The Journey So Far

A chronological stroll thru the history of Broadway Musicals as they came to be recorded by Hollywood--the summation of a lifelong vocation, and a journey of self discovery. Equal parts cultural history, critique and personal memoir. Coming next: Hairspray

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Oklahoma!

October 11, 1955   Magna/RKO   145 Minutes

I have little recollection of my existence before the age of nine. But among the few memories of my single digit years are certain places, sounds and images forever seared into my brain. Among these, the movie Oklahoma! is something more; it’s the acorn that grew into the mighty oak—the mother of all my passions. Probably the first movie I ever saw, its affect on me is incalculable. It was the dawn of my cultural/historical awareness; my first grasp of the concept of an alternate universe; my box of crayons to fill in the black outlines of a home void of any color. In the Bible of my religion, Oklahoma! is writ as the chapter: Genesis.
In this, surely I’m not alone. Oklahoma! was every bit as seminal as it was popular, and its transition from groundbreaking Bway production to groundbreaking motion picture carried the show’s influence and hit-parade score over an entire post-war generation, and a surge of Baby Boomer children spoon-fed on Rodgers & Hammerstein (A gateway drug that often leads to Lerner & Loewe, Bock & Harnick, Comden & Green.) Great as it is, Oklahoma! is nobody’s absolute favorite—how could it be? So much good came from its influence, so many gems in its wake, it’s impossible to consider it the pinnacle. And yet in its way it’s the Empire State Bldg. of musicals. For all its import in my formation, I’ve only seen the movie five times before, and not again since 1983. Coming upon it now, during this chronicle of film musicals, is like finding my way home. The ground zero of my spiritual/artistic awakening.

For two middle-aged men with long careers already behind them R&H created an amazingly youthful work; full of innovation, optimism, and a spirit distinctly American—right at the very moment the USA rose to global influence and goodwill. A seemingly inconsequential slice of country romance, it somehow stood for the hearty pioneer spirit of a nation; instant folklore. Watching it again for the first time in 27 years, I was tearful in how it so masterfully pulls me into the frontier frame of mind, how beautifully the scene is set and given wings with Rodgers’ melody. I’d like to think that “Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin” was the first song I ever heard in context of watching a story—what better way to step thru the looking glass? A slow waltz, like a gentle sunrise; it’s the stirring of a new day and the joy of being alive. To start a day—no, start life with this sentiment, this feeling, is to set off on a path hell-bent on Wonderland. And that’s just what I did. But Oklahoma! didn’t really open my youthful eyes to Theater or Bway, or anything about show business., but rather served as a primer in social basics; planting roots, calming disputes, sowing wild oats, forming community. The frontier spirit was easy to relate to; my father had recently planted us on the edge of civilization—the farthest point west of the San Fernando Valley; the new suburban frontier. Seven homes down and it was sagebrush & tumbleweed. Not for long, of course, but in the b&w photos I have of our modest tract home rising up from its foundation, it looks no less rural than the song-honored prairies. Those were the years—and not Reagan’s ‘80s—that were the true “Morning in America;” the rise of the middle class. Or in my family’s case: the unlikely jackpot for a haunted Diaspora. A reboot and reinvention for the penniless immigrant. And with this new identity and a history carefully locked away, came a child; a blank slate: me. Like the first plant in a newly irrigated desert, I blossomed free of tangled roots and sought to find my own. I didn’t need to escape, I needed to join; and here were the voices calling me: come rejoice in this beautiful mornin’. This new hope that grows wild in a land called America. Or to quote dear old Oscar:

               We know we belong to the land
               And the land we belong to is grand!

Grander still in California—once the province of Mexico; now the refuge of any greenhorn with a dream, including (ironically) countless Oklahoman’s driven from the plains of “waving wheat” by the merciless Dust Bowl.

