Though today's audiences might consider this a dusty relic, in its day it was virtually revolutionary - not only was ballet integral to a Broadway show - a shocker to audiences of the time - but, more significantly, the songs were embedded in the action and served to further the plot. This musical changed forever the way such shows were written.
Still, the musical opened on Broadway over 70 years ago, and so you can't fault those caught in the maelstrom of the ever-sprinting zeitgeist, for whom last year's hot musical is already hopelessly passe, for relegating Oklahoma to the cultural equivalent of their great-grandmother's attic.
But one thing pop culture never acknowledges is that quality is timeless, and the movie, made a long 12 years after the play premiered, retains the original's magic quality; indeed, it has aged remarkably well in the years since. It is a gorgeous piece of filmmaking and a joyous dip in the refreshing pool of unabashed Americana, with innovative camera work, a sumptuous palette of color, iconic performances all around and a ballet-within-the-musical that is so evocative and satisfying that, even if you're not a particular fan of ballet, will mesmerize you with its lush expressiveness and the scope of its rendering of the totality of the human condition - our aspirations, our fears and, especially, the evil that tends to brush up, however fleetingly, against even the sunniest of lives.
The ballet is essentially a restatement of the arc of the play writ in dance, and a lovely arc it is.
I won't get into the plot here, but I will say that the performances are all outstanding; it was Shirley Jones's first movie, and it rightfully made her a star. She is lovely and strikes just the right tone as the skittish Laurey, who badly wants to marry Curley, but whose games of hard-to-get almost get out of hand.
Gordon McRae is excellent as well - yes, there might be more dynamic actors out there, but none who can sing as well as he, or who can do it while exuding unbridled, unapologetic alpha-male charisma as he.
Gloria Grahame is one of my favorite female film actors of all time, and she almost steals the entire movie as the would-be trollop Ado Annie, whose sexual appetite is somewhat tempered with her essential innocence.
Eddie Albert, another underrated actor who often spun pure gold, is a wonderful comic counterpoint to the dark Rod Steiger as Jud. I'm sure many think Steiger was too leaden or hammy as Jud, but he succeeds marvelously in making your skin crawl.
And no, nobody's ever going to mistake Eddie Albert's Ali Hakim for a real Persian, but who cares?
Charlotte Greenwood as Aunt Eller is a wonderful presence throughout the film - she may be one of the "old folks," but the light behind her eyes and her physical vitality are a joy; she is, in fact, the sun around which all of the other characters orbit.
Gene Nelson's rendition of Kansas City - along with the wonderful staging and use of the chorus - is as good as any dance number ever caught on film - and I'm a huge Fred Astaire/Gene Kelly fan. So I don't say that lightly.
The rest of the cast is appropriately homespun and distinctive.
The plot is quite simple - it all revolves around the box social dance that's going to occur that night, and the love machinations that ensue as folks attempt to pair off.
This movie is, quite simply, a delight. If you can transport yourself to a simpler time (when sentimentality wasn't an embarrassment and irony wasn't the oxygen that pop culture breathes), you will be richly rewarded.