You may think the musical Oklahoma! is a sweet little show about friendly farmers and cowmen, but I’ve got an arousing awakening for you. Oklahoma! is drenched in sexual innuendo, rape metaphor, and bestiality references. After all, the whole plot revolves around who gets to take Laurey to the “box social” — a coded consummation metaphor if ever there was one.
Many years ago, I wrote this (don’t worry, it’s pretty short and it moves fast) about the 1955 Fred Zinnemann movie version of Rodgers and Hammerstein‘s 1943 Broadway musical Oklahoma!. As I decode this assumed G-rated masterpiece for torrid subtext, I guarantee that you will never look at that chestnut the same way ever again.
I wrote this for a film studies course at Northwestern University. It’s a little-known fact that the history and writing of the American musical is a special discipline of mine. I don’t talk about it much, but it’s true. I even have an MFA in music theatre from New York University, a lot of good may it do me.
I wrote this mostly as a lark to see what I could get away with, but it holds up. May my perspective make this old snoozer recharged with sexual energy for you.
Much has been written about the significance of Oklahoma! in the history of American musical theatre. Most historians place it as the milestone in the integration of the musical’s construction in conveying themes, plot and character. Its reputation among laymen is one of a simpleminded, quaint musical. What both factions ignore in their analyses, however, is that Oklahoma! is full of subtle but rough-hewn sexual and violent undertones that in fact contradict its reputation as mere mild entertainment.
Oklahoma! was released in 1955 after the New York and touring companies had closed and introduced the new wide-screen process called Todd-AO. It was re-released in 1956 by 20th Century Fox in CinemaScope. It tells story of Curly McLain (Gordon MacRae) and Laurey Williams (Shirley Jones), who, in a fit of coquettish spite, accepts an invitation to a social from the brute farmhand Jud Fry (Rod Steiger). Laurey’s ensuing self-torment plus the tension between Jud and Curly drives the plot from that point on. True to the Rodgers and Hammerstein style, there is also a contrasting subcouple in the form of Will Parker (Gene Nelson) and Ado Annie (Gloria Grahame), who pines for any man with a seductive intent, including the peddler Ali Hakim (Eddie Albert).
Oklahoma! has reached the status of an enduring classic, thanks mostly to its mainstream proliferation through the Fred Zinnemann film. While its bumpkin characters seem homey and charming in light of modern musical works, the film itself remains fresh and entertaining. The songs and dancing are in part responsible for that, but one might argue that its nearly perverse subthemes of sexual desire and violence help the film maintain a gripping, if subconscious, appeal.
The primary sexual themes of Oklahoma! play themselves out in its characters. There is Laurey, the virginal girl coming of sexual age; Curly, the suave, sexy charmer clearly obsessed with bedding Laurey; Ado Annie, the girl, recently come of sexual age and unable to control her sexual impulses — a victim of her own Freudian id; Jud Fry, who represents an unfettered, unchivalrous sexual carnality that contrasts the cultural expectations of Claremore; Ali Hakim, also a victim of his own id but, unlike Annie, quite aware of his manipulatory manner of obtaining gratification; Will Parker, who is like Laurey in his virginal, wide-eyed view of sex; and Aunt Eller, the matriarch-cum-madam of Claremore, wise in the ways of sex and lust and engrossed with matchmaking her Laurey with a suitable sexual partner — the handsome Curly.
It is Aunt Eller who carries out the first sexual act, which, like everything else in Oklahoma!, is disguised with a down-home flavor. She is seen daydreaming and churning butter (a subliminally phallic gesture), no doubt dreaming of her younger, sexual days. When Curly chats with her, she keeps her eyes focused on him, surveying him and continuing her phallic strokes. The first thing she says to him also indicates her sexual desire for the virile Curly: “If I wasn’t an ole woman, and if you wasn’t so young and smart-alecky, why, I’d marry you and git you to set around at night and sing to me [i.e. be intimate with me]” Aunt Eller’s churning halts when Curly mentions Laurey, her niece. Although Aunt Eller wears a smile as he mentions her, she promptly stops her action and opens up the churn — in essence, castrating Curly in any hopes of making love to such an “ole woman.” In a moment, she’s scooping out globs of butter and saying “you young ‘uns!” (The dairy product metaphor for sex is repeated during “I Cain’t Say No”: “S’posin’ ‘at he says ‘at you’re sweeter’n cream/ And he’s gotta have cream er die?” And later, women’s home-cooked meals are auctioned to their suitors at the Skidmore Ranch.)
The butter metaphor is by no means the only sexual undertheme perpetrated by Aunt Eller. In fact, throughout the film, Aunt Eller is the only person in Claremore who seems to be wise to the ways of sex and appreciates fully the sexual goals of the courtship ritual. Her primary function is that of matchmaker for the girls, helping them obtain a suitable sexual partner.
