#425) Oklahoma! (1955)
OR “Cheyenne and Arapaho!”
Directed by Fred Zinnemann
Written by Sonya Levien and William Ludwig. Based on the musical by Richard Rodgers & Oscar Hammerstein II, and the play “Green Grow the Lilacs” by Lynn Riggs. Score by Rodgers & Hammerstein.
Class of 2007
NOTE: “Oklahoma!” was filmed in TWO widescreen processes: CinemaScope and Todd-AO. This post is based on my viewing of the more commonly seen CinemaScope version.
The Plot: “Oklahoma!” is the story of farmers and ranchers on the eve of the Oklahoma territory becoming the 46th state in the union. Cowboy Curly (Gordon MacRae) pines for farmgirl Laurey (Shirley Jones), but is surprised when Laurey announces she’s going to the box social with creepy farmhand Jud Fry (Rod Steiger). This complicated love triangle takes several turns, as does one between cowboy Will Parker (Gene Nelson), the promiscuous Ado Annie (Gloria Grahame) and peddler Ali Hakim (Eddie Albert). Oh, and it’s a musical.
Why It Matters: The NFR praises the “literalized film treatment” and quotes choreographer Agnes De Mille’s take on the film: “It’s different, but I find it very beautiful to look at.” There’s also an essay by author and self-appointed film snob Phil Hall.
But Does It Really?: “Oklahoma!” is definitely a minor classic: it’s far from the greatest movie musical ever made, but it is a serviceable film adaptation that successfully retains the tone of the original show. The songs are, of course, delightful, and are aided by a first-rate cast and excellent on-location shots, but through no fault of its own, this film is a B+ effort lost amongst the A+ musicals already on this list. I guess what I’m trying to say is: “Oklahoma!”: Okay.
Everybody Gets One: At age 18, Gordon MacRae won a talent contest and landed a two-week singing engagement at the 1939 New York World’s Fair. This led to stage appearances, radio, and eventually a recording contract with Capitol Records. Though not his first movie musical, “Oklahoma!” was MacRae’s first leading role. He would reunite with Shirley Jones in 1956’s “Carousel” as a last minute replacement for Frank Sinatra.
Wow, That’s Dated: Eddie “Green Acres” Albert plays Persian peddler Ali Hakim. While he doesn’t go full brown-face, there is an attempt at a Middle Eastern accent that’s incredibly problematic. Plus it distracts from the show’s primary issues concerning women as property.
Title Track: Now that’s a title song! Fun Fact: Despite being the 11 o’clock number, there’s still about 10 minutes left in the show. Please remain seated.
Seriously, Oscars?: One of the biggest hits of 1955, “Oklahoma!” entered the 1956 Oscars with four nominations. The film lost Costume Design and Editing, but did pick up the prizes for Sound Recording and Scoring of a Musical Picture.
- Surprisingly, “Oklahoma!” was produced not by one of the major Hollywood studios, but by independent company Magna Pictures Corporation. Created to produce films in the new widescreen process Todd-AO, Magna enticed a reluctant Rodgers & Hammerstein to approve an “Oklahoma!” film adaptation when they offered the composers a level of creative control none of the studios would. To ensure a wide release, “Oklahoma!” was filmed in both the experimental Todd-AO format, and the then-more common CinemaScope format, resulting in two different (albeit very similar) versions of the film.
- “Oklahoma!” was filmed on location in the state of…Arizona? Turns out the real Oklahoma had become too developed to accurately depict its pre-statehood, so most of the movie was shot in several towns in southern Arizona.
- Part of this film’s appeal is successfully opening up the play. It helps that most of the play is set outdoors, and the production takes full advantage of their location shooting. Director Zinnemann also visualizes several of the lyrics throughout the film: at last we get to see the “surrey with the fringe on top” and the corn “as high as an elephant’s eye”.
- Curly and Laurey are doing a variation of “He’s a jerk and she’s okay with it” called “He’s a jerk but the songs are so catchy!”
- Wow, Gene Nelson can dance. Get it, Buddy!
- Director Fred Zinnemann seems an odd choice given his previous films “High Noon” and “From Here to Eternity”, but his more realistic approach to filmmaking does help preserve the show’s darker elements. And thanks to Zinnemann, we get the unconventional casting of non-singers Rod Steiger and Gloria Grahame. Steiger gives some dimension to Jud Fry, and Grahame is…fine.
- Shirley Jones makes her film debut as Laurey, and her lovely performance plants the seeds of a promising film career. And to think she’s only five years away from playing a hooker in “Elmer Gantry”.
- “People Will Say We’re In Love” is one of my favorite songs ever, so even this generically staged, continuity-lax version gets a pass.
- I can never get past “Pore Jud is Daid” as a plot point. Curly advises Jud to hang himself rather than take Laurey to a dance? That’s a real extreme solution. Not that Jud’s a saint either, but come on.
- Timing is everything. The Dream Ballet in the original stage version (choreographed by Agnes De Mille) was revolutionary in its delve into a character’s psyche. While still technically impressive 12 years later, the film version is preceded by a similar ballet in “An American in Paris”. And like that dream ballet, this one goes on forever. I definitely took an intermission afterwards.
- Most of the second act takes place at night, and was shot in-studio. The switch from the Arizona plains to a soundstage in Culver City is jarring, and slows down the film’s momentum.
- So the main takeaway from this movie is that all men are the worst. Copy.
- Gloria Grahame does this weird thing where she sorta pantomimes her lyrics. It’s distracting, but that being said, she does an excellent imitation of a crawfish.
- Also a bit troubling is the show’s ending, in which an entire town bends the law so that the main character can get away with murder because nobody liked the guy he killed. Why does everyone remember this show as being so wholesome?
- The success of “Oklahoma!” encouraged Rodgers & Hammerstein to green light film adaptations of their other collaborations. The film versions of “King and I” and “South Pacific” have their supporters, but they all pale in comparison to “The Sound of Music”.
- The original stage version of “Oklahoma!” is still performed across the country hundreds of times every year. The show has also had a few Broadway revivals, most recently in 2019 with a stripped down production that emphasized the show’s darker aspects.
- Everybody spoofs “Oklahoma!”, though I will argue they are referencing the show in general rather than the film specifically. Regardless, here’s one of the more unusual tributes, courtesy of “South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut”.
Listen to This: The original Broadway cast recording of “Oklahoma!” was added to the National Recording Registry in 2003. Learn more from this essay by NRR staple Cary O’Dell!