Tuesday, October 15, 2013

The 46th State

Film: Oklahoma!
Format: DVD from Rockford Public Library on rockin’ flatscreen.

It will come as a surprise to absolutely no one who reads this site that I put off Oklahoma! as long as I felt I responsibly could. I’ve made it a point to watch some of the longest films I needed to see every month. The addition of a big, blustery 1950s musical didn’t surprise me, and since I’d already seen Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, which Oklahoma! effectively replaced, well, I couldn’t get out of it. As one of the longest remaining, I knew I had to get through it. So with a deep sigh, I dropped it in the spinner and away we went.

Things did not start off well. The DVD copy I got was…sticky. It played for a moment and then stuck. I skipped the first track. The second scene stuck like the first. I skipped again, and the film played. I paused it, found the film’s opening online, and watched the first few minutes or so that way, and thankfully, that was the extent of the problems. Technically, I missed about two minutes, but I figure that’s about the same as a bathroom break. No harm, no foul.

It’s still a pretty rough go at the beginning. Cowpoke Curly McLain (Gordon MacRae) goes calling on the girl he’s sweet on, Laurey Williams (Shirley Jones). He wants to take her to the box social, which is apparently a dance. The girls all prepare a meal for two and the men bid on them, then get to eat the lunch with the girl who made it. Laurey decides not to go with Curly because he waited too long to ask her. Instead, she agrees to go with Jud Fry (Rod Steiger), the creepy farmhand who works for Laurey’s Aunt Eller (Charlotte Greenwood). If you think this is going to cause some trouble, you’d be right.

Meanwhile, cowboy Will Parker (Gene Nelson) returns from Kansas City with the hopes of marrying his gal, Ado Annie Carnes (Gloria Grahame). Her father has promised her to him if he can ever manage to collect $50 to prove that he’s not just a dumb cowpoke. Will is kind of a dumb cowpoke, though. He manages to win the money he needs, but rather than return with it, he blows all of it on gifts for Ado Annie. She hasn’t been too lonely, though. Ado Annie can’t seem to decide on which guy she wants, because she’s being romanced by the local Persian peddler, Ali Hakim (Eddie Albert), who genuinely doesn’t want to marry her.

All of this seems like fluff, and there really is a lot of fluff here in the guise of song and dance numbers, some of which are pretty spectacular. What I wasn’t expecting was just how really dark this story gets. Jud Fry doesn’t just give off a creepy vibe; he’s genuinely dangerous, and Rod Steiger is perfectly cast in the role. There’s a serious menace to him that comes through in almost everything he does, and it builds throughout the course of the film. His rivalry with Curly isn’t a friendly one, and Curly’s intentions have a deadly edge to them. Seriously, that’s pretty excellent, and I didn’t expect it.

But it’s not a perfect film. As much as I enjoyed the tension in the love-hate triangle of Curly, Jud and Laurey, I disliked the other triangle. There are a number of reasons for this. First off, Ado Annie, who “cain’t say no” is the Oklahoma version of the town bicycle. Even when Will has finally gotten her father to agree to their wedding, she’s ready to run off with Ali Hakim, despite his not wanting her. Will really is too dumb to function in society.

But it goes beyond that. For as good as the singing is through most of the film, poor Gloria Grahame is absolutely lost. She not only can’t carry a tune (evidently, she was completely tone deaf, and it shows here), she can’t convincingly act while she is trying to sing. She looks uncomfortable every time the music is playing. Eddie Albert is fine, but Persian? Really? I mean there’s whitewashing, and then there’s this. It’s almost as offensive as his accent.

The sell here isn’t so much the story as the songs, all of which are relevant to the plot, and many of which are show stoppers. Several of the production numbers—the dream sequence and the box social in particular—are worth the price of admission. They’re as good as anything you’ll find in any musical of the day. Even if they weren’t, Aunt Eller would be worth the price of admission.

It would be a lie to say that I genuinely liked Oklahoma!, but it would equally be a lie to say I hated it. I liked it quite a bit more than I expected, which may not sound like much, but the fact that I liked it at all is pretty damn amazing.

Why to watch Oklahoma!: It’s a lot darker than you might expect.
Why not to watch: It’s still a traditional musical with all that entails.


  1. The first thing I noticed about this film was how beautiful Shirley Jones was. I had only known her as the mother on The Patridge Family when I was little. Since this film I've seen her in Elmer Gantry and Carousel and she looked damn good in them, too.

    The second thing I noticed was that dark undercurrent. In addition to Jud's menace, there's also everyone's menace towards him. I actually felt sorry for him for a while. I can't condone what he finally does, but look at it from his perspective. A woman he likes agrees to go with him to the social only because she wants to hurt another man. When they finally do go all she does is complain on the way. She then steals his horse and carriage, making him have to run miles through the hot plains to get to the dance. Once there EVERYBODY conspires against him to keep him from having the winning bid for her, um, box. And the guy they all want to see get it is the same man that just tried to convince Jud to kill himself via a song. I don't care how emotionally stable you are, have all those things happen to you and you might start thinking murderous thoughts, too.

    I agree that many of the numbers are showstoppers. I was surprised by how many songs I recognized. And I agree on Grahame's singing. I read that they literally pieced her songs together a syllable at a time in the recording studio. I'm frankly surprised they just didn't dub her. That was a very common practice at the time. A few people had entire careers in musicals without ever singing a note of their own songs.

    And on a final note, you also saw Les Miserables recently. One of the first articles I read about Hugh Jackman when he became famous after playing Wolverine in X-Men is that one of his first big breaks as an actor was a stage production of Oklahoma where he played Curly. Can't you see him in that role? I think he'd have been perfect, although he'd be too old for it now.

    1. Wow, that's a lot to parse.

      I agree on Jud, though. The rest of the community is pretty harsh when it comes to Jud, and we don't know which came first. He is given pretty rough treatment throughout. I didn't go into specifics on Curly's intent here--I mention it briefly, but that scene in the smokehouse where he tries to convince Jud to hang himself is really, really dark. Again, this is our romantic hero we're talking about, and he's trying to convince another person to kill himself. It's far darker than I'd have believed. But that's also why Jud's actions at the end work--he goes way too far, but we've got evidence that he was driven to it.

      I wondered about dubbing Grahame, too. It would seem like the natural thing to have someone else sing the songs and have her just lip synch them. I mean, the dubbed Harry Goddam Belafonte for Carmen Jones, you'd think they might come up with the solution to dub the poor tone deaf woman who couldn't carry a tune if it came with a handle.

      Regarding Hugh Jackman, yes and again yes.


    2. Thanks for the link. I also watched Surrey with a Fringe on Top. It never occurred to me to look for vids of him performing it on Youtube. I had assumed it was an local Australian production that no one would have taped since he wasn't famous yet.

  2. A Nebraskan friend of mine tells the following riddle:

    Q: Why doesn't Texas break off and fall into the Gulf?
    A: Because Oklahoma sucks.

    Oh, what a beautiful morning...

    1. I've heard the Texas version. Same punchline, but the question is:

      Why do all the trees in Texas point north?

  3. I am entirely with you and Chip on the Jud character. I disliked Curly, the dancing and very clean cowboy already, but when he suggests to Jud that he kill himself I was disgusted. The fact that the movie wants us to like this prick decided it for me.
    Because the movie has made up its mind on the lonesome and brooding dude it sends him on a murderous path, one he actually does not deserve.

    1. It has its issues. The "kill yourself" section is really dark and really unpleasant.