Fred Zinnemann: Oklahoma!

Adapting a musical presents a unique challenge. Not only does the director have to deal with the opinions of the producer, but the composer, lyricist, and librettist usually have a good deal of input as well. In addition to that, if the musical is a well-known and beloved hit, the director needs to consider the reaction of fans who most desire a recreation of the stage show on the screen, which may or may not make for good cinema.

For Fred Zinnemann, fresh off his Oscar win for From Here to Eternity, helming a production of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s musical sensation Oklahoma! encompassed all of those challenges. Rodgers and Hammerstein had the final word on casting; in his autobiography Zinnemann reveals that they vetoed his choices of Paul Newman or James Dean for the lead. Also, the musical was beloved by Americans for its rousing, tuneful songs and strong sense of patriotism and community responsibility, made stronger by its opening in the midst of World War II.

Additionally, Zinnemann was using a new technology to shoot the film, a Todd-AO camera which would enable him to create a more immersive widescreen experiences. (The most succinct definition of Todd-AO would be to think of it as an early precursor of IMAX.) However many cinemas were not equipped to project a film shot with a Todd-AO camera, so Zinnemann had to shoot two versions of the film, one in Todd-AO and one in the regular widescreen technology CinemaScope.

The reason for the invention of widescreen cinema was a direct competition with television. In order to give the American public something that they could not watch at home, movies had to be bigger and grander, and thus widescreen emerged in 1953 with The Robe. In 1955 Zinnemann took widescreen to even greater depths by shooting the first film which would require a concave screen and could capture a far wider angle of vision than previous technology had made available.

Zinnemann’s Technique

Oklahoma2One advantage of the 50th anniversary DVD of Oklahoma! is that it contains both the CinemaScope and the Todd-AO versions of the film. Since Zinnemann proudly stated in his autobiography that the films looks best in Todd-AO, I naturally watched that version for this retrospective.

There are unquestionably a few scenes where the Todd-AO cameras enabled Zinnemann to capture images that give the film added depth and beauty. The most notable is Agnes de Mille’s stunning outdoor recreation of her choreography for Laurey’s dream sequence, which utilizes the entire screen brilliantly. A second such scene is the runaway buggy, which is shot from the point of view of the characters, and with the wider angle lens of Todd-AO, it is easy to imagine that scene feeling very realistic when viewed on a giant screen. The increased field of vision also gives Jud Fry’s cabin an appropriately claustrophobic feel which I had never noticed watching the CinemaScope version in the past.

However, much like The Robe did not utilize the full potential of its widescreen, there are many scenes in Oklahoma! where there are no advantages to the greater field of vision afforded by Todd-AO. In one of the DVD’s extras, film historians assert that was because Zinnemann wanted both copies of the film to look identical, but most of Zinnemann’s blocking of spoken or sung exchanges by a few people does not show off the full potential of what the new cameras could achieve.

Even if Zinnemann wasted some opportunities with the Todd-AO cameras, he made a lot of other good directorial choices in creating his faithful film adaptation of the Broadway production. One question that I repeatedly asked myself throughout the film was: does Zinnemann see his sets and outdoor Arizona location as full of potential in their own right or just a larger, glorified stage? While I think the answer comes down slightly more in favor of the latter, there are still some impressive images. The opening shot of the corn “as high as an elephant’s eye” which follows the black screen overture immediately immerses us in the world of farming and cattle ranching. The subtlety of film acting enables Rod Steiger to convey the troubled psychosis of villain Jud with his eyes and expressions; he’s even able to first enter with his back to the camera, appearing in shadow. Crosscutting adds tension to several scenes, especially toward the end as Jud’s hatred escalates. And we get to see several of the picturesque images described, not just hear about them, such as Curly’s open cattle range and the surrey with the fringe on top.

When Zinnemann adapted another famous stage production eleven years later, the changes made to the play A Man For All Seasons took better advantage of the opportunities offered by film, but in Oklahoma! Zinnemann showed that he was definitely aware of the differences between stage and screen, and he capitalized on that as much as he could.

Another notable technique of Zinnemann’s in Oklahoma! is his use of long takes. Tom Hooper notably shot most of the solos in Les Miserables in one take, but fifty-seven years earlier, Zinnemann played with a similar idea. No song is shot completely in one take, but whenever the camera can move instead of cut, it does. The opening verse of “Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin’” is shot in one long tracking shot across the cornfield and open plains. Right after Curly and Laurey’s wedding, the ensemble begins the titular song, and as the cast moves outside to the porch, the camera dollies back along with them.

