My Aunt Cora Van “Cokie” Bradford in Corsicana, Texas, was a big fan of musicals. If a roadshow production came to Fort Worth or Dallas, she would probably be there in the audience, and she would buy the original cast album afterward. At first, these were actual albums (and I’ll bet a lot of kids in this downloading age have no idea where that term came from), big books with four or five or six sleeves for 78 RPM platters. Later it was those newfangled “Hi-Fi” 33 1/3 LPs that sounded a heck of a lot better. I spent many a blistering hot Corsicana afternoon sitting in front of the Victrola in her air conditioned parlor (a real rarity in those days) listening to her collection of Broadway and classical music. Kismet, The King and I, South Pacific, Showboat, Kiss Me Kate, Brigadoon, Paint Your Wagon, My Fair Lady … she had them all. I must have been about ten.
I remember sitting with Aunt Cokie listening to this one, the first effort of the most successful collaboration in Broadway history, that of Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II. She explained some of it, with a wicked grin on her face. Things like, poor Jud was not dead, it was just Curley singing a song, trying to persuade the dummy to off himself by describing what a great thing his funeral would be. With that understanding, the song was stood on its head and became very funny. It was probably my introduction to black humor, which has been my constant and welcome companion through the rest of my life.
I didn’t realize at the time that this was one of the earliest “book” musicals, that is, a play where the music is an integral part of the story and helps move it along while adding to character development. The first is generally agreed to be Jerome Kern’s Showboat, in 1927. Before that, big musicals were most revues, like Ziegfeld’s Follies. Anyway, I liked them all, but I adored this one. And later, for the first time I remember, I was able to go to a movie where I already knew all the music.
I still like it, though much of it is a bit dated now. What I hadn’t expected at my first viewing, and am not sure I totally got, was the fifteen-minute ballet sequence brilliantly choreographed by Agnes de Mille. I particularly liked the fact that they shot much of the movie in the outdoors, except for the ballet sequence. “You know we belong to the land, and the land we belong to is grand!” No musical I know of is more bound to the land, and the endless prairie and cornfields and wide open spaces lend themselves to this.
The one thing that feels wrong about the show is that almost all of it happens during one day … except for an ending that feels tacked on, three weeks later at Curley and Laurey’s wedding. Jud shows up, Curley accidentally kills him, and there is a silly trial to find him not guilty. Then they reprise “Oh What a Beautiful Morning.” I don’t think any of that was necessary. They could easily have moved Jud’s death to after the dance. Then it could have ended where it should have, with the stirring rendition of the title song.
Oh, and thinking about it, I sort of feel this day will be the high point of Curley and Laurey’s lives. I think he will make a terrible farmer, turn to drink, get bitter, ride off into the sunset looking for a cow to punch … but that’s all for a Stephen Sondheim musical, I guess.