Oklahoma Revisited

(Welcome to Out of the Disney Vault, where we explore the unsung gems and forgotten disasters currently streaming on Disney+.)

Hollywood’s eras come in waves. It’s hard to imagine now, because we’re still in the crest of the current one, but the superhero era is a wave that will eventually – yes, really, even if it takes decades – ebb. Before superhero movies, there were blockbusters of vastly more stripes, somehow managing to avoid interconnected universes or the like. The Walt Disney Company is at the convergence of the current wave, with Marvel and Lucasfilm underneath their vast umbrella.

But right now, Disney+ is inadvertently giving its audiences a chance for a bit of a history lesson of what blockbusters used to look like, with the streaming arrival of the 1955 musical adaptation of Oklahoma!. Yes, it’s true, there was once a time when blockbusters weren’t about the world ending, but were about simple love stories given grand treatments.

The Pitch

Oklahoma!, of course, is not a Walt Disney Pictures release – it was presented in theaters by 20th Century Fox, arriving 12 years after the Rodgers and Hammerstein stage show essentially transformed the very meaning of what a Broadway musical was or could be. Oklahoma! is one of the few truly important and earth-shaking musicals to turn into a movie; when it premiered in 1943 on stage, it proved that a Broadway musical could fully weave in its singing and dancing sequences to an overall story. (You may think that’s pretty commonplace now, and it is. That’s because of the huge success of Oklahoma!.) Though its story may seem simple, Oklahoma! felt revolutionary at the time. So it made sense that Fox would want to adapt to the big screen this wildly popular love story set against the backdrop of the American West at a time of growth.

Just as the stage show felt distinctive, so too would the film. Hollywood was not lacking in movie musicals in the 1940s and 1950s, but one era was winding down as Oklahoma! would help usher in the next one. The era of soundstage-bound MGM musicals like An American in Paris and Singin’ In the Rain was at its tail end, as audiences began flocking to their television sets instead of movie theaters. Studios wanted to draw in audiences once again, on a massive canvas that could tell stories the way TV simply couldn’t at the time. By the mid-1950s, studios were experimenting with how they would showcase their films in different widescreen methods; the wider the better. Some of the formats included CinemaScope, VistaVision, Cinerama, and Todd-AO, among others. Oklahoma! would be the first of its kind – the first Todd-AO film released in theaters, at an aspect ratio of 2.20:1. But the technology of Todd-AO, named in part for producer Michael Todd, had yet to be fully adopted by major movie theaters across the country. So Oklahoma!, directed by Fred Zinnemann, was filmed twice, once in Todd-AO and once in the more widely used CinemaScope, at an aspect ratio of 2.55:1.

The Movie

First of all, the important news: though there are really two versions of Oklahoma! (seeing as the CinemaScope version has different takes of every shot within the film), the one you can stream right now on Disney+ is the Todd-AO version. And your eyes may take a little time to adjust to that reality. It’s not just that the aspect ratio is different, making for an experience slightly less wide than the now-traditional 2.35:1 aspect ratio for modern films. It’s that Oklahoma! in Todd-AO was shot at 30 frames per second, not the standard 24 frames per second. The good news is that 30 frames per second doesn’t create the same heightened surreality of The Hobbit at 48 frames per second. But it does mean that Oklahoma! is sometimes unnervingly gorgeous, with sumptuous cinematography by Robert Surtees that soars through cornfields and depicts the lush beauty of the American West (though Arizona subs in for Oklahoma for the exterior shots) with a level of crispness rarely seen. The flip side is that some of the interior shots have a slight soap-opera feel, as if the facsimile of a movie set becomes faker at a higher frame rate. But largely speaking, Oklahoma! is a movie any cinematography nerd should watch, just to see what this now-defunct format looks like. When the overture and opening credits, both presented on black screens, end and the camera tracks through a cornfield to meet the upbeat cowboy Curly (Gordon MacRae) as he belts out “Oh, What A Beautiful Mornin’, it’s truly thrilling to watch.

