#292. Oklahoma! (1955)

A couple years ago, while watching movies from the 1930s and the first talkies, I started with this trend of dreading every musical, and then finding, after all of my foot-dragging, that the musicals were delightful and I loved them; mainly Busby Berkley stuff (42nd Street, Gold Diggers of 1933) but there was also Love Me Tonight, Wizard of Oz. I thought Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers stuff was pleasant enough. In the ‘40s I dreaded On the Town, ended up loving it, fucking loathed American in Paris—but felt it was redeemed by Gene Kelly’s follow-up in Singin’ in the Rain, and then I had a fine enough time with Band Wagon, loved A Star is Born and Carmen Jones.

            I don’t hate Oklahoma!, but I don’t like it, and the reason I’m walking through all that other stuff is because ei also don’t like Mary Poppins, or Grease, both of which come on the heels of Oklahoma!, and so I’m wondering if this movie—a huge box office and critical success—was some kind of turning point in mainstream musiclas.

            It’s directed, curiously, by Fred Zinneman, whose two other movies on the List comprise gritty adult fare: High Noon and From Here to Eternity. But I don’t think that it’s his touch I’m wincing from.

            I think it might be the touch of composer-dramatist duo Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein—whose names I’ve always heard as a pair but whose work is new to me just as with Oklahoma!, their debut, their paired talents were new to the world.

            I’m kinda resenting the fact that I heard these names so many times growing up and never investigated, never just rented and watched one of their movies if only to say, “OK, that’s what these guys are about. It’s not my thing, but now I know.” Seems like something Steve Donoghue would do, and something I ought to emulate: if you’re hearing a name come up more than a few times in reference to a field of interest—fucking just Google it. That’s the great perk of living in our time. There’s no excuse about, Oh I couldn’t make it out to the library, the video store…

            This shit’s in your pocket.

            Anyway. So I’m being exposed now to Rodgers and Hammerstein productions for the first time and although it would of course be stupidly presumptuous to say, off the basis of this movie alone, that they alone are responsible for basically creating the kind of late 20th century musical I dislike. But. The reason I disliked this musical is because it fit the bill perfectly as the kind of thing I thought I’d be getting whenever I sat down to watch a musical from the ‘30s or ‘40s.

            Some of those early musicals were disappointing, but always in ways that I couldn’t have anticipated. With Berkley’s Footlight Parade I was bothered by the crazy opulence of the third act, which I felt was championing visuals over music.

            A personal issue.

            With Gene Kelly I found myself getting flustered by the long, beautiful, but wildly indulgent ballet sequences in all three of his movies.

            Here, with Oklahoma!, I just disliked…the smile of it. The way that, in an unspoken way, it’s kind of about the fact that it’s a musical. Hollywood stars from different kindsa movies all teaming up for a fun, romantic, clean and mildly dramatic barrel of laughs. Gloria Grahame, for instance, is lovable and maybe a little annoying as a promiscuous ditz—but she’s dressed here like Little Bo Peep, all dapper and pale and pure to the eye, but all I can think of is how she brandished a pistol in The Big Heat, her face melted from her ex-lover’s abuse.

            And I think the movie knows that this is how I best know and how I most respect her as an artist. That’s the gimmick, I think. It’s not just an actor spreading her wings and trying something new; I feel like the implicit joke is, “Look at this serious actor playing a ditz.”

            Same goes, more pointedly, for Rod Steiger in the villain’s role—who, incidentally, I didn’t even realize was Rod Steiger. One of my all-time favorite movies is Sergio Leone’s Duck You Sucker but, since it came out in the ‘70s and bore no names or faces that I ever recognized except the director’s, I always regarded his character in that movie, Juan, as some kind of natural…entity. Steiger’s a method actor, and all of the roles in which I’ve seen him reflect that because he’s clearly immersed beyond the point of recognition, but his character in Duck You Sucker has always been so alive to me that I never bothered to look up the actor because it almost didn’t occur to me that there was an actor.

            I’m obsessed with Duck You Sucker and quote it to myself at least twice a week.

            (James Coburn as a wistful Irish revolutionary: “Oi did that only…wunce in moi loife.”)

            Anyway: I’m watching Oklahoma!, I’m seeing this frumpy cabin-dwelling villain murder every one of his scenes, flood every line of dialogue with personality and private history and menace, and I’m thinking, Fuck, this guy’s good.

            Then I forgot about it.

            Way down the List, months later, I’m watching In the Heat of the Night. That racis anti-hero sheriff is killing scenes in the same way. I Google the actor. It’s Rod Steiger. I look at his credits and see that he’s Juan in Duck You Sucker and I lost my mind.

            So yeah: Steiger’s great, Grahame is great, but nobody else in Oklahoma! Really stands out to me. The music is wonderful, and I might actually get my hands on the album.

            Definitely glad I saw this, because I think Grahame and Steiger and the music make the journey worthwhile and because I’m glad now to finally have an idea of not just what this Rodgers & Hammerstein duo was up to but how it influenced the genre.

            This one’s not for me, but it’s worth watching.

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