For example, she opens her home to all the couples on the way to the Skidmore Ranch. Once inside, the ladies undress and primp themselves in preparation for their evenings with the menfolk. Not only is the “Many a New Day” scene voyeuristic on behalf of the viewers, but it is a depiction of how Claremore girls pride themselves on catching a man. The number itself represents contradiction — it’s a feminist stance yet sung while in underwear. Although Laurey may deny the idea that her world centers around a man, we also discover the shallowness of her decree when she nearly breaks down at song’s end. During the song, there are a number of sexual issues: girls try to outdo each other with attractiveness and showiness, women tie their corsets with thrusting, rhythmic pulses and two pubescent girls become frustrated with their own lack of expertise. While the girls primp and preen inside, comparing undergarments and discussing sexuality, the men are outside, dipping their heads in a horse trough. The statement of who’s luring who is more than implicit.
Aunt Eller in essence affects the whole plot. She uses Jud to make Curly jealous enough to try harder for Laurey but when Jud’s obsession becomes apparent, she gets worried.
Aunt Eller also endorses the men in their own pursuit of more vigorous sexual satisfaction. In the “Kansas City” scene, she reacts to the assumed pornography inside the “Little Wonder” first with the expected, gender-ascribed disdain (“The hussy!”) but then gives the men approval from the other side of the sexual fence of experience when she says “How do you turn the thing to see the other pitcher?” Plus, underneath her grey dress she wears a flaming red petticoat, which she flashes along with her legs to the camera in “Kansas City.” Later in the number, Will Parker chooses Aunt Eller over the two adolescent girls, presumably because of her knowledge in sexual matters. The lyric of the song depicts sexual awakening (i.e. the stripper in Kansas City) and sure enough, soon the two adolescent girls are petting Will and sheepishly trying to get him to notice them. At the point when he does embarrassedly notice the two girls, Aunt Eller vanishes off the left of the screen into the train office. It’s almost as if she was making herself scarce to matchmake Will with the young ladies.
She matchmakes at other times, too, stressing physical contact over romantic courtship: (“Why don’t you grab her and kiss her when she gets that way, Curly?”) When Laurey and Curly finally do wed, she protects their intimacy within the house by halting the shivoree crowd at the stoop.
Aunt Eller seems to be very much in control of the townspeople and supervises their mating. During “The Surrey With the Fringe on Top,” she is shown as the only object in the Todd-AO vista, gazing intently at Curly and Laurey. In “Kansas City,” she escorts the ensemble to the far end of the train platform with outstretched arms, as if pushing them. In “The Farmer and the Cowman,” she whips out a pistol and forces everyone to dance. Also, even though Curly is about to be killed by the “Little Wonder,” Hakim wastes time in telling Aunt Eller about the hidden knife, and she is the one to save Curly’s life; the matchmaking must go on, and by her hand. She even literally auctions off the girls at the social like a whorehouse madam. Yet, however in control she may be, as when she threatens Ali Hakim with an eggbeater down his windpipe, she retains her sexuality, getting a pair of garters in the bargain.
Violence is hardly scarce in Oklahoma! as far as sex goes. In fact, Oklahoma seems to be teeming with an undercurrent of unfulfilled sexual desire and violence waiting to emerge, be it between farmer and cowman or two eligible ladies. Each man seems willing to kill to obtain his love. Curly tries to convince Jud to commit suicide. Jud tries to kill Curly twice (once with a sexual toy). Will tells Ali he would kill him for Annie. Gertie Cummings has fights with both Annie and Laurey (rolling on the ground, of course).
The community structure of Claremore revolves around obtaining sex through appropriate societal channels. Marriage is usually the way to get that sex. When a marriage proposal (and thus the promise of sex) arrives, it is monumental. When Annie is engaged to Ali, she promptly goes to report it to the other girls in the community. Laurey and Curly’s marriage is also a community spectacle.
Premarital sex is often alluded to, however, particularly through the lusty characters of Annie and Ali, who would be termed “sexual addicts” in today’s America. Says Will: “I’m goin’ t’marry her!” Ali: “On purpose?,” implying the famous Oklahoma shotgun marriage. Obviously, any moral code isn’t apparent to Ali. He wants to bed Annie in the Claremore Hotel. He also suggests that he, Laurey and Annie engage in a menage a trois by skinny dipping together. He’s been “feeling up” Annie behind the haystack (his confession that results in his shotgun engagement to Annie). At the end, he’s caught in illicit (by Claremore standards) sex and forced by shotgun to marry Gertie Cummings. Finally, he sells garters and bloomers and other forbidden delights like drugs (the Egyptian smelling salts).
