reservations, there are many things I love about this version: It’s a treat to see James Mitchell, so important to Agnes De Mille’s work and indeed to the development of American dance, as the dream Curly actually dancing (unlike in Minnelli’s The Band Wagon where he merely plays Cyd Charisse’s Svengali choreographer); Shirley Jones had not yet learned to act but she’s got a delectable chocolate box prettyness; I love the tone of Gordon McRae’s voice even though his performance lacks the zest, energy and sex-appeal Hugh Jackman brought to the role of Curly in the Trevor Nunn production for the National Theatre in London (see above); Gene Nelson’s been thought one of the burdens poor Doris Day had to put up with in her Warners Days but I like his dim Will Parker very much.
These performers, though not quite of the top rank, are not the problem with the film. In fact, to me, Rod Steiger has never been better. He could be, in fact he usually was, a terrible ham. But here he brings a broody, hulking presence to the role of Judd. And he’s so restrained throughout most of the film, that when he does explode, it becomes powerful and meaningful, rather than an annoying characteristic of his style of acting. Likewise, whilst there are other performances of Gloria Grahame that I like at least as much (I love her in everything I’ve seen her in really but particularly in Human Desire, The Big Heat, and In a Lonely Place) her Ado Annie — all stylised and pitched high but soft — is a joy, as is her duet with Gene Nelson in ‘All ‘er Nothing’ (the former is from the 35mm CinemaScope print, the latter from the 70mm Todd-AO, for comparison)
From the 35mmm CinemaScope version
From the 70mm Todd-AO version
Fred Zinnemann has no feel for the homespun rural Americana the film idealises. His greatest hits (The Search, A Nun’s Story, A Man for All Seasons, Julia, and even — famously —High Noon) and his dream project that got away (a film of Malraux’ Man’s Fate) are indicators of how distanced his sensibility is from this material. The main lacks are pace and energy, which in fact should be the very motor of this material.
My main reason for seeing this, however, was Gloria Grahame (I’m on a bit of a marathon of her films at the moment). She did not disappoint, and in fact the film brought an increased appreciation of her talents and an increased understanding of why Rod Steiger once meant something as an actor. Plus the score is an undiluted joy in any version.