Since one idea behind the Todd-AO camera was that the lens could film a 128-degree angle – supposedly the same as human vision – it seems as if Zinnemann was using the camera to place the audience right next to the characters.

Themes in the Work

Oklahoma 3If Zinnemann’s intention was to place the audience alongside the characters in Oklahoma!, it was an appropriate choice given the musical’s central theme about individual responsibility to a community. As biographer Stephen Citron emphasizes in Sondheim and Lloyd-Webber The New Musical, a major reason for Oklahoma’s! huge success was that when it opened in 1943, it celebrated a way of life America was currently fighting to preserve in WWII.

The responsibilities that accompany the relationships between individuals and their communities is a theme present in many of Zinnemann’s films. In High Noon, retired Sherriff Will Kane must decide between his responsibilities to himself and the town which he protected for years. Thomas More faces a similar conundrum regarding his duties to his conscience, his king, and his God in A Man For All Seasons.

In Oklahoma! the conflicts and arguments between the farmers and the ranchers overshadow all relationships. Rancher Curly (Gordon MacRae) and farm girl Laurey (Shirley Jones) spend so much time bickering and teasing one another that their wedding at the end of the film is not just the union of a farmer and a rancher, but also the putting aside of petty quarrels and acknowledging their former foolishness. Those quarrels extend to Laurey using Jud as a means of upsetting Curly, and this action adds complexity and sympathy to a villain who otherwise could have been a one-dimensional bad guy.

The perpetual flirting and fighting between dimwitted Will Parker (Gene Nelson) and Ado Annie (Gloria Grahame) humorously reinforces the conflict between the farmers and the ranchers, as if to remind the audience that this extreme individuality is really foolish when America has always consisted of people from different backgrounds coming together to be unified. Even the fast talking snake-oil salesman is an essential part of American culture.

As a secondary theme, the exchanges between Annie and Will also highlight some of the double standards regarding the expected roles for men and women in the 19th century. Their duet “All or Nothin’” voices the dated attitude that a man being unfaithful was something to be expected, but a woman should not even think about such a thing. However, the film is aware of that sexism, humorously critiquing it through Will’s stubbornness and stupidity. The picnic basket auction, another dated, sexist staple of American pioneer life, is celebrated by all the characters as it would have been, but Jud’s presence and perseverance to get Laurey shows how creepy and disrespectful the practice was toward the women involved.

Annie’s humorous paean and simultaneous lament about licentiousness, “I Cain’t Say No” suggests the importance of women being able to say no and the importance of men accepting that response. When the song comes back as underscoring in the ballet dream sequence, it highlights how men such as Jud, who view women as objects, thrive on scaring women into not saying no.

Jud’s pornography addiction is subtly referenced, and undeniably is one reason for his anti-social behavior, which carries over into his opposition to aiding the community. When Zinnemann crosscuts between Curly and Laurey’s wedding and Jud spying on them, the idea of “united we stand, divided we fall” comes across in the contrasting shots of the large wedding party of farmers and ranchers and the one loner standing in the shadows.

If Zinnemann’s other most famous films are about an individual who adheres to his principles because those principles define who he is, Oklahoma! could be viewed as a joyous celebration of individuals from supposedly irreconcilable worlds (the farmers and the ranchers) coming to realize that the petty principles behind their quarrels are unimportant and not worth adhering to, when they should be adhering to principles that unite them.

In A Man For All Seasons Thomas More’s laudable, conscientious conviction that he is “the king’s good servant, but God’s first” defines who he is, and as God’s servant he recognizes his responsibilities to his country and to God, and he does his best to fulfill both. Oklahoma! focuses on earthly responsibilities, and Curly and Laurey realize that the divisive convictions of the farmers and the cowmen are not that important when they are all Americans who “should be friends” as the songs says. Oklahoma! recognizes a principle more important than adhering to careers and habits, and the conclusion of the film symbolizes the American melting pot as people of different identities come together in the move forward to statehood, which all the characters celebrate in the titular song.

Zinnemann wrote in his autobiography that Oklahoma! was one of his most positive filmmaking experiences. For a film adapting a musical which not only celebrates the American way of life, but debatably founded the genre of the modern American musical, that seems fitting.

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