In Oklahoma!, women obtain sexual fulfillment when in a semi-drugged state. “Laurey’s Dream” is the most obvious example. Ado Annie, too, seems ever-comatose and virtually unresponsive, doggedly singing her number “I Cain’t Say No.”
Also, the sexuality of women is related to beasts in Oklahoma! During “Kansas City,” as Will describes the round shape of the burlesque queen, the non-diagetic sound of a horse whinny is mixed in. Later in the number, he sings to his horse as one of the pubescent, sexually-unready girls faintly tries to grab his attention. Before the reprise of “I Cain’t Say No,” Annie compliments Will’s manner of roping horses in between his sexual advances. He also tells Annie that roping steers all day makes him think of her. The connection between beasts and sex is obvious. Later, after “All ‘Er Nothin’,” he pens Annie in with a farmyard fence like a common hog before kissing her. Even Ali Hakim joins in, describing Annie’s “soft, round tail.” At first glance, these allusions seem rustic and apropos for the midwestern setting, but in actuality they are blatant objectifications.
As in other film musicals, dance implies sex. In “Kansas City,” Will tries to teach the young girls how to dance — i.e. how to become sexually mature enough to capture his attention. In her dream, dancing with Jud symbolizes Laurey’s moral decay and at the social, she reels in disgust at the prospect of dancing with Jud. Also at the social, Annie and Will go from dancing together to immediately and furtively sneaking away for hanky-panky — the natural progression. Also, Annie laments Will’s own fidelity after he dances with the two pubescent girls.
Unlike other film musicals, however, blatant objectification of sex is not used much. It is cloaked instead under the character and custom of the Oklahomans. Lusty observation of the opposite sex is frowned upon. Jud peeps on Laurey twice in the film but that act is in no way presented as positive or does it instill desire in the audience. The only time the women are put on pedestals for the men in the town is during the hamper auction. Although the metaphor of the woman’s sexuality as a scrumptious meal for her suitor is striking (and it is repeated when Will compares Ado’s mouth to ripe berries in the reprise of “I Cain’t Say No”), it is hardly as blatant as, say, a Ziegfeld girl, showing legs and bosom with come-hither glee. Like all sexuality in Oklahoma!, the sexuality of the girls is obscured by the charm of local custom. As an audience unused to such coding, we see the custom but not the actual sexuality itself, mistaking it for chivalry.
Each character fits into this chivalric custom. Jud is ostracized not for his sexual desires (even Will owns the “Little Wonder”) but mostly for his selfish and coarse refusal to cooperate with the chivalric code. Curly is attractive because he tries to turn its tables and have the women proposition him. Romance comes when we sense his intense desire to abandon egocentricity and conform to the code, which he eventually does when he proposes humbly to Laurey. Annie’s sexual drive is not reprehensible because she is unaware of her indiscretions and is instead fulfilled by them. Furthermore, she obeys the chivalric code and promptly responds to all gentlemanly advances. Laurey is the perfect ingenue — virginal and a victim of a man’s romantic system, resorting to dreams for her sexual fulfillment. Will, intent on obeying the code at the cost of $100 total, is just discovering the wonders of romance and thus excusable from his reckless tendency to woo every available female. Ali Hakim is a rascal for his shrewd manner of circumventing the code, and also forgivable because of his pure wheedling, con-man ability.
Oklahoma! is not without out-and-out innuendo, however. Take, for example, Will’s “Oklahoma Hello,” in which Annie is straddled (like a horse — the woman as a beast theme) about the groin. Later, at film’s end, a disheveled Will and Annie have clearly been screwing around behind the house: “You missed all the excitement!” someone says. Annie responds, dazed: “No, we didn’t. Hello, Will,” and Will giggles. Did they engage in sex during the trial scene? The audience must guess, but given Annie’s insatiable appetite and Will’s hankering for Annie, we imagine they have.
Naturally, such open-ended presentations and cultural cloaking was the only way that Oklahoma! could appeal both to New York’s sly but conservative audiences and later slip by the film’s censors. Like Cole Porter’s famous double-entendres, Hammerstein’s suggestive script (which was adapted almost word for word by Sonya Levien and William Ludwig for the film) managed to carry off dozens of sexual themes under the pretense of a simple, enigmatic culture.
There’s a storehouse of sexual activity swarming in Oklahoma! and enough to fill several ten-page papers. In overview, however, it suffices to note the several main themes in the film: the cloaking of continual sexual pursuit beneath local custom and chivalry, the dependency of each character on that custom, the matriarchal presence of the madam Aunt Eller and the existence of other major themes such as the sexual linkage of beasts and dancing as they relate to Oklahoma!‘s setting and genre. In those themes alone there is enough to give any Rodgers and Hammerstein fan pause as she or he considers Oklahoma!‘s innate sexuality and perversity.
Gertie Cummings? Really?
College is hot.