"There's a bright golden haze on the meadow," sings Curly (Gordon MacRae) as Oklahoma! kicks off. He's right. There's also a brilliant blue sky filled with cotton-candy clouds and rolling farmland and pretty girls in petticoats. Even the horses are gorgeous. This visual feast, the first feature shot in Todd-AO widescreen (and filmed simultaneously in CinemaScope) was one of many mid-'50s features seemingly designed to lure armies of Americans away from their new black-and-white TVs and back into movie theaters for a dazzling experience.
And dazzling it is. One of the most fun and hummable of Rodgers and Hammerstein's many musicals, Oklahoma! took 12 years to make it from its innovative Broadway debut (it was the first musical in which every song related directly to the plot) to the big screen. The story of the romance between cowboy Curly and virginal Laurey (Shirley Jones in full soprano mode), it has plenty of peripheral characters, each of whom gets a song and dance along the way, from slutty Ado Annie (Gloria Grahame) ("I Caint Say No') and her boyfriend Will Parker (Gene Nelson) ("Everything's Up to Date in Kansas City") to the kind-hearted Aunt Eller (Charlotte Greenwood), on whose farm Laurey lives.
Turn-of-the-century Oklahoma is still a territory, and the main societal conflict is between farmers and cowmen (apparently all the Native Americans have long since formed a kick line and danced their way onto reservations). But like just about everything in the movie, disputes are usually solved with rollicking dance-offs.
Curly and Laurey flirt like crazy to the strains of "Surrey with the Fringe on Top" and "People Will Say We're in Love," and an Act II wedding seems inevitable. The main threat to everyone's overall joy is Judd Fry (Rod Steiger), a sinister farmhand who looks mean, sounds mean, and behaves mean. Judd wants Laurey, but he knows he's not good enough for her. Nevertheless he makes a move and scares the hell out of her.
Laurey's trauma works itself out in the famous -- and weird -- Agnes DeMille-choreographed mini-ballet dream sequence, in which dancers representing Laurey and Curly battle it out with Judd (Steiger himself). Is Laurey simply scared of Judd, or would a more modern reading suggest a case of sexual hysteria? Maybe deep down Laurey is really wondering what a roll in the hay with the dangerous, dirty farmhand might be like.
But enough about danger. Oklahoma! is mainly about fun and frolicking and square dancing. Cinephiles have noted that because Todd-AO equipment was so big and hard to move, much of the film is blocked in static wide shots with unusually long takes. That's true, and a broadcast TV version that chops up the widescreen picture makes things even worse. Luckily the 50th Anniversary DVD gives you two ways to watch, either in CinemaScope or in Todd-AO. Compare and contrast the two to look for subtle differences in the takes.
Either way, you'll notice that as good as the music and dancing is, Oklahoma! drags a bit and seems overly long. But if classic Broadway is your thing, you'll enjoy this movie more than the other Rodgers and Hammerstein classics that made it to the screen in the same era. It's certainly more enjoyable than the dark and brooding Carousel (in which Shirley Jones also starred) or the just-plain-wacky candy-colored South Pacific. If you're still awake when the rousing title song heralds the grand finale -- "O-K-L-A-H-O-M-A... Oklahoma! Yow!" -- you'll probably sing right along.
The two-disc anniversary DVD also includes several commentary tracks, sing-along subtitles, vintage stage excerpts, trailers, still galleries, and a documentary about CinemaScope and Todd-AO technology.