Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Overlooked Films: The Oklahoma Kid (1939)

This one surprised me. Most of what I’ve read or heard about The Oklahoma Kid was negative, and now I don’t know why. I found it an extremely entertaining film.

I’ll admit it took me a couple of scenes to get used to Jimmy Cagney, with his New York wise guy accent, as a western outlaw.  But his character is so engaging that I soon stopped thinking about it, and just enjoyed the ride. Cagney plays a good boy gone bad, who puts his badness to good use when he goes up against an even badder guy in the form of Humphrey Bogart. As the Oklahoma Kid, Cagney is happy-go-lucky, cynical and chivalrous all at the same time, and somehow makes it work. You just can’t help liking the guy.

When this film was released in 1939, Cagney was a huge star, and Bogart had not yet hit his stride. Bogart's breakthrough appearances in High Sierra and The Maltese Falcon were still two years away. So while Bogart did get second billing on the posters, it was a very distant second. It’s hard to find his image on any of the posters, and he’s hardly even seen in the lobby cards. By the time the movie was re-released in 1956, of course, Bogie was on at least equal footing, and the new posters make it appear they are battling man-to-man.

And surprisingly, that’s pretty much true. Bogart’s role in the film as much greater than I expected, and I believe he got almost as much screen time as Cagney. And though the two are clearly the story’s chief adversaries, they rarely appear on screen together. Still, it's clear a big confrontation is coming, and it arrives in the climactic fistfight between the two stars (and their two stunt doubles).

Bogie’s role, as an unscrupulous gent with the name Whip McCord, is pretty standard fare. He’s the outlaw gang leader who owns the saloon and plots to take control of the whole town. A similar character appears in about half the westerns you could name, but this one rises above the pack merely because Bogart commands the screen with the same force we see in his more famous roles.

The film’s historical setting is interesting too. The story begins in 1889, with President Cleveland opening up the Cherokee Strip - a big chunk of Oklahoma that had belonged to the Cherokee nation since 1836. The idea seems to be that this prime farm land is just too good to be wasted on the Indians, so they're reimbursed at the bargain rate of $1.40 an acre and told to vamoose. This sets the stage for the biggest land run in U.S. history, and this film treats us to the founding of the great city of Tulsa, where most of the later action takes place.

Beyond that, I don’t want to give too much away. This is a movie I can highly recommend, and you deserve to discover the rest of the story for yourself.

For more posters from The Oklahoma Kid, check out yesterday's post, HERE, and tune in again tomorrow.

And for more Overlooked Films, hop in your wagon and thunder on over to SWEET FREEDOM.


Oscar said...

I had similar feelings about Cagney as a cowboy as you did, but he did a creditable job.

Ron Scheer said...

Great review. Cagney has the lead as a tough (hanging) rancher in frontier Colorado in TRIBUTE TO A BAD MAN. It takes a while to get used to him in that kind of role. Cast opposite Irene Pappas, though, the two make it work after a while.

pattinase (abbott) said...

Just can't imagine Bogey as a credible cowboy. And Cagney even more so.