If you try to project any modern sensibilities onto the classic Rodgers and Hammerstein musical Oklahoma! it could easily be considered problematic. From courtship rituals that barely require consent to its aggressively all-white cast, the film runs the gamut of outdated middle-American clichés. However, taken for what it is – a musical tribute to a bygone era of American wholesomeness that perhaps never was — and considered within the proper historical context, the film is an incredibly fun piece of saccharine Americana. Fueled by a set of impeccably catchy show tunes, Oklahoma! paints a portrait of prairie life that is so absurdly joyful that it is almost impossible not to have fun with the good natured banality of it all.
Oklahoma! tells the story of a small town box social that is being thrown as a fundraiser for the local schoolhouse. If that string of words doesn’t seem quaint enough, the plot largely concerns the deeply political question of who is going to drive who to the event, and in what mode of conveyance they might travel. The narrative is dominated by a pair of love triangles The first centers around Laurey (Shirley “Marian the Librarian” Jones), who is deeply in love with a chipper cowboy named Curly (Gordon MacRae), but is already committed to commuting with creepy farmhand Jud (Rod Steiger). Meanwhile, equally jovial cowboy Will Parker (Gene Nelson) returns home on a train, to find that his sweetheart Ado Annie (Gloria Grahame) has become infatuated with itinerant peddler Ali Hakim (Eddie Albert). It is all high drama in a town where the cowboys learn to tap dance while the ladies are busy doing ballet in their boudoirs.
As the throuples continue to woo each other, the film becomes a pastiche of charmingly antiquated small town life. Women tastefully skinny dip behind conveniently placed bushes. Cowboys tap dance through twirling lassos and on the tops of moving trains. The men are so emotionally stunted that their idea of small talk revolves around suicide and songs about funerals, while the women are commodified as auctioned lunches. And a savvy businessman can buy an unlicensed gun at a school function for a mere eighteen dollars. It’s basically the American frontier dream, but with a lot more bleached smiles.
While it is certainly fun to laugh at the idealized simplicity of a turn of the century love story filtered through the lens of 1950s propriety , the strength of any musical of course lies in its songs. By this measure, Oklahoma! is a tour de force, chock full of infectious entries in The Great American Songbook. “Oh What a Beautiful Mornin’” is intoxicatingly cheerful, while “The Surrey with the Fringe on Top” will have you tapping your toes even as it has you reaching for your dictionary. The lyrics of “I Cain’t Say No” somehow manage to both empower women in a repressive sexual environment while denying them any agency in it, making for a song that is both ridiculous and a ridiculously fun sing-along. “People Will Say We’re In Love” is a perfectly romantic ballad that would be right at home as the intermission of any good barn wedding. And the show-stopping title number will have you belting out the only word you can actually remember for days to come.
The low point of the film is a fifteen minute drug-induced interpretive dance dream sequence that ends with a murder in an expressionist nightmare field. Yet even this highly skippable sequence can be a great source of fun if you break through the tedium by irreverently reminding yourself every few minutes that the dance number is still going on, and still getting progressively weirder with each new music cue.
Verdict: 4 out of 5 Stars.
Even in its most extraneous moments, Oklahoma! never stops being fun. Some moments can be appreciated genuinely, some moments can be appreciated ironically. Either way, it will have you laughing and singing from beginning to end. The film is propelled by the powerful combination of Richard Rodgers’ music and Oscar Hammerstein’s lyrics, which help elevate a largely forgettable story to the level of classic. It is a family friendly romp through the heartland, and a true classic for aficionados of the musical genre or unbridled sentimentality.