In the dozen years since Oklahoma! had opened on Bway and defined the American musical as a unique and mass-cultural phenomenon, Rodgers & Hammerstein had become an industry to rival General Motors. They’d written another six shows (half of which are undisputed classics); created a lucrative new market in theatrical recordings; and were so dominant in the national discourse that an evening long television tribute concert in March 1954 was broadcast simultaneously on all 3 networks—to an audience larger than today’s Superbowl viewership. (How times have changed!--If Stephen Sondheim would be thus celebrated today, he’d get a pledge-break PBS special, and draw an audience the size of Antiques Roadshow.) But at mid-20th century R&H were Kings of the World, and even Hlwd was at their beck and call.

They were in no hurry. Oklahoma! ran five years on Bway, toured for a decade, and spawned countless productions around the globe—never to go unproduced ever since. They followed up the show with an original musical at Fox in ’45, but State Fair was a bit of a throwaway, a lark before Carousel. Otherwise, Rodgers in particular, had been ill-served by Hlwd—virtually every Rodgers & Hart musical was butchered, including, quite inexplicably, Babes in Arms—a veritable jukebox of famous tunes that MGM replaced with cheap knockoffs. R&H weren’t about to let Hlwd desecrate their newer masterworks. What got the ball rolling, finally, was a call from Mike Todd. A theatrical showman in his own right, (tho of shows with less merit and more spectacle) Todd had ventured into pioneering new film technologies, and lured R&H with an advance on Cinerama called Todd-A-O, which promised the breadth and sweep of all outdoors that Oklahoma! suggested. Together they formed a company (Magna) and with their combined clout made the first big-budget independent film musical without studio interference. Tho not without Hlwd talent or facilities; interiors were shot on MGM’s soundstages.

But no backlot would do for the bulk of the filming, and after much scouting they selected locations around   Nogales, Arizona near the Mexican border. (One rumor has it that no vista could be found in Oklahoma without an oil well.) Free to do as they pleased, R&H broke with many of the musical traditions laid down at Fox, MGM and Warners. First off, of course, was fidelity to their original work—tho they weren’t above making improvements to what was by then already a classic, beloved, and well-known piece of Americana.  They thought nothing of ignoring the less-than-two-hour standard for Hlwd musicals; running 145 minutes, with a 17 minute ballet, as well as an overture and an intermission, to boot. It was presented as a “theatrical” event; exhibited first in a Roadshow engagement, with shows twice daily on a reserved seat basis and tickets bought in advance like on Bway. This sort of “event” programming would inflate and eventually suffocate the film musical, but would first thrive amazingly well for at least a dozen years.

To announce the seriousness of their venture, R&H approached Fred Zinnemann to helm the movie. The A-list Hlwd director of High Noon had just won his first Oscar for the high drama, From Here to Eternity, famous among other things for resurrecting Frank Sinatra’s career. This would be Zinnemann’s first, and only, musical. But any concern for his inexperience was alleviated by having Agnes DeMille on board to recreate her famous dances—including Laurey’s Dream Ballet; one of the most influential pieces of dance in Bway history (for two decades afterward “dream ballets” were almost de rigueur, appearing in such unexpected places as The Pajama Game and Bye Bye Birdie.) Another Hlwd fixture, winding down his long career, 57 year-old Arthur Hornblow Jr, was anointed the prize of playing producer; and for cinematography they hired Robert Surtees, who would amass no less than 16 Oscar nominations thru the ‘70s—including one hereand three wins, for King Solomon’s Mines, The Bad & The Beautiful and Ben-Hur. Bway set designer Oliver Smith would create the interiors and ballet-scapes, and Hlwd art director Joseph C. Wright the rest. The assembled team was a careful mixture of Bway sensibility and Hlwd know-how.

Can you imagine Paul Newman & Joanne Woodward as Curly & Laurey? They were considered, as was James Dean and countless others, but it’s hard to see anyone better than Gordon MacRae. He is Curly, down to the forelock, radiating that cowboy bravado mixed with a sunny sweetness and a lovely baritone voice that does the well-known score proud. He was never better nor more beloved than for this role, yet his screen career would all too soon be over. But Shirley Jones was just beginning. She was a girl from Pittsburgh in NY for a lark before veterinary school when a friend dragged her to audition for R&H. She was instantly cast for a chorus role, moved to a slight walk-on in Me & Juliet (which Shirley MacLaine had also been in) and was then given a screen test for Laurey. Rodgers, who had both the clout and proprietary interest in grooming young sopranos, screen-tested countless others before coming back to Jones. Like MacRae, she could scarcely be better. Blessed of youth and a natural photogenic beauty, she was as fresh as a prairie flower. No one, including Bway’s original Laurey, Joan Roberts, would springboard from this role with the luck and momentum of Jones. She’s girlish, childish, petulant, sexy, stubborn, assertive, shy and courageous. She’s a peach.

