Oklahoma! (1955)

I had never seen Oklahoma! and it finally seemed like a good time to get into it. The DVD was just lying there on the shelf, so I dove in.

It’s a story about life in the Midwest in the early 1900s, and centers on two young lovers, Curly (Gordon MacRae) and Laurey (Shirley Jones). Curly wants to win over Laurey and take her to the box social, which seems to be the event at the time, but she plays hard to get. They have a little bit of a spat so the surly ranch hand Jud (Rod Steiger) ends up taking Laurey. Curly and Laurey really like each other, but Jud has other plans, so it turns into a legitimate love triangle. Curly and Jud try to outbid each other for Laurey’s box lunch (hence the term box social), until Curly ends up bidding his saddles, horse, gun, and basically his livelihood just for Laurey. Jud does not take this well, and he comes up with a scheme to actually kill Curly, involving a kaleidoscope with a hidden blade.

Quite frankly, Jud is creepy. After he asks Laurey to go with him, he watches her through her window while she undresses! Curly and Jud even have a duet about what would happen if Jud were to hang himself.  And then we have these throat-slashing contraptions being handed around?  What kind of musical am I watching?

Curly and Laurey still have their happy ending, and they get married. But there seems to be a tradition in the olden days to harass newlyweds and trap them on top of giant haystacks – all in good fun, of course. While Curly and Laurey are stuck on their haystack, Jud sets it on fire. So Curly jumps at him, causing Jud to fall on his own knife. At which point I think I spent a full minute wondering if I was watching Carousel.

The marshal happens to be present while all this goes down, and he insists that Curly must be arrested. But Laurey’s Aunt Eller (played by the charmingly enjoyable Charlotte Greenwood) suggests that since the judge is also on hand, they can have the trial right there so the couple won’t miss the train for their honeymoon. It’s a hurried trial, and everyone goes through the motions to pronounce Curly not guilty, because they all know Jud is an evil man.

This makes me wonder – Aunt Eller, if you were so sure that Jud was no good, and you were so ready to have this mock trial, why did you hire him as your ranch hand in the first place, and let him drive your niece to the box social? That was a long drive through some dark and isolated tracks, and he had plenty of opportunities to take advantage of Laurey  –  which he almost did!

After this farce of a trial, everyone bursts into the title song. It’s iconic, and great, but what am I supposed to feel after all the Jud drama?

I came into the movie having these expectations of a good time. It even starts with this wonderful overture, so I settled in for a relaxed, undemanding couple of hours. You get all these wonderful songs, starting with Curly singing “Oh What A Beatiful Mornin”, leading into “The Surrey With The Fringe On Top”. Curly and Laurey’s duet of “People Will Say We’re In Love” is simply divine. I’d forgotten how amazing Gordon MacRae’s voice is – in that soaring yet masculine way. MacRae and Greenwood are the most fun to watch, and they play off each other so well that the affection Aunt Eller feels for Curly really comes through. The cinematography is fabulous, with the bright colors of the cornfield and prairie and the dainty little farmhouses.

But the whole Jud storyline threw me off. He’s a menace lurking throughout this seemingly innocent narrative. Was that the whole point? To show us that things are never what they seem? That we tend to incorrectly romanticize the past and think that everything was better because life was simpler? Another character, Ado Annie, is also heavily implied to sleep around, so I suppose that was another one of those hidden messages. I don’t like it.

There is also an extended ballet sequence showing the love triangle. It does not serve any purpose nor advance the story in any way, because it’s just a repeat of what we’ve already seen anyway. And I have an aversion for ballet sequences in movies (see: Daddy Long Legs).

Overall I think I was just confused by Oklahoma! It’s such a classic that I feel I must like it. Maybe I just didn’t get it. Maybe the stage version is better. I loved the songs, and that has to be my biggest takeaway. But to be honest I had more fun after the movie when I was bugging everyone at home with my version of

“Ooooooooooooooook

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…..lahoma where the wind comes sweeping down the plaaaaaain!”