Oklahoma! (Fred Zinnemann, 1955)

The following review of Oklahoma! was originally published in March, 2014 on my website The End of Cinema.

Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II are generally credited with ushering in a Golden Age of musical theatre, this 1943 play marking the first truly integrated show, with music, lyrics and story seamlessly interwoven. Of course it wasn’t the first (Show Boat did much the same thing 15 years earlier, to say nothing of the operettas from the 19th century onward that did as well, but whatever), but it was a huge hit, inspiring many imitators, some of which are actually good. Similarly, the 1955 film adaptation was followed by a new form of musical film: more or less direct translations of stage musicals, often excruciatingly long, presented as roadshow extravaganzas (more expensive tickets, super widescreen formats, elaborate sets and locations). These films, increasingly bloated and dull, eventually killed the musical as a viable American film genre and played no small role in bankrupting the studio system that had been in place in Hollywood since the 1920s.

The film is incompetently directed by Fred Zinnemann, because if you’re going to make a film of the most successful musical of all-time, why hire someone who knows anything about directing a musical? No Vincente Minnelli or Stanley Donen or even George Sidney for these producers, not even the director of the original stage version, Rouben Mamoulien. Nope, instead they hired the guy who did High Noon and From Here to Eternity, a Less Than Meets the Eye Oscar-generating machine who had never directed a musical before and never would again. Zinnemann shoots the film as if he’s entirely uninterested in the dance sequences, the choreography of which, by Agnes DeMille, is reportedly as influential as the play’s form. But I can’t tell because half the time, when Zinnemann hasn’t framed the shot so the dancers are piled on top of each other is indistinguishable clumps, you can’t even see the dancers’ legs (at least in the Cinemascope version, maybe the Todd-AO version is framed better (the film was shot in two different formats simultaneously, with different takes for each version. Todd-AO was a 70 mm widescreen format developed by the film’s producer, Mike Todd)). Instead of using long shots with the head-to-toe framing that Fred Astaire famously insisted upon, framing that emphasizes the formal beauty of dancers in motion (the fundamental pleasure of the art form: what’s the point of dancing, after all, if you can’t see the body move?), Zinnemann repeatedly moves his camera in on the actors, framing them from the waist up or in 3/4 shots, apparently to heighten the dramatic emotions of the scenario, the way you would film a straight melodrama or comedy (think of Howard Hawks and standard Classical Hollywood film style). Of course, most of the people dancing were chosen for their dancing skills, not their dramatic abilities (especially the background dancers, who often find themselves cut out, not just at the knees of waist, but out of the sides of the frame as Zinnemann is too close to shoot all the choreography).

The film and play’s centerpiece sequence is a long dream ballet sequence that closes the first act. I am positive that this would have been amazing on stage in 1943, and the set design in the film is pretty cool, with blazing orange skies and floating frames of buildings (a church, a stairway to nowhere, the outline of a doorway). But by 1955, filmmakers, certainly inspired by the stage Oklahoma!, had been engaged in a decade-long battle of one-upmanship, from the ballet in The Red Shoes to the finale of An American in Paris to the “Broadway Melody” sequence in Singin’ in the Rain and beyond, they had been pushing the expressive limits of ballet in cinema. Compared to the Barn Dance sequence in 1954’s Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (which, like Oklahoma! features a scene of a group of girls dancing in their underwear, except in that film you can see their feet), with Stanley Donen’s expert shooting of Michael Kidd’s ridiculously athletic choreography, nonetheless grounded in popular 19th century dance forms, or even some of the stranger bits of Bob Fosse’s choreography in 1953 films like Kiss Me Kate or The Affairs of Dobie Gillis or his dream sequence dance in Donen’s Give a Girl a Break (I think it was a dream, it’s been awhile since I’ve seen it), or 1955’s My Sister Eileen, the ballet here, as a girl inhales a mysterious Eastern narcotic and imagines herself and her lover replaced by ballet dancing doppelgangers, is dull, cramped, and unimaginative.

