Oklahoma! (1955)

Oklahoma! (1955)

“You ain’t never gonna get rid of me — never.”

A young woman (Shirley Jones) living with her aunt (Charlotte Greenwood) debates whether to go to the local dance with her cowboy-boyfriend (Gordon MacRae) or the sinister hired hand (Rod Steiger) who’s offered to drive her there; meanwhile, a local flirt (Gloria Grahame) is unsure whether her father (James Whitmore) will force her to settle down with a cowboy (Gene Nelson) or a travelling salesman (Eddie Albert).

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Eddie Albert Films
  • Fred Zinneman Films
  • Gloria Grahame Films
  • James Whitmore Films
  • Musicals
  • Play Adaptation
  • Rivalry
  • Rod Steiger Films
  • Shirley Jones Films

This adaptation of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s enormously popular 1943 Broadway musical (their first collaboration) is notable for featuring Shirley Jones in her screen debut, for being filmed simultaneously in Todd-AO and CinemaScope, and for bringing the stage experience as directly as possible to the screen (i.e., all original songs were kept and no new ones added, though there were slight modifications to the timing and location of the songs). Speaking of the songs, all the musical numbers — including “Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin'”, “The Surrey With the Fringe On Top”, “Kansas City”, “The Farmer and the Cowman”, and “Oklahoma” — are beautifully staged and sung, with one exception: Grahame as Ado Annie squeaking out “I Cain’t Say No”. (Everything about Annie’s love triangle dilemma — including Eddie Albert’s demeaning portrayal of a Persian travelling salesman more interested in bedding than wedding women, and Gene Nelson’s impossibly stupid besotted cowboy — is simply silly.) Meanwhile, Rod Steiger’s performance as a dangerously sullen hired hand — as well as a nightmare dance sequence indicating that Jones is right to be wary of him — are completely out of place in this otherwise light-hearted musical; it’s painful watching MacRae singing a song to Steiger early on about how he’ll finally be remembered once he’s dead, so he might want to consider suicide (“Pore Jud is Daid”). This film remains worth a one-time look for the musical numbers, but otherwise hasn’t held up well.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Highly memorable Rodgers and Hammerstein songs

  • Beautiful cinematography
  • Fine dance numbers
  • Charlotte Greenwood as Aunt Eller

Must See?
No, but it’s worth a look for historical purposes, and certainly a one-time must-see for musical fans.


3 thoughts on “Oklahoma! (1955)

  1. First viewing. Agreed; not must-see but fans of movie musicals will certainly check it out. As per my 10/24/15 post in ‘The ’40s-’50s in Film’ (fb):

    “Now that you’re engaged to me, ya gotta stop havin’ fun!”

    ‘Oklahoma!’ (1955) [blu-ray]: Strangely, I realized while watching this that I had never seen it. Some may know that ‘Oklahoma!’ was essentially (though not completely) filmed twice – once in producer Michael Todd’s Todd-AO (70mm) and then again in CinemaScope (35mm). Both are on blu-ray now; the one I watched is the (better reviewed) former version. It looks great; parts of it are even stunning. The storytelling is simplicity itself: it’s basically a story about two men vying for a woman’s affection – and, in a subplot, two other men compete for a different woman’s affection. So, there’s not much story here. On the commentary with Shirley Jones, SJ refers to director Fred Zinnemann as “an actor’s director” – which explains why ‘Oklahoma!’ comes off less like a traditional Hollywood musical; there’s some gravity here. And the cast is interesting: Of course, Jones (in her debut) and Gordon MacRae fill in the traditional musical roles (as do Charlotte Greenwood as Aunt Eller and Gene Nelson – seeing him brought back the memory of seeing his terrific performance in the original production of Sondheim’s ‘Follies’) – but the supporting cast holds quirky surprises: Gloria Grahame, James Whitemore (dry as hell as Grahame’s dad), Rod Steiger (in a musical!) and Eddie Albert (whose character is supposed to be from Persia; he’s good even if his character’s origin is not convincing). Largely thanks to Agnes de Mille’s innovative choreography, my favorite of the musical numbers is ‘Everything’s Up to Date in Kansas City’ (lots of energy and much fun to be had there). Overall, it doesn’t get more old-time Americana than ‘Oklahoma!’ It’s not exactly a film I loved – but it held my interest and I’m glad I finally saw it.

  2. “Oklahoma” was one of the first films I saw as a budding teenage film fanatic, and it took me a long time to be convinced that Gloria Grahame was actually much, much more than her portrayal here. I remember literally being “befuddled” by her awful singing — much the same way I felt about Rex Harrison’s “singing” in “My Fair Lady”.

  3. Maybe surgery had something to do with her singing. Wikipedia tells us: “Grahame’s career began to wane after her performance in the musical film Oklahoma! (1955). She, whom audiences were used to seeing as a film noir siren, was viewed by some critics to be miscast as an ignorant country lass in a wholesome musical, and the paralysis of her upper lip from plastic surgery altered her speech and appearance.”

    I don’t recall well about Harrison but I have a memory of reading somewhere that, because he was not a singer, songs were either written or arranged *around* that fact – thus enabling him to talk-sing.

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