Sunday, August 27, 2006

I detest OKLAHOMA! almost as much as I hate Indian weddings

I have been to the same Indian wedding (my cousin's) for almost a month now CONTINUOSLY. We are a big extended family full of opinionated, obstinate people and everyone (including me) is being mean to everyone else. So this morning I just upped and left for the Big City and wandered into the NFT to shake off The Mean Reds. At the moment, the National Film Theatre is showing OKLAHOMA! in an extended run. I'd never seen it before but I figured that something as wholesome and hopeful as a big old 1950s Rodgers & Hammerstein musical was bound to cheer me up. I mean, as far as I was concerned, all the movie consisted of was a cowboy persuading a farm-girl to marry him, while singing "Oh what a beautiful morning!"

For around the first twenty minutes I had this warm happy feeling that was entirely unrelated to the absence of loud bhangra music and cold greasy samosas. OKLAHOMA! is clearly a movie to be seen on the big screen. (In fact, it was shot simultaneously on 70mm to be shown on giant panoramic screens in an effort by the movie studios to stave off the increasing popularity of television - that must been something!) It opens with the camera looking up through swaying fields of corn and then pans out to a beautiful landscape - farmland, mountains and blue skies. Through this idyllic countryside rides a not-unattractive cowboy called (I know, I know) Curly, singing his heart out at the joys of life. Curly rides over to ask a young girl Laurey out on a date. He's clearly all about her and she's clearly all about him, and the whole movie would have wrapped in around 20 minutes if she'd just said "yes". However, a musical has to run over two hours, so she teases Curly by saying yes to a brooding farm-hand called Jud Fry (Rod Steiger) instead. Meanwhile, her best friend Ado Annie - a girl who just can't say no - is procrastinating over whether to commit to her sweet-heart, Will. Annie flirts with a Persian travelling salesman called Ali Hakim (I kid you not).

I entered the cinema worried that I might get bored by OKLAHOMA! It might seem corny after fifty-odd years. But, my goodness, I was glued to my seat for all the wrong reasons. It started off as faint unease with the two-dimensional character of the heroine, Laurey. She comes across as vain and immature and the fact that she accepts a date with Jud Fry just to make Curly jealous pissed me off. It's the
same sort of crap we see in modern movies - the pretty heroine can toy with as many people as she likes on the way to true love, but we still have to believe she is a good person who deserves happiness. As the movie progresses, her behaviour becomes even more self-absorbed. In an extended dream/ballet sequence it becomes clear that she is just scared of having sex. Eventually, Curly pawns all his worldly possessions to win a date with her at a raffle and she merrily dances a reel with him as if nothing had happened. And yes, they get married and Jud attempts a violent revenge. Laurey sits on the bed and wonders "Why did this have to happen when everything was so fine?" Bathsheba Everdine was never this unperceptive.

But all this is symptomatic of the frighteningly simplistic morality that runs through this musical. Jud is clearly a BAD person because he has pictures of nude women in his cabin. Clearly a man who has looked at porn can't treat a woman well in this universe: why, he is little better than an animal, pawing at Laurey in the cart on the way to the dance. And yet, throughout the movie he makes an eloquent case for meritocracy and pathetically wishes for a real rather than pornographic relationship. When the movie's icon of respectability, Aunt Eller, pleads for the same ("I'm no better than anyone, but I'll be darned if I ain't just as good!") that's homespun wisdom. But from Jud it's aggressive and to be frowned upon. I found the sequence where Jud bids all his worldly wealth for a date with Laurey only to be jeered by the entire crowd pitiful. And later, when Curly is accused of murdering Jud, Jud is not even afforded Federal justice. All he is deemed to be worth is a kangaroo court. Again, this mob justice is seen as homespun wisdom. Never mind that due process has not been followed - just so long as the vain Laurey and her man can get away on honeymoon.

Other stuff that made my cringe? Well, the portrayal of the Persian peddler, Ali Hakim, is the most crass and racist portrayal I have seen on screen since
Jar-Jar Binks.. Oh, and I also hated Agnes de Mille's choreography. It was affected and awkward and laboured. Give me THE RED SHOES or CABARET any day. Bah, humbug.

OKLAHOMA! was originally released in 1955. It is currently on re-release in London.

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