Charlotte Greenwood was invited to play Aunt Eller in the original Bway production, but was tied up then at Fox playing third-fiddle to Betty Grable & Carmen Miranda in Springtime in the Rockies and The Gang’s All Here. A dozen years later, at the sunset of her long musical comedy career (which began in 1912) she was the cherry on top of the cake. At age 65 she still springs a snappy gait in her two numbers, tho her signature high-kick is nowhere to be seen (too self-referential, I assume—and out of character. Nowadays that would only be encouraged.) But she’s such a grand gal and utterly convincing as a pioneer woman; you can’t help but love her. This was the pinnacle, too, for Gene Nelson, another veteran (like MacRae) of Warner Bros. musicals with Doris Day—her lesser ones. He has a wiry Huck Finn-ish quality and dances like a genuine country boy—effortless and unselfconscious. He moved into directing television when his performance days grew few, but between his Will Parker and his Buddy in the original Bway cast of Follies, he plants his flag for posterity.

Of the original Bway cast no one sprung to greater fame than Celeste Holm. Alfred Drake cemented his Bway leading man credentials, but Holm parlayed her Ado Annie into a lead in Bloomer Girl, and a ticket to Hlwd for juicy parts (and a fast Oscar) in films by Elia Kazan & Joseph Mankiewicz, including the immortal All About Eve.  She came back to Ado Annie in 1954 for the R&H TV tribute, showing why her performance of “I Cain’t Say No” was legendary; but there wasn’t much question she was too old by then for the movie. Gloria Grahame wasn’t exactly 19 then either, but she sure seems youthful here. I know there were many kids, like me, whose introduction to Grahame was as Ado Annie. But to those who knew about her previous work, her casting must have seemed curious. She had recently won an Oscar for The Bad & The Beautiful, which is less descriptive of the movie than Grahame’s range of roles. But the noir princess was a worthy Miss Carnes, down to her awkward, if endearing singing voice, and naïve country zeal. Score one casting coup for Zinnemann. Rod Steiger is another matter. Bringing his Actor Studio weight to Jud Fry is a bit of overkill. He’s almost sexy. He’s supposed to be; if just a little rough around the edges. But he’s too creepy and intense to let that sexy beast out. Shirl’ claims Rod was entirely in character and humorless thruout. (It takes little effort to see a direct line from Jud Fry to his Komarovsky in Doctor Zhivago) He also demanded to do his own singing, and in DeMille’s ballet there was no one suitable to be his stand-in. Alone among the principles he “dances” himself. He’s an obvious brute, which makes you wonder why Curly wasn’t more wary of his presence from long before. Someone a little more puny, a silent volcano like Aldo Ray or Monty Clift (dream on) might have given it more balance. You don’t expect to find James Whitmore in a musical (Kiss Me Kate) but in two!—who knew? Here he’s Andrew Carnes, Ado Annie’s father, and as much a hoot as he was as a gangster in Kate. Determined to marry his daughter off at the first opportunity, he strongarms the peddler, who begs off citing dad would never see his daughter. Whitmore replies bluntly, “That’d be all right.” And then there’s Eddie Albert, taking the sting out of the ol’ Persian. I used to dislike Albert a lot more when I was younger—the whine of his exasperation on Green Acres would grate on me. But I respect his long and varied career, and accept his traveling salesman schtick (he later played Harold Hill on Bway) as a good deal more palatable than the racist “Dutch” comic tinge drudged up from early Vaudeville for the character of Ali Hakim. R&H knew to tone down his “foreign-ness” for the film. But why bother keeping him “Persian” when he looks and sounds like your cousin from Ohio? Plus we’re reduced to cheap jokes about harems: “My other brother has only one wife. He’s a bachelor.” It’s an All-Star Cast, but only in retrospect. The Star was the show, and the show on the screen made them all look and play like Stars.

