Film Review by Dean Duncan Jul 18, 2015

When but a lad, I read a critic who dismissed this film as an elephantine betrayal of a beloved stage source. He said that the film adaptation misunderstood the delicate artificiality of this story, and of the musical genre as well. By shooting on location, by opening up what was and should have remained sweet and stylized contrivance, this production had made a serious misstep. Real corn in an actual field? Cinemascope?! Further, the critic held that the sternly Teutonic Fred Zinneman had no business taking the helm as director. This property and that sensibility made for a gross misalliance. And as for the whole, the film was just generally a failure.

Not unusually, being but a lad, I put that strong prescription in the lens with which I viewed the film, when I got to it just a little bit later. Not surprisingly, I didn’t like it.

I think that reading critics and scholars is very important, and at a young age too. To do so is potentially and very frequently most productive. But you have to learn how to! I don’t care for the notion that it’s all just an opinion, especially if it differs from your own. We all spend too much time dismissing people who disagree with us, without every listening to hear how or why they do so. So if someone has a problem with something that I subscribe to, I should listen. It may be even more important for me to hear the detailing of an enthusiasm that I haven’t shared.

On the other hand, we would all do well to put pre-existing views aside, just a little bit, when first we come to a film or a book, a person or an idea. This didn’t happen with R&H’s Oklahoma!, or Fred Zinneman either, until I sat down to watch it again, years later, with several of our children. I was looking at them. They were looking at it. I started looking at both, at the same time. Hang on!

You’ve got to pay attention to the enthusiasm of children. By doing so, I learned something I hadn’t realized. This is a great film! It’s fun, and funny, full of delightful performances and properly celebrated, powerfully iconic music. I now saw that Oklahoma! is blithe and joyful, and yet anchored by a degree of heft and portent that may or may not have to do with its director’s country of origin. It certainly has to do with the fact that bright and fragrant blooms have roots as well, and depths.

Here’s the thing. Zinneman and Co. didn’t have to open this stage musical up for their screen adaptation. They did though, and it behooves and rewards me when I go along for the ride that has actually been prepared for me. And when I do, I have that marvelous source, so beautifully performed, and also transformed by a style and setting that inflects it in new, unexpected, advantageous ways.

I’m definitely not saying that you shouldn’t listen to other people. But while you’re doing so, listen to the work as well, not to mention your own instincts and impressions.

Finally: I would also praise, as per the presence and rapt interest of my youngsters, the powerful, sorrowful, exquisite Agnes De Mille ballet sequence. It was there in the 1943 stage version, but I wasn’t. I hadn’t realized this, back in my own late youth. This is Jud and Laurey, of course, or at least Laurey’s fears about Jud, and what he might represent. But it also evokes the sweet siren call of sexual initiation, and sexual experience. Then, as it lingers, holds and elaborates, desire becomes incontinence, the prospect of fulfillment turns into to soul diminution, and degradation. Nothing is made explicit, and only those with ears will see it. Unless those with ears pause the movie and talk to the kids about it. That may be the great, final thing. Films and books and people and ideas are never just themselves, are they. Phenomenology is the big word for it, or the fact that the perceived object is always affected and transformed by the active engagement of those perceiving.