Oklahoma! (Fred Zinneman, 1955 and Trevor Nunn, 1999)

oklahoma19551I’VE just seen the 1999 film version of Trevor Nunn’s London stage revival of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s great musical Oklahoma, starring Hugh Jackman – who was then pretty well unknown. He makes a great Curly and to be honest I might prefer his relaxed singing in this film to his acclaimed role as Valjean in the latest adaptation of Les Miserables, though of course he is excellent in that too. Anyway, seeing the London revival of Oklahoma! reminded me that I wrote a piece about the 1955 film for the musicals countdown  at the Wonders in the Dark website, so I thought I’d re-post it here, and will add a few thoughts about the Trevor Nunn version at the end, plus links to the two different versions of my favourite song from the show. (I’ve never actually seen the musical on stage, but would really love to do if I get the chance).

Rodgers and Hammerstein were surely second to none when it came to creating musical scores full of great standards – and Oklahoma! is one of their finest. The 1955 film’s 145-minute running time is packed with unforgettable numbers like the title song, The Surrey with the Fringe on Top, People will Say We’re In Love, I Cain’t Say No, and, of course, the stunning opening song, Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin’. The story of this Western musical romance at first seems very simple and impossibly sunny, not to mention a little old-fashioned, as two very different young girls in Oklahoma at the turn of the 20th century are each courted by two rival men. However, there are some darker themes amid all that sunshine and ripening corn, with occasional shadow-filled scenes showing the way forward to R&H’s Carousel, filmed the following year, which again starred Shirley Jones and Gordon MacRae.

Laurey (Shirley Jones) is obviously made for boy next door Curly (Gordon Macrae), but is also being wooed, or stalked, by older, sinister farmhand Jud Fry (Rod Steiger). Meanwhile, fickle Ado Annie (Gloria Grahame, looking completely different from her roles in film noir!) just cain’t decide whether she should marry adoring cowboy Will Parker (Gene Nelson) or plump for flirtatious peddler Ali Hakim (Eddie Albert). What she doesn’t realise is that the peddler is even more fickle than she is.

Gordon MacRae and Rod Steiger

Gordon MacRae and Rod Steiger

On stage in 1943, the musical was a sensation, and, with its achingly nostalgic portrayal of a traditional and often idyllic way of life, it struck a particular chord with audiences in wartime. Sadly, though, as with so many great stage musicals, there was a long delay before the show finally made it to the silver screen, in the middle of the Cold War – and in the meantime others had copied some of its innovations. Oklahoma! is said to be the first show which featured a dream ballet sequence, and also the first one where the score was completely integrated into the narrative, with no unconnected songs thrown in. Yet by the time it was released in the cinema, 12 years on, many other films had featured dream ballets, most famously An American in Paris, and integrated scores had also become something taken for granted.

Although it might seem like an MGM musical, Oklahoma! was in fact made by the independent Magma Theatre Corporation, and produced by Rodgers and Hammerstein themselves, giving them greater control over the finished result. I’ve read that Rodgers held off from filming because he felt that some of his earlier shows had not been done justice on film, and he wanted to ensure this one kept its great score. (Only a couple of the original stage songs were cut for the screen.) Also the delay helped to ensure a successful tour of the stage production once its Broadway run had ended. The late release might have meant the film missed its ideal moment, but it did give musical films a shot in the arm just when they were starting to struggle, and helped to ensure that studios went on releasing more lavishly-produced titles in this vein over the next few years.

Shirley Jones and Gloria Grahame

Shirley Jones and Gloria Grahame

Oklahoma! itself had a massive $6.8million budget, meaning it could be largely filmed on location rather than amid cheap-looking backdrops. Arizona was actually used for filming, because it was hard to find unspoilt rural areas in Oklahoma in the 1950s – I’m told the mountain scenery isn’t very similar to Oklahoma, but it looks beautiful, anyway. That corn “as high as an elephant’s eye” had to be specially grown for the film, as it was made out of season. According to the imdb: “The job was given to the people of the University of Arizona Agricultural Department, who planted each stalk in individual containers and held their breath. With rain and good luck, the corn grew to a height of 16 feet, causing Oscar Hammerstein to quip: “The corn is now as high as the eye of an elephant on top of another elephant.” Cinemascope and the rival Todd-AO widescreen format were used to create two different versions of the film, which celebrated the sweeping landscapes in gorgeous colour. The aim is to create a feeling of what the production was like on stage, and a lot of the time the cameras hold off to show the numbers from a distance, though they do move in to give greater intimacy in some numbers, like Curly and Laurey’s duet People Will Say We’re In Love. Choreographer Agnes de Mille’s dance numbers are sometimes said to be old-fashioned, but look great to me, especially the dream ballet. It’s odd to think that MacRae and Jones were replaced by professional dancers for this sequence, but Rod Steiger had to dance his own role because nobody else really looked like him, even from the back!

