Leave it to Oklahoma! to simultaneously possess one of what I now find to be the greatest moments in cinema, as well as one of the most singularly offensive occurrences as well. I figure I will start with the bad first and simply get it out of the way. There is a character Ali Hakim (Eddie Albert) who is intended to be a Persian goods peddler. If it were not enough that it is played by a white guy, the acting choice in terms of accents Albert appropriates is one of an Irish person. If it were not enough to assume that this accent would suffice, it is also a terribly stereotypical accent no less, evoking the Lucky Charms leprechaun and leading to a lot of face palming on my part throughout. However, this inconvenience was quickly overshadowed by the presence of the lecherously delightful Rod Steiger, who makes his traditional brutishness work while also managing to delight with some talk singing in the vein of opera that made my bizarre cinephile self as giddy as can be. These are two polar opposites, however, and certainly probably affect only my personal response to the film. What I can say more generally about the film is that it is one of great genre hybridity that makes the previously enjoyable Seven Brides for Seven Brothers seem simple although still good. The dance choreography within this film possesses such a flow and scope that its major sequence prior to the intermission makes for an experience equal to Singin' In the Rain or The Red Shoes thus begging, if not outwardly demanding that it earn its own high definition upgrade. The music in Oklahoma! is also decidedly iconic and aside from the title song, I had no clue that "Oh What A Beautiful Morning" came from this of all musicals. Between its inclusion of an overture and intermission and some rather evocative ballet sequences, this is both precisely what I expected to experience when undertaking this marathon, while also proving to be curious in its departure from the natural order of the genre. I would assume it to be a result of also pulling from the western canon. Either way, what Oklahoma! offers is enjoyable, although normative, made all the more endearing by the ways in which it is distinctly a product of the mid fifties both in subject matter and visual compostion.
Oklahoma! centers on a community in, as the title suggests, the still expanding Oklahoma, here in the middle of westward expansion, wherein a space like Kansas serves a point of idealism both for well-established business persons and struggling farmhands. As such rough and tumble cowboy Curly McLain (Gordon MacRae) proves the fitting example of the town, looking to make a name for himself with little money, while also winning the heart of local girl Laurey Williams (Shirley Jones). Of course, this task is not quite that simple as Laurey also proves the point of desire her Aunt Eller's (Charlotte Greenwood) hired farmhand Jud Fry (Rod Steiger). Using guile and charm, however, Curly pushes towards a reality where he can win the hand of Laurey and, subsequently, settle down into a worthwhile life. Another portion of the narrative centers on the shrill, but desirable Annie Carnes (Gloria Grahame) seeking out her own relationship, longing to be with Perisian peddler Ali Hakim, while ignoring her family's promise that should the seemingly worthless Will Parker (Gene Nelson) actually attain enough money that he can earn her hand in marriage. Working through the various holidays and festivals in the territory the push and pull of the dueling relationships comes to full steam, with Curly finally attaining a return affection from Laurey much to the Chagrin of Jud who vows to earn her hand by any means necessary, while Annie plays oblivious to the continually lecherous nature of Ali, while stifling all the advances by well meaning Will Parker. When it seems as though Jud will attain the last say in marrying Laurey a desperate Curly sells everything he has to his name to win her hand, leading to the frustrated Jud exacting a fiery revenge, only to literally fall on his own knife in the process. Annie comes to see the earnestness of Will, while Ali ends up becoming involved, by gunpoint, in a marriage one that is to a women whose charms are overshadowed by her rather unfortunate laugh. In the closing moments, highly idyllic as they may be, Curly and Laurey are shown riding off into the sunset in a white carriage that the young cowboy had promised earlier in the film.
This film is delightful, it is really hard not to become engrossed in the visual sensibilities and the generally sumptuous nature of the Technicolor process, even if one is watching the particular film at a bizarre 30 frames per second. However, it should be noted that the hybridity at play here comes from what may well be the two most heteronormative genres in all of film. The western, while quite often existing in a space of the masculine, nonetheless, ascribes to a certain self/other sensibility that is very much on display in the likes of Shane and Rio Bravo, but is also capable of being subverted in works like Johnny Guitar, or in extreme opposite something like Brokeback Mountain. This is more so the case for musicals wherein romantic connection is almost a necessity for an engaging story, particularly since musicals in their various heydays served as pointed escapist cinema. I would posit that in many ways Oklahoma! is the worst combination of these two worlds, demanding that figures like Curly and Annie seek out the most obvious forms of relationships, so much so that they should destroy all sense of their material and emotional selves in the process, Curly doing everything short of selling the shirt off of his back to simply attain a date with Laurey, while Annie admits to being narcissistic when it comes to her desire for men, treating their comparisons of her as a sweet thing to be consumed as endearing and not pure, unadulterated objectification. I know that it might be coming from a space of love for Rod Steiger, but I almost wonder if his character is not intended to represent some degree of othered desire, one that is well meaning but inexplicable in the space of the doubly heteronormative, indeed, the associations with a fiery death evoke something like a Frankenstein imagery and his lurching, groaning singing only emphasize this possibility. Furthermore, while I would love to extend the same consideration to the figure of Ali, he is both a terrible misogynist and a figure whose cast in the very oppressive shadow of an orientalist understanding of the foreigner, resulting in a figure who acts both highly offensive and is depicted as offensive. There is no desiring differently in the space of Oklahoma! because it is as normative of a film as one can find. Indeed, that is what makes it so curious to watch, as it represents both a singular moment in American culture, while also showing the power of film to promote ideals even if unintentionally.
Key Scene: The dance sequence prior to intermission is stunning. Absolutely awe-inspiring.
This is a great film, one that is egregiously problematic though. However, it is currently only available on DVD and begs to be upgraded. As such renting it is the appropriate option.