Best Movies by Farr: Early Shirley Jones

December 20, 2011 | John Farr

Shirley Jones was a star long before her ‘Partridge Family’ days.

Oklahoma! (1955)

Fox introduced the new singing team of MacRae and Jones in this buoyant musical, adapted from the hit play that launched Rodgers and Hammerstein as a songwriting team .The movie follows the round-about romance of a young couple in the rough frontier days of the early 1900s. Cowboy Curly (Gordon MacRae) has eyes for Oklahoma farm girl Laurey (Shirley Jones), but so does brutish farmhand Jud Frye (Rod Steiger). When Curly rescues Laurey from Jud’s ungentlemanly advances at a social, he also wins her hand, but Jud hasn’t sung his last tune just yet.

Though the film is long and contains a fairly high corn factor, it’s also visually stunning, and truly soars whenever the music and dancing starts, with peerless renditions of “People Will Say We’re In Love,” “The Surrey With The Fringe On The Top,” and the immortal title tune. The dance numbers, choreographed by Agnes de Mille, are original and exuberant, while Steiger and Gloria Grahame turn in fine performances, respectively playing the dastardly Jud and the naively amorous Ado Annie, “the girl who can’t say no.”

Carousel (1956)

Former carnival barker Billy Bigelow (Gordon MacRae) marries the sweet and lovely Julie Jordan (Shirley Jones), a factory worker in a Maine coastal town. Frustrated by his inability to find work as he’s about to become a father, Bigelow makes a misguided attempt to better their circumstances, with tragic results. Ultimately, Billy receives a single shot at redemption for his past sins.

The score’s the thing in the bittersweet musical “Carousel,” based on yet another Rodgers and Hammerstein play. Though on release the film’s darker themes played less well with audiences than jauntier predecessor “Oklahoma,” time has been kind to this picture. Once again MacRae and Jones make a winning, handsome couple, and their mellifluous voices do full justice to timeless classics like “If I Loved You” and “You’ll Never Walk Alone.”

Elmer Gantry (1960)

Hiding his dissolute leanings, charismatic street preacher Elmer Gantry (Burt Lancaster) teams up with touring tent revivalist Sister Sharon Falconer (Jean Simmons) to spread the word of God, and before long the two are making money hand over fist. Falconer falls in love with Gantry, and with her new spoils, builds an enormous house of worship by the ocean. But the mercurial minister’s womanizing past is about to revisit them in the person of Lulu (Shirley Jones), a jilted prostitute out for a little payback.

Based on the bestselling novel by Sinclair Lewis, this tale of a lustful, larger-than-life charlatan’s fall from grace owes its strength to the force of Lancaster’s dynamic, Oscar-winning performance. His Gantry preaches hellfire and brimstone, but loves life – and women – with a hearty gusto that is as pure as Sister Falconer’s vanity is unbecoming. Jones also took home an Oscar, playing against type in a sultry turn as a minister’s “fallen” daughter who became Gantry’s lover. Also great is Arthur Kennedy as an atheist journalist modeled on the legendary H.L. Mencken. Fiery and sharp, Richard Brooks’s satirical take on Bible-thumping hypocrisy and hucksterism still speaks volumes in today’s world.

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