The movie opens low in a cornfield, the stalks stretching to the sun, the music building as the camera moves thru the rows, breaking into a prairie vista on crescendo. And here comes Curly riding a horse under an azure Remington sky. Oh, what a beautiful mornin’ it is, and the glorious song is brought to vivid life. No less beautifully framed is the infectious “Surrey With the Fringe On Top,” set beside a picturesque tree and farmhouse and highlighted with a fantasy drive in the surrey rolling beneath a powder-puff sky. On stage, nearly all the first act took place at the Williams’ farm. But the movie has the luxury to open up to all outdoors; so Aunt Eller goes to meet Will Parker at the station (Why? To get paper lanterns for the party, of all things) The opening of this scene, at 20 minutes in, offers the most spectacular demonstration of Todd A-O in the entire film: From left of frame we see the train pulling in from the distance, and simultaneously from far right Eller’s rig races down the road; both heading to the train station low in the center frame. It’s right out of a painting by Thomas Hart Benton but in Cinemascope there’s nary a hint of this panorama and its carefully framed symmetry. The station (here we go with trains, again!) makes a great location for a number, and “Kansas City” is an unabashed delight, giving Gene Nelson his best moments., including a finish that has him jump from moving train to horse (for real, and not by a stunt double, according to Jones). Charlotte Greenwood is every bit as fun to watch here, her height and regal bearing matching the youthful energy.

My favorite scene is also my favorite song in the show, “Many a New Day,” a tune of such jaunty felicity—the sort that Rodgers excelled at above all others. Here it’s set inside the Williams house. For such a rural farm the interior is very Victorian and feminine in a way that nothing else in the story is. But this suits the number well; it’s an amazing essay in spring awakening for young women in the era of Lillian Russell. The extended dance that follows Laurey’s verse is nothing short of enchanting—a triumph by DeMille, with its lovely lingerie parade, and the rebel ballerina who dances to her own beat. (On Bway she was known as “The Girl Who Fell Down”—and made a splash for Joan McCracken, Bob Fosse’s first muse and wife.) A stroll thru a peach orchard lifts “People Will Say We’re in Love,” into a reverie on a summer afternoon. So far: nothing but bliss. But now we enter the smokehouse. Perhaps I never much liked “Pore Jud is Daid,” because I really don’t understand it. Curly “pays a call” on Jud in his digs and within 30 seconds is suggesting he kill himself. Huh? The song is a jest, yes, but I don’t think I’m alone in feeling this is where the show begins to sag. Happily the movie skips Jud’s following solo, “Lonely Room.” He’s such an unambiguous villain in the film—and a creepy one at that—the less time we spend with him the better. Also mercifully dropped is the Peddler’s lament, “It’s a Scandal, It’s an Outrage,” a song often cut in stage productions as well. R&H knew the weak spots.

Is it blasphemous to say that Laurey’s Dream Ballet slows down the movie? I’ve no doubt it was magnificent on stage, and of course they had to use it (would it be Oklahoma! without it?) But it’s rather poorly framed and edited on film—it doesn’t have the flow of Kelly’s American in Paris or Kidd’s Spillane-ballet in The Band Wagon. The best thing about it is the orchestral arrangement, with various tunes from the show, resplendent in a lush symphonic sound. (DeMille refused to allow “People Will Say,” in the mix however—she  hated  the  song).  The dancing  itself  is lovely, yes, but 17 minutes is a long time to express the simple-minded “psychology” of a young woman’s fancy.  Jud kills Curly in the dream, but it seems to suggest his villainy more than Laurey’s struggle with her sexual attraction to him. She awakens with him standing ominously over her—and we’re at intermission.

