Wednesday, April 13, 2011

The Dark Side of Rodgers & Hammerstein's Oklahoma!

Really now, how many other musicals - especially classic Hollywood musicals - can boast a song that is basically one character's attempt at inducing another character to hang themselves?  The only one I can think of off hand is Oklahoma!, where the corn is as high as an elephant's eye.  The song is "Pore Jud is Daid" (in dialect of course) and it is sung by star Gordon MacRae with a few token lines thrown in by Rod Steiger.  Now I suppose one should really question what a method actor of Steiger's ability is doing in a musical - and singing (a few lines at least) - but he was still pretty young at the time (just his fourth film) and had been cast just prior to the success of his breakthrough film On the Waterfront.  Still, it does seem quite odd watching Steiger do his method thing (and doing it as well as he always does) while others are around him, dressed in brightly coloured (and never dirty) western duds, singing about their freakin' surrey with the goddamn fringe on top - or something like that.  But then this out-of-place actor is the perfect fit to the puzzle that is Oklahoma!.

In between the opening ditty "Oh What a Beautiful Mornin'" and the upbeat title track that ends this two and a half hour widescreen spectacle (the first film to be shot in the Todd-AO 70mm widescreen process) there is a dark streak that runs through to the very core of the motion picture.  It is shortly after the aforementioned "Pore Jud is Daid" number, that Shirley Jones' Laurey (the object of affection that has caused one character to induce another into hanging hisself) takes the Egyptian elixir sold to her by Eddie Albert's conniving peddler, and has one doozy of an hallucination.  This said hallucination, called the "Dream Ballet" on the soundtrack, is a twenty minute or so dance number wherein Jud stalks Laurey and kills Curley (the character played by MacRae) and even does some dancing (of sorts).  It is in this number (the centerpiece of the movie) that Oklahoma! goes completely off its rocker and becomes something more akin to Hitchcock or Fuller or Kazan than to the candy-coloured confectioneries that were Hollywood musicals in the fifties and early sixties.  It is here, when added to the deathwish number before it, where MacRae sings how nice Jud will look in his flower-lined coffin, that gives Oklahoma! its decidedly acerbic (and quite twisted) bite.

It should also be noted that Steiger is the only principle character to appear in the "Dream Ballet".  MacRae and Jones are replaced with sort of look-a-like dancers and are aided by the background dancers from the rest of the movie.  Steiger though, plays Jud here as well as in the rest of the "outside" film.  Granted, he doesn't have to do much dancing here (like the others) so he can be a part of it without much trouble, but it is possibly significant that this method actor from the New York School takes center stage as it were, in the middle of a mostly upbeat and fun musical as Oklahoma!.  The method man scowling in the middle of a beautiful, albeit quite somber, ballet number - a menacing monstrosity of unabated sexual urges ready to capture and destroy his prey.

Now the idea of placing a lengthy dance-heavy number into a musical was the norm in 1955 (think Singin' in the Rain, An American in Paris, The Bandwagon) and many times they changed the mood of the film temporarily (usually playing on darker artistic themes) but with the "Dream Ballet" it just brings an already dangerous element of the movie to the artistic forefront.  But even then, when we are in that "outside world" (the non-hallucinatory part that is), Steiger's Jud brings a certain level of terror to the musical.  A serious, (most likely psychotic) threat that is usually kept well outside of the genre - at least the Hollywood version of the genre.  Von Trier would have been proud I believe.  When Jud screams at Laurey that she won't go out with him because he is just a farm hand, you half-expect her to scream back that she won't go out with him because he is a fucking psychopath.

I am told (since I have never seen it) that the movie version is an extremely faithful rendition of the original Broadway musical, which makes one think that Rodgers and Hammerstein were two seriously messed up individuals - and delightfully so.  Jud has a solo number in the stage version (which may have been cut due to Steiger's somewhat limited vocal range) and it starts out as such: The floor creaks / The door squeaks / There's a field-mouse a-nibblin on a broom / And I sit by myself / Like a cobweb on the shelf / By myself in a lonely room.  Jud goes on to sing about how he is going to "take" Laurey for his own.  I would have loved to have heard Steiger growl out this number.  It only adds to the sinister nature of the musical.  It would have been great to see and hear.  To see Alfred Molina sing this number in the revival cast would be good as well, but to see Steiger would have been remarkable indeed.

But even without this number, Fred Zinnemann's adaptation is a portentous delight.  There are other delights in the film - Gloria Grahame's somewhat easy (as easy as the production code will allow) farmer's daughter warbling out "I Cain't Say No" and Eddie Albert's sleazy Persian peddler, who has father's shotguns pointed at him more than anyone else, highest among them - (and of course evil is punished and all the good people live happily ever after - singing into the literal and figurative sunset) but it is the menacing threat of Steiger's Jud (a nutcase that could blow at any moment) and the inherently perverse foreboding of some of the numbers (the augural "Dream Ballet" most significantly) that make this film so unexpectedly enjoyable - from a sadist's point of view of course (and I mean that with great compliment).  Perhaps most recall images like the one just above (a bubbly frothy musical in the light of day - Shirley Jones making her film debut singing to a bird and playing not-so-coy with an off-screen MacRae) but for me, Oklahoma! is all about Rod Steiger and Pore Jud Fry.

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