Not only that, but the story itself is kind of appalling. Set around the turn of the century (just before Oklahoma achieved statehood, not long after the Oklahoma Territory had been carved out of Indian Territory, not that we’ll see or reference any Cherokee here), the plot centers on the parallel love stories of two cowboys. The first, played by Gordon MacRae (think Howard Keel without the charm or self-consciously boisterous pomposity), is in love with Shirley Jones (cute, spunky), who is in love with him, but because of plot they don’t just say it and get on with their lives. Instead, Jones agrees to go to the evening’s box social with Rod Steiger, who of course is a psychotic weirdo. Steiger works as Jones’s “hired help” and is marked in multiple ways as an outsider in the community (one lyric mentions that he has darker skin, if I heard correctly, either a racial reference or an acknowledgement of the fact that because he works all day, his skin is tanned by the sun, in contrasting to the pure white blondness of Jones), a transient laborer, he’s the object of all kinds of xenophobic and racist conjecture. (Of course, if he’s so horrifying, which everyone seems to agree on, why would Jones ever conceive of going to the dance with him? Ugh.) Repeatedly mocked and insulted (MacRae even goes into his home, apparently threatens to lynch him (playing with a rope Steiger has lying about), and then the two sing a duet about Steiger killing himself (Steiger’s singing is a highlight)), Steiger then indeed turns murderous, confirming everyone’s suspicions of the menace he represents. He’s ultimately vanquished, accidentally of course, absolving MacRae of any guilt, confirmed in a quick trial in which the local federal marshal is threatened and blackmailed into perverting the proper legal process, because why not.

The other story serves as a comical counterweight to the more dramatic central plot. Gloria Grahame plays a girl beloved by cowboy Gene Nelson, just home from Kansas City where he has earned enough money to marry her, per the standard set by her father, James Whitmore. Grahame is also hanging around with Eddie Albert, the local promiscuous Persian peddler (pronounced “Purr-is-ian” in the film’s unrelenting Okie idiom), Ali Hakeem. It seems Grahame has a problem with sluttiness, and her singing of this to Jones (“I Can’t Say No”) is easily the best part of the film. Grahame sings in a thin, high-pitched voice and fills out the number with some hilarious eye and facial expressions, not even Fred Zinnemann could dampen her incandescent lunacy. Almost as great are a pair of girls who float around the margins of the film, showing up in most every dance sequence to add a little ballet and interact, usually wordlessly, with the main characters. When they popped up out of nowhere during a duet between Grahame and Nelson in the middle of the film, I decided they were spectral apparitions, haunting this small town like the twins of the Overlook Hotel.

The succes of Oklahoma! the movie was followed by increasingly long and expensive musicals, as Hollywood kept chasing the next high, but for every My Fair Lady or The Sound of Music there were a half dozen Doctor Doolittle‘s and the whole thing eventually collapsed. While there were still occasional great musical movies being made in this era (I really like My Fair Lady, for example), after Fosse’s Cabaret in 1972, there have been almost zero successful, popular musical films made in Hollywood. The form survives on the margins (Pennies from Heaven, Sita Sings the Blues, Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench among other indie films, or experiments like Coppola’s One From the Heart) and in Disney cartoons (and even that only barely, having been supplanted by the non-musical Pixar model). And, of course, there was the execrable film version of Fosse’s Chicago, which somehow won a Best Picture Oscar when it is, in fact, among the Worst Pictures. I know that for me at least, as a kid, constant exposure to the films of Rodgers and Hammerstein positioned me as decidedly anti- the musical as a genre of film I was at all interested in. It wasn’t until my late teens and early twenties when I tentatively moved from Singin’ in the Rain to other films starring Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire that I began to realize that here was a film form as vital, as dynamic, as cinematic as has ever existed. It’s just that Rodgers and Hammerstein killed it.

Oklahoma! plays in a 60th Anniversary restored version at the SIFF Uptown on Wednesday, November 3rd before moving on to the Guild 45th on November 11th and Cinemark Theatres on November 22nd.
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