The 55 minute second act could stand some trimming too; tho an added runaway buggy ride with Jud & Laurey is a welcome bit of excitement at the top—and a bit more use of Todd-A-O. For the third time in two years another vehicle in a musical (!) races a train, coming to a screeching halt just before collision. Coincidence or the new cliché? Maybe it’s plebian of me, but my other favorite song from the show is “The Farmer and The Cowman,” an infectious “country” reel, that’s an ingenious Rodgers conceit: a song so authentic it seems part of national folklore. My complaint about the scene, and most of the second half, however is that after all the Great Outdoors, we move to soundstages for these evening scenes. The studio sets on their own aren’t bad, but the unchanging twilight sky reminds us we’re in Hlwd. “All Er Nuthin“ is on an even faker set, tho Gene & Gloria sell the number perfectly. Rousingly recorded, the title tune starts out fine, but ends up a visual disappointment—a bit sloppy and strange; during the growing chant, “Okla…Homa… Okla….Homa…” two makeshift conga lines cross against each other low in the frame. And why wasn’t this filmed outdoors? It’s daytime again, and the farmhouse set feels claustrophobic. The song signals the end of the show, but no! There’s another 10 minutes of plot; a shivaree, a fire, a death, a kangaroo court, and then…and only then…the glowing honeymooner’s ride off in the surrey with the fringe on top. It’s quite a last minute whirl to illustrate the underlining sentiment of the story: frontier justice. But Curly’s innocence in Jud’s death is made so pointedly clear it drains the conflict of any sting or juice. How much more interesting it would’ve been had it remained in question. Yes, it’s a musical—but ambiguity would become more accepted in such light entertainments quite soon. On another note, it seems a bit odd that all is forgotten of Curly’s selling everything he owns in the world to secure Laurey’s picnic hamper from Jud in the auction. Oh well, it’s a new day: another beautiful mornin’.

Some years ago I astonished an acquaintance from Nebraska with my knowledge of the arcane custom known as the “shivaree.” This is but one example of the multitude of cultural artifacts, curious traditions, obsolete products and technologies, historical places and personages that I learned all thru that most frivolous of schools: musical comedy.

The film premiered at New York’s Rivoli Theatre on October 11, 1955. It was treated like a Bway Opening Night. Critics weren’t overly enthused; most made inevitable and irrelevant comparisons to the stage show; everyone bemoaned how long it seemed—tho it was shortened from the stage. Touted as much for its new technology, Todd A-O was basically Cinerama without the 3 projectors and visible seams. It had the visual field of 128 degrees, as opposed to Cinemascope’s 50 degree width. But it required a unique screen and special projection equipment, which greatly limited its distribution. Anticipating this problem, Magna simultaneously filmed the movie in Cinemascope for broader screenings once the initial limited runs ended. It took awhile. Oklahoma! played the Rivoli on a 2-a-day, reserved-seat schedule for an entire year. Other major cities had similar long runs. Hlwd had entered a new, exclusive exhibition era, where spectacles, epics and now musicals were treated like events—a night out on the town. A far cry from the likes of My Sister Eileen or Top Banana. With such a slow roll-out the film would play for years and years before reporting its final tally at $7,100,000, topping the grosses of all previous films we’ve covered, but a figure eclipsed almost immediately by others, including R&H themselves. Having broken their movie prohibition, the flood gates were released and the log-jam of R&H musicals quickly poured forth; tho most without their hands-on input. Oklahoma! was one of only two films R&H produced themselves.
The soundtrack album on Capitol Records was another bonanza. I suppose it was naïve of me not to realize until now this is actually the best known recording of the show; especially considering it was the first record I ever owned (along with Disney’s Alice in Wonderland). I can still remember the excitement of the Overture (which as it turns out was never part of the movie, but made specifically for the record.) Rodgers made sure his Bway orchestrator & conductor were on board the film, and with the luxury of added instruments they made a glorious nearly-symphonic soundtrack for the show. Rodgers said the orchestrations should sound like the locations look; and if they didn’t always, Rodgers certainly sketched the American landscape into melody; and Robert Russell Bennett painted it in colors with his vibrant orchestrations. A 50th Anniversay CD release of the soundtrack had nearly all the previously unreleased dance music, including the entire Dream Ballet. All of it is exquisite to listen to. I can’t go on enough about Rodgers’ melodic genius; to my mind he bows to no one; and listening to this record again after I’d pretty much stopped some fifty years ago, is a wonderful homecoming. The record was so popular in the ‘50s it rode the Billboard 100 LPs chart for a staggering 305 weeks—six years! As well as started the flood of film musical soundtracks, now competing with Original Bway Cast recordings for national chart prominence. It’s rather mind-boggling to imagine today.

