Friday, 14 September 2012

Oklahoma! (1955)

Dir. Fred Zinnemann
Starring: Gordon MacRae, Shirley Jones, Gene Nelson, Gloria Grahame 

There was no way I could compile a list of films to watch for Oklahoma and not actually include Oklahoma! I must admit to a certain amount of trepidation before pressing play however. I was not quite sure what to expect from a Rodgers and Hammerstein musical. I have never seen South Pacific. I have never seen The King and I. I have never even seen The Sound of Music – and this despite the fact that I have been to Salzburg. I have seen a stage production of Carousel and absolutely hated it. I found every single character unappealing, the ending ridiculous, the play far too long, and I hated the one big anthemic number from it (as a Manchester United fan there was no way I would ever start singing along with You’ll Never Walk Alone). I was expecting something just as bad from Oklahoma!

First impressions: favourable. Oklahoma! is not a movie without flaws, but at least it is watchable to those under the age of 70. The story taks place out on the bountiful prairies of the Oklahoma Territory, where the farmers and ranchers are looking forward with glee to statehood. The action revolves around two different love triangles. The leading couple of cocky cowboy Curly (Gordon MacRae) and his pretty inamorata Laurey (Shirley Jones) have a Benedict and Beatrice style relationship. They admire each other but are too proud to come out and say it to their face – even though, as is admitted in the number People Will Say We’re in Love – every one recognises the fact. A thid wheel is introduced to their squabbling when Laurey accepts an invitation to the local dance from brooding hired hand Jud Fry (Rod Steiger of On the Waterfront and In the Heat of the Night fame). Curly then has to win the girl from the increasingly possessive Fry. The other triangle involves less drama and more laughs. Simple Ado Annie, played by Gloria Grahame, Violet in It’s a Wonderful Life (the original girl who “Can’t Say No”) likewise has a choice to make. She is courted by spendthrift cowboy Will Parker (Gene Nelson), yet ends up betrothed to travelling salesman Ali Hakim (Eddie Albert). Now Ali only wanted a spot of fun rather than a wife, so he has to extricate himself from his predicament and reunite Annie and Will.  

Along the way there are a whole bushel of songs to keep the audience entertained. Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin’, The Surrey with the Fringe on Top, I Can’t Say No, People Will Say We’re in Love, The Farmer and the Cowman – and of course Oklahoma itself. The impression is hard to shake, however, that on several occasions the accent is used by Oscar Hammerstein III just to force some pretty clunky rhymes into place (“pit” and “forgit” for example). But while the singing is mostly good (Gloria Grahame’s flat and frozen-faced Ado Annie being a clear exception), the dancing got on my pip. I don’t mind dancing when it is part of a song or inventive – the dance number at the end of Kansas City which sees Will tapdancing his way down a steam train is quite joyous! But then we have more dancing at the end of Many a New Day, and of The Farmer and the Cowman. And then, of course, there’s a dream ballet. I hate dream ballets. Really hate them. What do they add? But there was an unfortunate vogue for every musical to cram one in about two-thirds of the way through: I’m looking at you West Side Story. And Oklahoma’s is particularly silly, as it sees the characters suddenly played by other performers. All apart from Jud Fry, who is still played by Rod Steiger, clumping around menacingly, no doubt wondering what he was doing there (I certainly was!). These unnecessary interludes bored me. And considering that the film was already 2½ hours long it really didn’t need bulking out.
The muggers surrounded Granny as soon as she left the post office with her pension
There was a certain unpleasant undertone to the film as well. I don’t just mean the complete absence of Native Americans from Indian Territory – we are used to the history of the expansion of the United States writing them out of the equation. No, I’m referring to the villain of the piece, the vengeful Jud Fry. This was the only nuanced character in the film (certainly more so than Ali Hakim, the ‘Persian’ peddler with the Arabic name and Italian accent – I was half expecting him to drop his accent at a comedically opportune moment and reveal that he was actually Harry from Romford). In the film Jud is a glowering, private individual who tries to force himself upon Laurey, and then tries to kill Curly. But look at his story another way. The film makes great play of the divisions between the conservative farmers and free-wheeling cowboys. Hired hands are an unseen underclass. There is maybe even something slightly un-American about them taking a wage rather than being their own masters on a frontier of opportunity. Jud has a history of maltreatment which has left him with a chip on his shoulder – he feels that his employers don’t see him as their equal. Aunt Eller (Charlotte Greenwood) admits that he is the best hired hand she has ever had. Certainly she and Laurey wouldn’t be able to run a farm without him – all we ever see them do is a bit of butter churning and some light peach picking. And yet he is mistrusted. There is even a scene (Pore Jud is Daid), where our ‘hero’ Curly goes to persuade him to commit suicide. What fun! Okay, he makes a hash of kissing Laurey but I felt that he deserved better of life and the script than to be turned into a creepy pantomime villain. I believe that his character was meant to have this depth in the original script and the film-makers cut a key song and rather rather bungled bringing out the nuances. More proof I suppose that Hollywood believes that cinema-goers can handle less complexity than theatre-goers.
The film looks stagey. The interiors were created on set (explaining why Aunt Eller’s frontier house looks so luxurious and large from within). The dream ballet and the party scene were also clearly shot inside. From the film one might imagine that turn-of-the-century frontier life was a veritable Garden of Eden, where all the women wore lots of make-up and dyed their hair. The romantic leads are mostly engaging. It took me a while, I admit, to be able to understand Laurey’s dialogue due to her accent, and Gloria Grahame just looked petrified while singing I Can’t Say No. Other than that, the other leads – particularly Charlotte Greenwood’s feisty Aunt Eller – do work their socks off and their performances make up for the shortfalls in story, pacing and direction. 