Shirley Jones and Gordon MacRae

Shirley Jones and Gordon MacRae

Director Fred Zinneman was a surprising choice to helm a musical, as his previous hits were dramas like From Here to Eternity and the great Western High Noon. I can’t see much similarity between those films and Oklahoma! for the most part, but at times the tension does pick up, particularly in the scenes involving farmhand Jud Fry, played with a simmering intensity by Rod Steiger. Steiger is a surprising choice to star in a musical (and it seems he does actually sing rather than being dubbed!) but he is great at portraying this weird loner. One of the best scenes in the film must be the one where Curly goes into the dark, shadowy barn where Jud lives, and goads him/appeals to his self-pity with thoughts of his death, in the song Pore Jud is Daid. All the way through, the song insults Jud and appeals to his vanity both at once.

Although Jones and MacRae definitely have the best voices in the film, the most memorable performances are possibly those given by Steiger and an amazingly unglamorous Gloria Grahame as Ado Annie. Grahame couldn’t really sing but her songs were pieced together from various takes, rather than being dubbed, and the results are hilarious. Gene Nelson is also great as her boyfriend Will, and Eddie Albert gives an amusing vaudeville-style performance as the peddler, though that style of ethnic humour has dated more badly than the rest of the movie.

Hugh Jackman as Curly

Hugh Jackman as Curly

So what about the 1999 remake? I really enjoyed this version too, which does give the feeling of what it must have been like to see the stage production – complete with shots of the audience at the start and end, and also at the interval (the UK TV station Sky Arts showed it with just one ad break in the interval, so that the flow wasn’t damaged by interruptions.) The songs have clearly been recorded separately and the soundtrack is sometimes just a little out of synch with the lip movements, but this does make for a wonderful sound quality, even if at moments it is slightly disconcerting. Hugh Jackman’s performance as Curly is undoubtedly the standout, full of star quality. This was just before he became a household name as Wolverine in X-Men, but, listening to his voice in this, it seems a pity he  hasn’t had the opportunity to do more singing on screen. Maybe he will do so now in the wake of Les Miserables.  Much-loved British comedy actress Maureen Lipman is also great as Aunt Eller. Most of the rest of the cast are not instantly recognisable names, but they give fine performances, especially Josefina Gabrielle as a tomboy version of Laurey, always in dungarees, and Vicki Simon as a mischievous Ado Annie. Peter Polycarpou, who is well-known in the UK for both stage and TV work, has some fun with the role of Ali Hakim, though of course there is the same problem with the dated ethnic humour as in the earlier version.

This version is 180 minutes long and restores a couple of songs which were dropped for the original film – the amusing It’s a Scandal, It’s an Outrage and Jud’s Lonely Room, a ballad which suddenly casts the creepy stalker in a more sympathetic light for a few moments, as he sings about his loneliness and his longing to have a girl of his own.

“And I’m better’n that smart-aleck cowhand
Who thinks he is better’n me,
And the girl I want
Ain’t afraid of my arms,
And her own soft arms keep me warm.
And her long, yeller hair
Falls across my face
Jist like the rain in a storm…”

I don’t think Rod Steiger’s singing would have been equal to this song, but Shuler Hensley, who plays Jud in the 1999 film (one of only two Americans in the cast) , has a powerful voice which does it justice. He achieves the difficult job of making the character of Jud  just as repulsive as he ought to be and yet showing his loneliness and pain at the same time.

Hugh Jackman and Josefina Gabrielle

Hugh Jackman and Josefina Gabrielle

As well as the restoration of the two missing songs, the lyrics of some of the other songs are franker, and the pictures on Jud’s wall are downright pornographic – while Laurey’s dream ballet is inspired by her sniffing the smelling salts given her by the peddler, so that there is a drug overtone to this sequence. The ballet sequence has been completely rechoreographed for this version. I don’t remember the dancing in the 1955 film well enough now to compare the two, but the one in the 1999 film does a good job in bringing out the unspoken desires and fears of all the characters, and is also full of colour and humour.

All in all, I love both film versions of this great musical, and will now hope to see it on stage.

And just to finish with, here are links to videos of Gordon MacRae and Hugh Jackman’s versions of what is probably my favourite song from the musical, The Surrey with the Fringe on Top.

