Sunday, December 4, 2016

The Oklahoma Kid (1939)

Director: Lloyd Bacon                                    Writers: Warren Duff & Robert Buckner
Film Score: Max Steiner                                Cinematography: James Wong Howe
Starring: James Cagney, Humphrey Bogart, Rosemary Lane and Donald Crisp

Both James Cagney and Humphrey Bogart were known for making gangster pictures at Warner Brothers, and before Bogart came onto the scene Cagney had an equally successful career in early musicals. But The Oklahoma Kid is one of the few times that the two were ever in a western. It’s a testament to the talent of Warner Brothers’ artists that the film is no less convincing than if it had been a gangster picture. Unfortunately, contemporary audiences didn’t feel the same and the film was a box-office failure. The stretch was too great to believe the famous gangsters in a western. Part of the success of the picture for modern audiences has to go to director Lloyd Bacon, who began his career in the silent era. He had filmed the musicals that Cagney starred in earlier in the decade but he could really do anything, from historical dramas to comedies to war film. The presence of James Wong Howe behind the camera also makes for some excellent cinematography, and a terrific score by Max Steiner provides a wonderful finishing touch. The film began as an original idea by writer Edward E. Paramore about mountain men, and apparently had a lot in it that Cagney was interested in. According to the actor, the studio pulled Paramore off the project and had two other writers, Warren Duff and Robert Buckner, turn it into a standard western. Still, it retains a healthy dose of modern ideas, especially with Cagney’s character flatly claiming that the Indian land was stolen by whites, and that even the law is no protection from criminal elements.

The film begins, incongruously enough, in Washington D.C. in the oval office of Grover Cleveland. It turns out this is yet another story of the Cherokee land grab in the northwestern section of Oklahoma, east of the panhandle, that opened RKO’s Oscar winning Cimarron, but goes back as far as Tumbleweeds with William S. Hart, and probably earlier. When the money shows up to pay the Indians for their land Bogart is seen watching, dressed all in black, so it’s not difficult to know what part he’ll be playing. He and Ward Bond and a couple other bandits go after the stagecoach and steal the money, but James Cagney gives chase. He manages to steal the packhorse with the money and shoot one of Bogart’s men. Meanwhile, Hugh Sothern has big plans to set up a town in the territory, but needs the rest of the people to respect the property he wants so that his son, Harvey Stephens, can claim it for the town. His friend, Donald Crisp, is set to be judge of the territory and will live in the town with his daughter, Rosemary Lane. Stephens and Lane are set to be married, but Cagney comes into camp that night and can’t take his eyes off Lane so he kicks a bunch of boomers out of the hotel for her. After losing the money, Bogey and Bond try a new tack, sneaking into the territory early to claim the land the town wants so they can have exclusive rights to saloons and gambling. The land rush isn’t as dense as it was in Cimarron, but it’s still fairly exciting.

The conceit of the film is an interesting one, to keep the audience from knowing what side of the law Cagney is on--or his real identity--until the very end. In the saloon the night before the run Cagney spends some of the Indian money, and so Bogart turns him into the sheriff. But the next day Cagney gives the sheriff the slip, an action usually indicating guilt. The showdown comes years later as Sothern tries to take the town back from Bogart. Sothern is set up for murder by Bogart, and when Cagney reads about it in the papers he decides to take action. Unfortunately, he’s still wanted for stealing the Indian money. One of the tremendous aspects of the film is how it defies expectations. A real shock comes an hour into the film and gives the whole thing some real verisimilitude throughout the rest of the picture. In many ways, it really is a gangster picture set in the West. Both Cagney and Bogart do a tremendous job and are quite believable in their parts. Donald Crisp is sort of wasted, as he doesn’t get a lot of screen time. Perhaps the weakest member of the principal cast is Rosemary Lane who was a singer more than an actor, and only made a couple dozen pictures during her career. Good character casting includes Ward Bond and George Chesebro, as well as Al Bridge who can be seen in the beginning of the film as the Strip is being opened up. While The Oklahoma Kid is not a typical western, especially considering the stars, it is probably a better film because of it and comes highly recommended.

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