A Strange and Compelling Musical
Oklahoma!, Rodgers and Hammerstein's first musical collaboration, was adapted to the screen by Fred Zinnemann in 1955 and, upon reflection, must be counted as one of the stranger filmed musicals ever produced. Situated between an overtly theatrical mode of presentation and a uniquely cinematic one, the end result is an oddly surreal mixture of realism and artifice, as if a Busby Berkely stage number had been dropped down into the middle of one of the lighter scenes from George Stevens's Shane. The result can be either fascinating or excruciating based on whatever presumptions or interests one brings to the watching of the film. I must admit that I quite enjoyed it and found the structural tensions interesting and, at times, even surprisingly compelling.
Zinnemann, the director of such films as From Here to Eternity and High Noon, is known for a certain realist approach and, although Andrew Sarris once wrote of him that "at its best, his direction is inoffensive; at its worst, it is downright dull," in Oklahoma! Zinnemann displays a subtle
willingness to work with the undercurrents of Hammerstein's book and lyrics rather than to completely white wash them, which was more than possible given the musical's cheerfully simple minded reputation. Yet even if one does not chose to engage in any kind of speculative work on the film's themes, the sheer visual display offers more than enough area for study and appreciation.
The film is surprisingly ahead of its time, stylistically speaking, still fresh and energetic after almost 50 years. Unlike the earlier Hollywood musicals, with their contextualizing of the song and dance within a narrative framework of "putting on a show," in Zinnemann's Oklahoma!, following in the groundbreaking tradition of the original musical, the singing is integral to the narrative in that the characters break into song when they have no other way to express themselves. Singing is not merely an act of display but one of necessary communication. This urgency finds itself carried over to the frantic enthusiasm of the performances; their larger than life aspects befit the stage, indeed are almost a necessity, but on film, with its immediately more intimate formal tone, the impression one gets is of a far more theatrical nature. Everything, the voices, the movements, indeed even the feelings, are all writ large, and yet retain a fundamental honesty, a singular focus which remains true to itself.
The DVD, released by 20th Century Fox as part of a Rodgers and Hammerstein series, looks spectacular, the images and colors so crisp and defined, so well articulated, that the digitally transferred print gives truth to the old cliché by actually looking like it could have been made yesterday. What is quite disappointing is that the company saw fit to not
include any extra material, save the original theatrical trailer.
Certainly, if they are willing to go to the trouble of performing so careful a restoration of the print and even initiating an entire series of releases of the musical team's productions, then there was definitely a place for perhaps a documentary on the film's production or even an interview with Shirley Jones (at least she's still alive). Unless one is in love with the film, this may not be a DVD one should hurry out to purchase but rather one to rent and enjoy.
(Released by 20th Century Fox and rated "G" for general audiences.)