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60 Years of “Oklahoma!”

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 By Sergio Martinez –mtltimes.ca 

Although this famous musical by Richard Rodger and Oscar Hammerstein made its Broadway debut in 1943 its film adaptation came just in 1955 and it was then as a movie—a medium that could reach much bigger audiences all over the world—that most people had the opportunity of enjoying “Oklahoma!” especially its contagious music. To celebrate the 60th anniversary of the movie release Cineplex, very appropriately, had the good idea of including it in its Classic Film Series on May 10, 13 and 25. And it was indeed a very good idea: this being a kind of movie that has to be seen on the big screen, no home theatre would make justice to its then innovative 70 mm. Todd-AO format nor to its glorious Technicolor, both used masterly to convey to the audience the vastness of the American west, to say nothing of a great display of dances and beautiful songs.

Personally “Oklahoma!” was that kind of movie that I always wanted to see since when it was released in my country of origin I was too young to see it (there the movie was classified for people over 14, rule that theatre owners observed very strictly) so the opportunity to see it on the big screen was something that I wouldn’t miss. To my surprise, the audience was not made up exclusively of nostalgic seniors as I expected, in fact a good number of young people were there too: certainly a pleasant indication that classic films still have a sort of intergenerational appeal in Montreal.

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The story itself is rather conventional: beautiful Laurie (Shirley Jones) is courted by cowboy Curley (Gordon MacRae) but she is not entirely satisfied with his apparent lack of real commitment to having a relationship and getting married (the story is set in 1907 in rural Oklahoma when girls were supposed to be married when they were 18) so, to make him jealous, she has accepted to attend a community party that night in the company of Jud Frye (Rod Steiger), a farmhand who has developed a sort of obsessive passion for the girl. Disappointed, Curley will accompany Laurie’s auntie Eller (Charlotte Greenwood) to the party instead.

A secondary story is also taken place with another love story having its own ups and downs: cowboy Will Parker (Gene Nelson) who has recently returned from the “big” city (Kansas City), is in love with flirtatious Ado Annie (Gloria Grahame) who in turn has fallen for a peddler (Eddie Albert) a man for whom marriage is not in his vocabulary, and whose intentions regarding the girl are quite far from any sort of commitment.

The conflict is intensified when on their way to the social event Jud tries to force Laurie and she manages to escape and then arrives alone at the party, just in time for an auction to raise funds for a school that would precede the final conflict.

The movie directed by Fred Zimmerman maintains today all its force and freshness. Contrary to some film adaptations of musicals, it is not “filmed theatre,” but a well-translated version of a play into the language of cinema with a creative use of outdoor scenes, an excellent photography and a beautiful integration of dance and songs into the narrative.

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“Oklahoma!” when released in 1955 and now 60 years later could also be analyzed as an illustrative piece of the United States at that time: “Oh, what a beautiful mornin’, / Oh, what a beautiful day. / I got a beautiful feelin’ / Ev’rything’s goin’ my way” sings cowboy Curley in the opening scene while riding a horse and the bounty of the land in the form of the corn plantation is on display. Indeed in the 1950s the Americans live a period of great prosperity, after the war it seems that they were all rich and happy: it is a period of self-confidence and profound optimism, one may say. Of course that would all change when the conservative decade of the 1950s give way to the horror of the American intervention in Vietnam the following decade with the resulting rebellious youth opposed to the war. The period of candid innocence reflected in “Oklahoma!” would then be lost forever, but for now 60 years later its re-release has been a great experience to relive that mindset too, after all is now part of contemporary history. (“Oklahoma!” was selected in 2007 for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant”).

 

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