Schawn Belston‘s restoration of the roadshow version of Oklahoma! (1955), replicating the original 30-frame-per-second Todd-AO process for the first time in 30 years, was shown last night on the big TCL Chinese screen at the opening of the TCM Classic Film Festival. The movie itself is impossible — square, complacent, cornball, plodding, slow as a snail — but the visuals were a delight. Congrats again to Belston and his team for a job very well done. But I have to say I was dumbfounded when TCM’s Robert Osborne omitted any mention of the 30-frame-per-second Todd-AO photography in his opening remarks. He just said once or twice that Todd-AO delivered a big, grand image…but no specifics. Either Osborne forgot or he decided that the term “30 frames per second” would go right over people’s heads. Amazing.
Oklahoma! itself is a glaze-over, for the most part. You sit and watch it, and it goes on a bit longer than you’d prefer. The tunes catch lightning every so often. I really enjoyed Rod Steiger and Gordon Macrae‘s “Poor Judd is Dead” duet. If only there wasn’t this feeling of complacency, of an overly revered stage play being shot by cameras that weight ten tons, of the filmmakers coasting on the laurels of the original 1943 Broadway stage production, which (along with the earlier production of Jerome Kern‘s Showboat) changed the character and upped the game of American musicals.
If only the Curly-Laurey-Judd triangle made a lick of sense. If only the photography wasn’t so conservative and the cutting so uninquisitive. If only Laurey’s dream sequence didn’t use replacement dancers for Macrae and Shirley Jones (why were they even hired if they couldn’t handle a few modest ballet moves?). If only it didn’t seem as if director Fred Zinneman was on a Thorazine drip and wearing a straightjacket during filming. If only those jutting Arizona mountain peaks (i.e., total fiction compared to the typography of the real Oklahoma) weren’t visible in all the exteriors.
Did you know that Oklahoma!, despite its staunch mid-1950s squareness, is all about sexual longing and mating rituals and perversity, and is generally teeming with erections and dampness and pelvic thrusts? Jason Cochran makes a surprisingly clear case for this analysis in a 2011 article called “Oklahoma! Is One Of The Dirtiest Movie Musicals Ever Made.”
“There’s a storehouse of sexual activity swarming in Oklahoma!,” he writes, “and enough to fill several ten-page papers. In overview, however, it suffices to note the several main themes in the film: the cloaking of continual sexual pursuit beneath local custom and chivalry, the dependency of each character on that custom, the matriarchal presence of the [lascivious] Aunt Eller and the…sexual linkage of beasts and dancing as they relate to Oklahoma!‘s setting and genre. In those themes alone there is enough to give any Rodgers and Hammerstein fan pause as she or he considers Oklahoma!‘s innate sexuality and perversity.”