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8 thoughts on “Oklahoma! (Fred Zinneman, 1955 and Trevor Nunn, 1999)

  1. Vienna

    Enjoyed your comparisons.
    I was lucky enough to see Hugh Jackman in Oklahoma at the National Theatre. Amazing to think how he became a Hollywood A -lister.
    I think all four of the big Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals including Carousel,The King And I and South Pacific were very well filmed, and Oklahoma is no exception. Hollywood wasn’t always as good with Broadway adaptations in the 30s and 40s.
    Regarding the filming of the National Theatre production, because I had seen it live, I was extremely disappointed that they didn’t simply film a live performance which would have given so much more to a viewer at home.
    Instead the cast was taken into a studio and the songs were pre- recorded . All the intimacy and just the sheer joy of live singing was gone.
    The same thing happened with the stage musical version of All About Eve, called APPLAUSE ( in which Lauren Bacall was wonderful). Again, they made a studio bound version which didn’t at all convey the excitement on stage.(Larry Hagman was brought in to costar with Bacall).
    I like Hugh Jackman, but for me singers like Alfred Drake ( the original Curley) , or Howard Keel or Gordon Macrae had far superior voices.
    It’s good nowadays because of digital filming, that big cinemas can show us live performances from the stage. That’s the way to go for all of us who can’t always get to a Broadway or West End theatre.
    But so sad that so many wonderful stage productions are gone forever.

    My blog. http://dancinglady39.wordpress.com

    Reply
    1. Judy Post author

      Thanks for the great comment, Vienna. I agree that all four of the Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals were well-filmed – ‘South Pacific’ has come in for some criticism because of the strange colour effects used at some points, but I think it is a great film despite that. I’m very interested to hear that you saw the National Theatre production live and that you felt it would have been better to have filmed a live performance rather than doing it in the studio – I can see it would have more excitement done like that. I haven’t seen the film of ‘Applause’ but would like to, although I take your point that it didn’t manage to capture the excitement of the stage version. I will be along to visit your blog, and thanks again!

  2. Sam Juliano

    Judy, I have hit a dead spell with blogging but am and will be back with a vengeance. I feel terrible I missed this post when it premiered, but I just enjoyed every word as I did when the 1955 review first appeared at WitD. Some issues of course are held against it, including the charge that it was filmed as a Western epic, instead of with the light airy touch that was employed on stage. Zinnemann supposedly admitted years later that he did a poor job, having no previous musical experience. Yet, the sunny radiance of the score still comes through; my own favorite number is the cheerful and bouncy “The Fringe with the Surrey on Top” and any true Rodgers and Hammerstein booster will not be able to resist it. The score is just so wonderful, that again, many will opt to ignore what they see as insignificant failings. I did think Rod Steiger was miscast, but to be honest I love the actor so much that I never had a big problem with this. That is terrific that you recently caught the later version and have woven that reaction into the review of the film. Great to hear Jackman was so exceptional in the 1999 version, which I am ashamed to say I haven’t watched yet. But I will as soon as possible. I got to see a terrific production of SOUTH PACIFIC at Lincoln Center two years ago, but am waiting for one of OKLAHOMA to appear.

    Fantastic piece here Judy!

    Reply
    1. Judy Post author

      Sam, I tried to reply to this the other day but it seems my reply has disappeared, so apologies for that. Thanks very much for the kind comments – I am also in something of a dead spell with blogging so do understand what you mean! The ‘sunny radiance of the score’ is a perfect description of the music, and I would also say ‘Surrey with the Fringe on Top’ is my favourite song here. I would have loved to see that Lincoln Center ‘South Pacific’ – it did have a very brief run in London but sadly I missed it. Thanks very much again.

  3. Rick

    Believe or not, I just saw the 1955 version for the first time recently (I had seen bits and pieces prior to that). I was surprised by how many of the songs I knew and the production is pretty spectacular. I agree with you about Gene Nelson, who Kansas City number at the train station is a standout. Overall, I was pretty impressed though I felt it could have shortened by a couple of musical numbers. Enjoyed your review and the on Jackman’s version, too.

    Reply
    1. Judy Post author

      Rick, must agree that number at the station is a standout – glad to hear you enjoyed the movie and I agree about the production being spectacular. Thanks for the nice comment.

  4. Pingback: Which Musical Should You Star In? | GossipViews.com

  5. Bill Devlin

    Best musical I have ever seen and I have seen just about all of them. Maureen Lippmann was a standout. I just compared her on a film clip against the original film and there was no comparison.Great casting and completely wonderful production. It will definitely be a well used DVD in my collection.

    Reply

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