With the movie launched successfully, R&H were quickly back on home turf, which they vastly preferred; opening a new Bway show just a few weeks later. Like any of their projects this was Big News; a potential new perennial and cash cow. But Pipe Dream was beset with creative problems and Rodgers’ ill-health. The marriage of Hammerstein & Steinbeck was not a smooth union, and tho Rodgers managed to wring some of his usual tuneful magic on the proceedings, even he conceded casting Wagnerian soprano Helen Traubel in the lead was a huge mistake. It proved to be their biggest failure—but a rare one at that. No new musicals opened on Bway for another 3 ½1/2 months, and that show was the event of the decade: My Fair Lady, positioning Lerner & Loewe as Bway's newest darlings, and R&H on the downward curve.

At least they had something running on Bway: the movie was doing dynamite business, and expectations were high for some approbation from Hlwd. But despite, or maybe because of, the bid for largess by both Oklahoma! and the close-on-its-heels Guys & Dolls Hlwd was reluctant yet to embrace Bway’s musicals as one of their own. Not the plays, mind you, for no less than 3 best picture nominees that year were from Bway: Mister Roberts, The Rose Tattoo and Picnic—which has a similar, if more contemporary, prairie ambience to Oklahoma! The anomaly slot went to the Cinemascope demi-Asian romance, Love is a Many Splendored Thing, which is more a Sammy Fain song than great film. But Hlwd’s insistent pulse that year was on smallness. The “little” film that could, Marty, which sat down at NY’s Sutton Theater in April and didn’t leave till December, swept the Oscars and everything else. Oke was nope. Nor was Hlwd homeboy Zinnemann acknowledged, or any of the performers. The four Oscar nominations were for Surtees’ cinematography; film editing (!), sound and musical scoring—winning the latter two. But no matter; Oklahoma! touched the hearts of more common folk, the vast majority of Americans, and its preservation on film with such faithfulness,  commitment and finely wrought performances, has kept it alive for millions of Americans for several generations now.
The movie is available in a deluxe DVD package including separate films in Cinemascope and Todd-A-O; plenty of extras, and two separate commentaries—one for each version. The narrative of Hugh Fordin & Ted Chapin (current head and spokesman for R&H) is shamefully unprepared, poorly researched—with blatant inaccuracies—and nearly lackadaisical to boot. From the very start there’s no sense of excitement; no rush to deliver us juicy details of either historical context or backstage gossip, or even much analysis of the show or the movie. Within the opening credits we already get long pauses, as they casually make random observations and impulsive statements some of which flagrantly contradict Shirley Jones’s personal experience. The one featuring Jones (it’s the Todd-AO disc) is, by far, the more interesting and informative.

Next Up: Guys & Dolls

Report Card:    Oklahoma!
Overall Film:    A
Bway Fidelity:  A-
Songs from Bway:  11
Songs Cut from Bway:  2
New Songs:    None
Standout Numbers: “Many a New Day”
               “Farmer & the Cowman”
               “Kansas City”
Worst Omissions:  None
Casting:   Excellent             
Cast from Bway:  None
Standout Cast: MacRae, Jones, Greenwood,
                              Nelson, Grahame, Whitmore
Sourthumb Cast: Rod Steiger
Direction:   Lucid, realistic, confident
Choreography:    Deluxe DeMille
Ballets:    B   “Laurey’s Dream”
                 A   “Many a New Day”
Scenic Design:  Lovely locations, OK sets
Costumes:   Unobtrusive
Standout Locations: Laurey’s farm; train station
Standout Set:   Laurey’s home--interior
Titles:   Basic title cards for Todd-AO
             Postcard views for Cinemascope
Oscar Noms:  4, 2 wins (scoring & sound)

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