Directed by Fred Zinnemann
Written by Sonya Levien & William Ludwig
The exploration of genre is the entire reason that I’ve dove head first into nearly 400 western titles. Genre is an endlessly fascinating thing to explore, but one of the best elements of this exploration is when genres cross over. In the instance of Oklahoma!, we get a musical western. Or is it a western musical? Well, I’ll let you be the judge, but for the purposes of this review, it doesn’t really matter (although I would say western musical). It’s the opportunity to see how the genres might work together, how they complement each other in exploring the tropes, elements and stories that are essential to both westerns and musicals, and see how much overlap there might actually be. I know for some time now, I’ve been exploring and writing about westerns, but musicals are one of my favorite genres too, so you could say I was excited to finally catch up with a pretty well-known and beloved musical in Oklahoma!.
Curly (Gordon MacRae) is a bubbly cowboy who likes singing about his wonderful mornings as he hopes to court the lovely Laurey (Shirley Jones). But playing too coy for his own good, Curly loses Laurey, who ends up agreeing to the box social with the questionable farmhand Jud (Rod Steiger) instead. Meanwhile, Ado Annie (Gloria Grahame) is another lovely young woman, being courted by the travelling salesman Ali Hakim (Eddie Albert), who is really a womanizer who’d rather not be stuck with Annie at the alter, trying to push her off to the swooning cowboy Will Parker (Gene Nelson) instead. The whole group ends up coming head to head in their pursuits during the box social, singing along the way, as they hope to end up with their one true love and not get stuck either emptyhanded or without their desired match.
As far as famous musicals go, Oklahoma! is probably somewhere in the middle, certainly being a notable Rodgers & Hammerstein joint, but not among the elite in Hollywood history. I was even surprised somewhat to see on Letterboxd that the film is not beloved by any of my film friends, because I managed to enjoy it quite a bit. Like my first sentence, I wouldn’t consider it a must-see classic musical, but the songs were certainly memorable and enjoyable throughout, and the cinematography was beautiful color from start to finish. The story is somewhat take it or leave it for me, being a little run of the mill, and featuring a cast that doesn’t seem too overpowering in terms of star power. There is no true anchor to this cast to really draw you to the film, and into it. But across the board the cast is good, the story is good and the production is good.
The main attraction here is the music and songs, which are very catchy and like earworms. Having never seen the film/musical before, I was surprised by how many of the songs seemed familiar or like I already knew them. The cast really delivers them with a lot of passion and energy which translates to the production of the film. Interestingly, I watched the Todd-AO version of the film, as opposed to the long accepted CinemaScope version. Reportedly, the Todd-AO version was the original version of the film, which features more energetic performances, as they had to shoot the film twice for both formats, with the second take being for CinemaScope, when the performers were often slightly winded and a little more tired from additional shooting. Whether that’s true or not, it’s a fun bit of trivia for the film. And it does look beautiful on Blu Ray as a result.
Sure, some of the gender dynamics, etc. haven’t aged well, but this is a story about rural folk in Oklahoma in the 19th century. I don’t think I need to hold the film to some higher standard, historical context helps answer my questions in that regard, and there is nothing too atrocious to turn me off from the story anyway. There is a sequence in the middle of the film, a dream sequence which is slow, slogs on and kind of derails the narrative, but it doesn’t feel very far off from the “Broadway Melody” sequence in one of my favorite films, Singin’ in the Rain. This film is not as good as that one, and even the sequence isn’t as good as “Broadway Melody”, but there are some elements that are impressive in terms of choreography, and the rest of the film worked enough for me to largely ignore the dream sequence and not let it derail everything else I managed to enjoy from the rest of the film, much the same way that “Broadway Melody” doesn’t ruin Singin’ in the Rain for me either. I certainly seem higher than most on the film, but I definitely had a wonderful time.