O what a beautiful morning, and Curly McLain (Gordon MacRae) is riding through it in the state of Oklahoma, where the corn is as high as an elephant's eye. He's full of the joys of being alive, and his perpetual cheeriness leads him to the house of Laurey Williams (Shirley Jones), who he is very keen on, yet such is his brashness that she feels he is too presumptuous when he asks to take her to the big dance tomorrow evening. Although he sweet talks her with promises of escorting her in a surrey with a fringe on top, her initial enchantment gives way to cynicism that he cannot fulfil that promise, and on the spur of the moment she tells him that their farmhand Jud (Rod Steiger) will take her...
Big mistake there, as we shall see, but what was not a mistake was to spend so much money on bringing one of the most popular musicals of the mid-twentieth century to the silver screen, for just as the stage version had been, the motion picture was a huge hit, especially in terms of its soundtrack album sales which went through the roof. In the nineteen-fifties, seemingly no home would be without vinyl of that cast recording, and indeed it remains a substantial seller to this day, despite one of the most prominent performers there being unable to sing. Or, for that matter, dance. Gloria Grahame was that actress, although she was much-beloved for the role.
She played Ado Annie, who was essentially the comic relief whose secondary plot, a love triangle (that isn't) between her, cowboy Will Parker (Gene Nelson) and travelling salesman Ali Hakim (Eddie Albert), served as the light relief for the grimmer aspects of the overall narrative. Grahame's casting has been excused over the years for a few reasons, but it appears the motive was that she lobbied hard for the part and just pipped her rivals, though whether that was because the studio bosses found her more attractive and decided it didn't matter if she could not sing or dance was unclear. The fact remained, she was one of the quirkiest stars of the decade, and she had many fans.
Back at the main plot, and MacRae and Jones were left to carry what was, though fairly simple and linear, a work of more depth than many would acknowledge, though that was largely thanks to a more primal nature in the way the characters interacted, a contrasting tale of masculinity and femininity. If Jones is the positive female force, then Grahame was its parody; however, MacRae was the strapping epitome of the manly man, belting out the showtunes courtesy of Rodgers and Hammerstein as if to the manor born, which left Steiger to take the blame for all that was rotten in the male personality. We see early on Jud trying to peep at Laurey as she undresses, which is enough to damn him for all time, the frustrated and impotent man who cannot get his own woman and has to resort to subterfuge to try and win Laurey.
But was Jud unfairly maligned? From some angles, it seems so, for whereas Curly and Laurey are a golden couple obviously destined to be together, Jud is a misfit, and they don't let him forget it. Curly even has a song he shares with the farmhand where he sings about Jud only getting respect by committing suicide (!), so it's little wonder the poor bastard is messed up: maybe if people had shown him more kindness he would not have been reduced to sitting in his grimy smokehouse and looking at pornography. This survival of the fittest, or survival of the most attractive anyway, should really turn you off to Oklahoma!, yet there was something about director Fred Zinneman's attempts at translating the stylisation of the original show to a more natural (literally) setting that placed what fast became a classic set of songs in a powerful context. Yes, it can seem stagey now, and it did back then as well, but the impression of a small tale blown up to magnificent size suited the blockbuster medium, and this was the decade of huge roadshow productions that everyone was implored to see, and often did. If it was more of a cattle stampede than a pleasant walk in the sun, then so be it.