Comedy · Musical · Western

The Algonquin Table of the Old West

Gordon MacRae's pimped-out surrey, with a fringe on top. Image: lsdkjf askdjf
Gordon MacRae’s fully-loaded surrey, with a fringe on top. Image: Los Angeles Times

You would have a skewed view of life if you only watched musicals.

For example, look at the recently-restored Rodgers and Hammerstein western-comedy musical, Oklahoma! (1955). This film is about a group of farmers and ranchers in turn-of-the-20th-century Oklahoma, who hold a box lunch social to raise money for the schoolhouse roof.

This film makes it look like these farmers and ranchers have nothing to do but sing and dance and make merriment. In one scene, a train pulls into the station and everyone on the station platform suddenly – and without warning – leaps into a impromptu hoedown.

The rustic Oklahoma in this film looks gla-mor-ous. Men’s tailored shirts are neatly pressed, and women’s Orry-Kelly gowns dresses are made of sumptuous fabrics. Life is so effortless, folks do their chores while wearing crisp, white clothes. There’s not a drop of sweat in sight.

You’ll notice a lot of dancing in this Oklahoma, even interpretive dance where themes of innocence and exploitation are examined.

The villain in this neck of the woods is played by Rod Steiger, a surly and vaguely creepy man who is the only one in the film with grime on his clothes. He lusts after young Shirley Jones (in her film debut) and resents the cowboy Gordon MacRae for wooing her.

You could be forgiven for thinking these are simple, unsophisticated folk. Indeed, the film opens with MacRae (in a glorious CinemaScope tracking shot) riding his horse along a row of corn, underneath a dazzling blue sky. He sings about the beautiful morning and a “bright golden haze on the meadow”.

Basic, wholesome people living a basic, wholesome life? Not so fast, partner.

The marvels of Kansas City. Image: alksdj faksdj f
The marvels – wholesome and unwholesome – of Kansas City. Image: Dusted Off

What really makes this film, besides the wardrobe and the scenery, is the song lyrics. The clever lyrics easily outpace the script in wit and innuendo.

Notably, the songs seesaw between the conflicted feelings of the characters. For example, a man sings about his visit to Kansas City and, alternating between amazement and disapproval, he describes life in the prosperous, fast-growing burg:

Everything’s up to date in Kansas City
They’ve gone about as far as they can go!
They went and built a skyscraper seven stories high
About as high as a building ought to grow.

He then goes on to detail, with a twinkle in his eye, various other sights including a burlesque show.

In another scene, MacRae confronts the surly Steiger with a song that swings between threats and flattery. MacRae suggests no man will be more highly praised at his own funeral than Steiger himself:

He’s looking oh so pretty and so nice
He looks like he’s asleep.
It’s a shame that he won’t keep,
But it’s summer and we’re running out of ice.

That’s a bit twisted, no? MacRae is taking chances, singing this kind of stuff to the temperamental Steiger.

In another scene, Gene Nelson proposes to his girlfriend (Gloria Grahame), although she doesn’t really want to settle down. After the he proposes, Grahame replies:

But if a wife is wise, she’s gotta realize
That men like you are wild and free …
Stay up late and don’t come home till three
And go right off to sleep if you’re sleepy.
There’s no use waiting up for me!

Oklahoma! won Academy Awards for Best Music and Best Sound, and raked in $6.8 million at the box office that year. We think you’ll enjoy this cheeky, light-hearted tribute to the 46th state of the union.

Oklahoma! starring Gordon MacRae, Gloria Grahame, Gene Nelson. Directed by Fred Zinneman. Written by Sonya Levien & William Ludwig. Magna Theatre Corp., 1955, B&W, 145 mins.

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14 thoughts on “The Algonquin Table of the Old West

  1. Loved your write-up, Ruth! I saw Oklahoma for the first time at the TCM film festival last year — you know I’m no big musical fan, but I really enjoyed this one. And you are SO right about the lyrics. They were the greatest! The one about Steiger’s funeral blew me away! Another favorite was I Can’t Say No. Whoa!

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  2. Ruth, you are right on the nose … Oklahoma isn’t all innocence and naivete. Hammerstein was a brilliant lyricist with the sense of humor I like best. And of course, Rodgers’ music is without peer. I really enjoyed this!

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      1. I also thought it was so cool that Hammerstein was such a big, beefy man who was able to understand women so well — each musical has a solo for a woman that speaks to what is in her heart about love. He is somebody I would like to have had for a husband!

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  3. I love musicals although I have to watch those by myself as my husband doesn’t appreciate them too much. It is amazing what is kind of snuck in by way of music in movies in the past. I remember being kind of surprised when I watched The Music Man for the first time. I have never really seen all of Oklahoma, just a few scenes here and there, but I would like to. I love the part of your post where you talk about all they seem to have to do is sing and dance and make merriment. Sounds just like a typical day in Arizona! 😉

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    1. Yes, I know about husbands who don’t want to waste time with musicals. In fact, when I saw this on the big screen recently, I had to DRAG my sister to see it. I think in the end she really liked it, although she’d be loathe to admit it.

      Well, if you Arizona folk just sing and dance and make merriment, then what on earth am I doing here? I’ve gotta move to Arizona! 😉

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  4. When I was a kid, my mum’s friend used to babysit me and she was a MASSIVE Rogers & Hammerstein fan. I’d watch this (and many, many more including Seven Brides for Seven Brothers) again and again. I wonder if that’s why now so much of my internal dialogue is set to a musical soundtrack?! HAHA!

    PS – I nominated you for a Liebster award, you don’t have to respond but I just wanted you to know how much I love reading your blog 🙂
    https://girlsdofilm.wordpress.com/2015/07/12/a-liebster-award-id-like-to-thank-the-academy/

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    1. An internal musical soundtrack? Awesome! (On a side note, I once had a boss who would occasionally storm through the office in a foul mood. I swear I could hear the Darth Vader Imperial March precede him in the hallway…)

      Thanks so much for the award! 🙂

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