The Film That Didn't
‘Oklahoma!’ And the Revelatory Nature of Moral Failure in Storytelling
Occasionally, you come across a film who doesn’t seem to be fully aware of the implications it has constructed for itself. You know as the runtime drags on that something is seriously “off.”
At first, you think it might be the tone. But it’s more than the tone. It’s more than the performances, or the direction. The usual suspects of filmmaking inadequacy are not sufficient at revealing the problem.
In the event that any of these single elements of a film are mishandled, it violates the aspiration to integrity and unity on the part of the craftsmanship of the filmmakers. It results in a flawed film, but not one whose confusion is so vividly revealing in new and accidental ways.
What happens occasionally in the cinema is a film whose artistic integrity is indeed intact, but whose level of awareness is somehow impaired.
These rare films exhibit a failure of understanding of the inner-life of their own characters that are so at odds with the reality up on the screen that the misunderstanding is fundamental and tragic.
Oklahoma is one such film.
Within the film Oklahoma lives another film. One whose real inner-life seems to me to be surprisingly lonely, dark, and empty. While the characters sing and dance about simple prairie life problems and sexual or marital concerns, we are given occasional glimpses into much deeper, almost existential problems, that the film never addresses or seems concerned with.
The two starring characters, Curly and Laurie, are easily the least interesting in this reading of the film. They are simpletons. We know from the first reel that they will end up together and that they will live a fine one-dimensional life, producing one-dimensional children for years to come.
But what of Jud, Ado, and Ali?
In the presence of Jud we sense an ongoing and dreadfully powerful yearning. A yearning that has never been returned his whole life. He has loved a woman who has only resentment for him. And on-top of this, she has used his affection for her to her advantage in courting his rival’s attention. Jud’s sincerity and loneliness are a game to Laurie. And inside of Jud a fire begins to burn. His impotence turns to anger and this anger turns to an action that is ultimately his undoing.
But even this basic description is not, perhaps, doing justice to the bizarre and unsettling detail work that the film shows us in Jud’s inner-world. We learn early in the film about Jud’s intense use of pornographic images (something which, bizarrely, is never really addressed again by the film).
And what do we make of our presumed hero and keyhole into the narrative’s perspective, Curly, singing the ballad Poor Jud is Daid? In this four minute song Curly constructs an elaborate fantasy in front of Jud about what would happen if Jud killed himself. Curly specifically mentions how solid a beam in Jud’s home is, and how someone could just hang themselves on such a beam. As the song progresses Curly seems to suggest how in death, Jud would finally be appreciated as a valued human being and member of their community.
The film never addresses this conversation again. But when Jud does die by a combination of his own hand and a confrontation with Curly at the film’s climax, the townsfolk gather in a kitchen with the local judge to discuss Curly’s legal status. Everyone is uniformly agreed (with the exception of the persnickety federal marshall, who is begrudgingly convinced due to a threat of upcoming election) that a two minute trial should be held in the kitchen instead of the courthouse. Of course, Curly is immediately found not guilty by way of self-defense.
Everyone has a hardy laugh and a cheer as they wish Curly and Laurie well on their honeymoon. But a man has died. Perhaps he was at fault, or even a criminal. But this man was a member of this small community for years, and his death warrants nothing more than congratulations amongst townsfolk. When taken in parallel view with the idealized (but certainly sarcastic) vision of Jud’s funeral posed to Jud by Curly several reels earlier in the film, the tragedy of the film read from Jud’s perspective becomes clear.
One of the fundamental concerns of the film is marriage (read: sex). Marriage is a coveted goal of both our primary male characters, Jud and Curly, in competition for the hand of Laurie. But throughout the film equal screen time is given to a set of subplots concerning another love/marriage triangle between Ado, Ali and Will.
Ado is the “girl who can’t say no” of one of the film’s most memorable musical achievements. Throughout the film it is clear that she is sexually empowered in a way that Laurie considers improper. “How can I be what I ain’t?” Ado proclaims in her introductory number. Ado chooses to sleep with the local traveling merchant, Ali. When this information is revealed to Ado’s father, he threatens to murder Ali if he does not agree to marry his daughter. While Ado seems willing, Ali is deeply disappointed by this turn of events. Ado’s boyfriend Will is similarly upset and through some clever actions of Ali, it is arranged that Will can marry Ado as they had originally intended, freeing Ali from his obligation to marry Ado.
One of the most interesting moments in the film for a modern viewer occurs next. In discussing their plans of getting married Will demands fidelity from Ado. Ado retorts in the musical number “All ‘Er Nothin” that what Will is really expecting is “all for him” and “none for her.” Ado boldly asserts that the commitment of fidelity he is expecting does not apply equally to the both of them.
In the final moments of the musical number is a truly brilliant piece of composition and blocking. Will encloses Ado in a fence. He hops over and embraces her. Ado can’t say no. She accepts his embrace but with caution on her face. His black cowboy hat pans left in frame consuming her face completely as he goes in for the kiss.
It is either a moment of accidental genius on the part of Zinnemann or insight into the real nature of the power dynamics of this relationship. In any case, it exists captured for all time in the cinema. As the years pass by, and films are re-appraised, cultural contexts shifting, this collection of symbols will still remain open for judgment, regardless of original intention on the part of the creators.
What fascinates about this accompanying trio of relationships that counterpoints Laurie, Jud, and Curly is the radical shift of perspective on marriage. While Laurie, Jud, and Curly treat marriage as a pure objective to be achieved and competed over, Ado, Ali, Will all have much more contentious relationships with marriage. To Ado, marriage represents the collapse of her sexual freedom. To Will, it allows him to maintain his sexual agency while imposing control over Ado. And to Ali, marriage is the commutation of a death sentence.
The last time we see Ali, he tells Ado and Will that he had to marry another local girl. Her father imposed a similar ultimatum to him as Ado’s father. He could not escape this threat. The film treats this moment (as it does with most of the Ado/Will/Ali subplot) as yet another element of comic relief. It expects laughter where there really is a great tragedy unfolding in front of us.
As the film closes, in song and joy at Laurie and Curly’s successful union, the film has left us with so many unanswered questions. It has decided from the outset that it is a film like so many other light-hearted MGM musicals. But it is different. It contains a complexity that it refuses to engage with substantively. And in that denial something brilliant is expressed. A repression, and willful blindness characteristic of the society from which it emerged is crystalized on celluloid. The same impulses and tendencies that afflict the world outside, or around, the film are contained within the construction of the film.
While we often praise films for their lucidity in confronting problems within the society they have emerged from, perhaps there is something vital about a particular kind of film that fails to live up to this artistic promise. Maybe there is something valuable in a film whose cowardice in the face of social justice or emotional complexity reveals to us the nature of the problem we are confronted with.