What have I learnt about Oklahoma?
It’s probably best to work on the assumption that the women did not historically all have make-up and dyed hair…

The film shows a snapshot of Oklahoma in 1906, in the days before it acceded to the Union. There was great excitement about this development, and Oklahomans regarded it as evidence of how civilised and model their Territory had become (possibly because by this stage there were no Native Americans to be seen!). Yet it was rural – big bad Kansas City was the nearest big town. And with its burlesque houses, telephones and seven-storey buildings it was shockingly modern to the rural Oklahomans. 

Yet there were rivalries within the state. The film points out the rivalry between the conservative, thrifty farmers who developed the land and wish to apportion it and fence it off and the more reckless cowboys who roamed the untrammeled expanse and spent their money carelessly once they earned it. Yet there was a third group: that of hired hands. Working for a wage they had little economic stake in the development of the state and had very little in the way of employment rights – they could be laid off at the drop of a hat. One can forgive them for being less enthusiastic about developments. (Actually there was also a third group: itinerant peddlers such as Ali Hakim. These passed through from town to town providing little luxuries to the settlers. They were sharp entrepreneurs but were not tied to any one location.)  

Agriculture in Oklahoma ran the full gamut from cows and pigs to grain and corn to peaches and apples. The one thing Oklahoma does seem to be short of, however, is women. There are plenty around, but the good ones all seem to have at least two suitors at a time. 

Can we go there?
Oklahoma! is set in Claremore, and it is a town that really exists. It is located about 25 miles north east of Tulsa on Historic Route 66. In fact ‘The National Home of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma!’ can be found at Discoveryland, an outdoor amphitheatre in Sand Springs just west of Tulsa. The stage play has been performed live every summer evening (except Sundays and Mondays) between 1977 and 2011. 2012 was the first summer without daily productions, though it will return in 2013. 
The film was not shot in Oklahoma however. Apparently the state had been so intensively cultivated and plumbed with oil wells in the previous fifty years that the film-makers could nowhere find a plot of wild prairie. As a result filming took place in the very south of Arizona, in Santa Cruz county right on the Mexican border – largely on the San Rafael Ranch (now a State Park). The opening Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin’ scene where the grass is as high as an elephant’s eye was shot on a farm in Amado (on the route from Nogales up to Tucson). The train station used for the Kansas City routine was, surprisingly, a genuine station in Elgin. Interiors were filmed at the MGM Studios in Culver City, California. 

Overall Rating: 3/5

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