Rodgers and Hammerstein’s status as musical legends was established with the set of songs they crafted here. (Disney theme-park fans will appreciate that a number of the songs in the film serve as instrumental background music in Main Street, U.S.A. in both Disneyland and Walt Disney World, too.) That aforementioned opening number, as well as the title track, “The Surrey With The Fringe on Top,” “I Cain’t Say No,” and others are permanently etched in popular culture. These songs are close to being as unbeatable as anything from Rodgers and Hammerstein’s later musicals like South Pacific or The Sound of Music, the latter of which you can also stream on Disney+. 

But you have to do a fair bit of compartmentalizing with Oklahoma!. The show was recently revived on Broadway (pre-pandemic) to massive critical acclaim, in no small part because the new version grapples with the reality that this story is…oh, fairly racist and sexist when you think about it for more than a few seconds. The story could be a simple enough love triangle – there’s Curly, the pretty farmgirl Laurey (Shirley Jones, in her film debut), and the rough farmhand Jud (Rod Steiger) who wants Laurey and is willing to resort to violent ends to get what he wants. But said story takes place in the turn-of-the-century period right before Oklahoma shifted from being a territory once belonging to Native Americans to a full-blown state of the Union. Even if you leave aside the full erasure of Native Americans and their culture from the story (both on stage and screen), you’re left with a story where women and men occupy very old-fashioned gender norms of the early 20th century. And there’s also racial whitewashing in the form of Ali Hakim, a Persian peddler played for comic relief by the very white actor Eddie Albert.

In the same vein as I’ve asked in this column before, I would love to know – oh, the money I’d give to have the experience – how Disney and its consultants come to the decision of what films and TV shows do or do not merit the pre-show content warning. Considering that Albert’s take on Ali Hakim includes an accent best defined as Vaguely, Insultingly Foreign, and songs like the aforementioned and bouncy “I Cain’t Say No” are meant as a charming depiction of a woman who can’t resist spending time with lots of different men…well, what exactly would merit the content warning? We can argue about how effective the vagueness of that content warning is. They never actually explain to viewers what potentially offensive content is about to be depicted. But when a film such as Oklahoma! arrives on a family-focused streaming service without context of any kind, there’s a disturbing conclusion: someone at Disney+ is asleep at the wheel. 

Oklahoma!, if you can leave its outdated elements aside (and I don’t blame you if you can’t), is the progenitor in many ways of the next era of movie musical and worth watching for that reason too. With this film, studios would make splashy, expensive, and lengthy musicals, meant to make clear to audiences that television sets aren’t as transportive as a massively wide silver screen. Oklahoma!, including its overture and entracte, clocks in at just under 150 minutes, but that doesn’t include its intermission – many more musicals in the next decade-plus would push and move beyond the three-hour mark.

The Legacy

Oklahoma! has an impressive legacy even as it’s lined with questionable content from top to bottom. (Not enough is said about the film’s ending, in which Curly and Jud have an inevitable fight after the latter sets a fire at Curly and Laurey’s wedding. The fight leads to Jud being killed by his own knife, followed by a makeshift trial meant to absolve Curly of any wrongdoing so he can go on his honeymoon. Everyone in town, save the federal marshal, would rather solve things in a Wild West form of justice, which the film depicts without acknowledging its grim underbelly.) By creating an event status around movie musicals, Oklahoma! ushered in an era of expansive genre filmmaking that brought in some of the best directors in the industry to try their hand at a different kind of story, from Robert Wise with The Sound of Music to George Cukor with My Fair Lady.

The true legacy the film leaves behind, and the one that would be nice to have something acknowledged via Disney+, is its visual one. Even if you’re an intrepid enough viewer who’s wisely turned off the motion-smoothing technology on your HDTV (and if you haven’t, you really should), you may get initially thrown off by the way that Oklahoma! looks. You don’t need motion smoothing to know that this film looks slightly unexpected, in both jarring and exciting ways. That 30-frame-per-second shooting style via Todd-AO is deliberate, and a welcome glimpse at a time in American filmmaking when studios went all-in financially on event filmmaking, even if no one was wearing a cape or boasting superpowers. Dive into this film and see what studio filmmaking used to be.

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