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teaser Oklahoma! (1955)

Based on Lynn Riggs' play, Green Grow the Lilacs (1931), Rodgers and Hammerstein's Oklahoma! (1943) was a landmark of the American musical theater. It was the first Broadway show to integrate the music, songs and dances as an essential part of the story and character development. Oklahoma! was also notable as the first of nine Broadway shows created by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II, the most successful team in musical theater history.

The play's storyline, set in Oklahoma territory in the early 20th century, is simple: who will take Laurey to the box social -- cowboy Curly, whom she loves, or Jud, the menacing hired hand? Both simple and revolutionary, Oklahoma! was a huge hit which ran for more than 2200 performances, and Rodgers and Hammerstein were flooded with offers for the film rights. But they chose to wait until the stage show had finished its run before considering a film version. By the early 1950s, they were ready to make a deal. What sold them on making a film of Oklahoma! (1955) was the new 65-mm. wide-screen process called Todd-AO, which would allow them to show the wide-open landscapes that the stage could only suggest. Rodgers and Hammerstein would keep control by serving as executive producers. Fred Zinnemann was chosen to direct, and Agnes DeMille would re-create her innovative dances.

In casting the leads, Zinnemann agreed with Rodgers and Hammerstein that excellent singing voices were a must. So he reluctantly eliminated some attractive young performers like Paul Newman, who would have been physically right for Curly. But he did audition a young unknown whom his wife had spotted on a television program -- James Dean. Dean arrived late for the audition at Zinnemann's hotel, wearing rumpled old cowboy clothes. He'd been thrown out of the hotel lobby because of his appearance, but had managed to sneak up a service elevator. According to the director, "Dean made a sensational test with Rod Steiger in the 'Poor Jud Is Dead' number." But his singing voice wasn't strong enough. Gordon MacRae, who was already a film and stage star and had a superb baritone voice, got the part.

Rodgers and Hammerstein handpicked their Laurey, a young discovery named Shirley Jones, the only performer they ever put under exclusive contract. In 1953, the 19-year-old Jones went to an open audition for South Pacific, and so impressed the casting director that he brought in Oscar Hammerstein to hear her sing. After gaining some onstage experience in touring companies of Rodgers and Hammerstein shows, she was signed to play Laurey. Jones and MacRae would also co-star in the film version of another Rodgers and Hammerstein musical, Carousel (1956).

For the villain Jud Fry, a good actor was more important than a good singer, and a young Welsh actor named Richard Burton was considered. He was not available, and Zinnemann cast Rod Steiger, who brought a complexity to the character that went far beyond the stock musical villain. The actor played Jud as a disturbed, emotionally isolated person, more to be pitied than despised. Steiger also did his own singing as well.

Gloria Grahame was no singer, but she was an Oscar-winning actress, and brought a bad-girl edge to the character of Ado Annie, who "cain't say no." Fellow actors and crew members claimed that Grahame really was a bad girl, upstaging co-stars and mistreating dancers and crew members alike. After Oklahoma!, Grahame's reputation as a difficult actress spread, and her career suffered as a result.

Much of Oklahoma! was shot on location in Arizona, near Nogales on the Mexican border. The real Oklahoma, it turns out, had too many oil wells to pass for the turn-of-the-century version of the state. Planting 2,100 stalks of corn that would grow "as high as an elephant's eye" for Curly to ride through singing "Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin'" began almost a year before location shooting commenced. By the time the company began shooting in late July of 1954, the corn was 16 feet high, Oscar Hammerstein noted, "as the eye of an elephant who is standing on another elephant." Some of the corn was transplanted into moveable boxes so the camera could pass through.

Oklahoma! had one of the biggest location shoots to date, including some 70 trucks and trailers and a crew of 325 people. Daily thunderstorms and flash floods had the crew singing "the mud is as high as a Cadillac's eye" as nervous executives waited for the sky to clear. One crew member was actually struck by lightning, but was not seriously injured. The peach orchard planted near the house did not bear enough fruit, and every day the crew hung two thousand wax peaches on the trees. Because not many theaters were equipped to show the Todd-AO system, the film was actually shot twice, in Cinemascope as well as Todd-AO. Oklahoma! cost a total of seven million dollars, the most expensive film ever made to that time.

In spite of all the expense and anticipation, Oklahoma! had only a modest success at the box office. By the mid-'50s, musicals had lost some of their popularity, and television had cut into movie audiences. And even with all its production values, some critics felt that Oklahoma! (as well as subsequent film versions of other Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals) suffered from a stagebound look, which may be due to the fact that Rodgers and Hammerstein maintained such strict control over their properties.

Nevertheless, Oklahoma! won Academy Awards for Best Scoring of a musical, and for Best Sound Recording, and was nominated for Best Color Cinematography and Best Editing. Today, it remains an outstanding record of a milestone of musical theater, and a fine example of how film can enhance and expand the storyline of a stage musical.

Producer: Arthur Hornblow, Jr.
Director: Fred Zinnemann
Screenplay: Sonya Levien and William Ludwig, based on the play by Oscar Hammerstein II and the play Green Grow the Lilacs by Lynn Riggs
Editor: George Boemler, Gene Ruggiero
Cinematography: Floyd Crosby, Robert Surtees
Costume Design: Motley, Orry-Kelly
Art Direction: Oliver Smith
Music: Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II, Adolph Deutsch
Choreography: Agnes DeMille
Principal Cast: Gordon MacRae (Curly McLain), Gloria Grahame (Ado Annie Carnes), Gene Nelson (Will Parker), Charlotte Greenwood (Aunt Eller), Shirley Jones (Laurey Williams), Eddie Albert (Ali Hakim), James Whitmore (Carnes), Rod Steiger (Jud Fry), Jay C. Flippen (Ike Skidmore), Barbara Lawrence (Gertie Cummings).
C-149m. Letterboxed. Closed captioning.

by Margarita Landazuri

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