Film history is littered with proposed projects that seemed tantalizing in concept, but somehow never found their way before the cameras. But were these aborted efforts destined to succeed? Seriously, would Stanley Kubrick’s proposed biopic of Napoleon or Alejandro Jodorowsky’s “Dune” been instant classics? I think that some vigorous debates could be enjoyed on whether or not we should be fortunate those works never got made.
The decision to hire Fred Zinnemann as the director of the film version of the Rodgers & Hammerstein musical “Oklahoma!” was peculiar – the director never helmed a musical before and was best known for his intensely riveting dramas such as “The Search,” “The Men,” “High Noon,” “The Member of the Wedding” and the Oscar-winning “From Here to Eternity.” One would imagine that bringing in a veteran musical director such as Stanley Donen or Vincente Minnelli would seem more logical for a vehicle like “Oklahoma!” – this would seem to be the job for an expert in the light and breezy, not in doom and gloom.
But Zinnemann’s predilection for the dramatic gave the frothy “Oklahoma!” a sense of complex gravitas that was absent from other mid-1950s musicals – not to mention the original Broadway production – and when viewing it today, it seems more modern when many of the other musicals of the decade seem badly dated. Part of this was achieved in the off-beat casting of Rod Steiger (who transformed the character Jud Fry from a stock villain into an emotionally tortured untouchable) and film noir diva Gloria Grahame (who played the comic relief Ado Annie without a trace of wink-and-nudge farce, thus making her character’s sexual cluelessness more humorously invigorating). Zinnemann might have taken the film into even darker territory, as witnessed in his unusual eagerness to audition non-musical young Method actors Paul Newman and James Dean for the Curly role. But under Zinnemann’s direction, Gordon MacRae, a usually bland musical-comedy performer, tapped into hitherto unknown dramatic abilities as he plumbed Curly to find an insouciant malevolence that clouded the character’s personality and motivation.
Still, “Oklahoma!” is a musical and not a melodrama, and Zinnemann responded to the material with an imaginative style that took full advantage of the widescreen format (the film was simultaneously filmed in the Todd-AO and CinemaScope processes) and vibrant rural locations (in Arizona, as Oklahoma proved oddly incompatible for the production). The classic score was wonderfully enhanced with boldly conceived outdoor sequences – “Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin’” and “The Surrey with the Fringe on Top” are playfully visualized while the complicated “Kansas City” dance number was staged with a large ensemble in an open air train depot. Zinnemann also provided expert framing for Agnes de Mille’s groundbreaking dream ballet, which offered an astonishing avant-garde sequence laced with psychosexual menace.
It also helped that the film brought in reliable performers to inhabit the broad roles with unapologetic hamming – Eddie Albert’s oleaginous Persian peddler, Gene Nelson as the handsome but dim cowboy and the sublime Charlotte Greenwood as the earthy Aunt Eller offer a jolly presence to keep Zinnemann’s edgier elements in check, creating the cinematic equivalent of a yin-yang balance. The biggest surprise was the film’s greatest gamble: putting unknown Shirley Jones in the central role of Laurey. The young actress was not lacking in photogenic charms and a fine voice, and Zinnemann carefully guided her through the role’s light comedy and difficult emotional turns, which resulted in one of the most startlingly effective film debuts.