Should I Watch..? 'The Oklahoma Kid'
What's the big deal?
The Oklahoma Kid is a western film released in 1939 and was directed by Lloyd Bacon. The film stars James Cagney as the eponymous Kid, a free-wheeling and charismatic outlaw who finds himself clashing with the villainous Whip McCord and his gang. The film also stars Humphrey Bogart, Rosemary Lane and Donald Crisp. The film is most notable for a scene where Cagney's character rubs his thumb and finger together while claiming you can "feel that air". It's also unusual to see both leading men in a genre that doesn't suit either of their acting styles. These days, the film is regarded as something of a curiosity as the film is an odd blend of western and comedy, despite being played perfectly straight.
What's the big deal?
In 1893, the Cherokee nation finally relinquished their hold on the land known as the Cherokee Strip in what is now Oklahoma. After the payment to the Cherokee had been made, a land-rush took place with thousands of settlers staking their claim on a plot of land for their own purposes. However, the payment to the Cherokee is held up by outlaw Whip McCord and his gang who subsequently lose the money to another outlaw, the cunning Oklahoma Kid. Frustrated, McCord bargains with John Kincaid for the rights to a saloon in the newly established city of Tulsa.
However, this proves disastrous as McCord's power and influence grows and the city falls foul to a wave of drunken violence and vice. Determined to see justice done, Kincaid decides to run for mayor in order to force McCord out of town but the black-suited bar owner is one step ahead, framing Kincaid for the murder of his political rival. Meanwhile, the Oklahoma Kid decides to return to Tulsa (despite a bounty on his head) to settle his own score with McCord...
The Oklahoma Kid
Sheriff Ned Kincaid
Warren Duff, Robert Buckner & Edward E. Paramore*
Release Date (USA)
11th March, 1939
Action, History, Western
What's to like?
Let's be frank - the only reason this is a classic western is because it was released before the Second World War. But the film still has some things to admire, the first of which is the amazing cinematography by James Wong Howe. From the thrilling chaos of the land rush with what seemed like hundreds of wagons rolling across the dusty plains to the silhouette of the Kid rearing up on his horse, Howe's work stands the test of time and demonstrates a then-unusual understanding of what looks good on the big screen.
Speaking of wagons, the film has a sense of authenticity about it possibly due to the fact that the events took place not that long before filming. When you see the wagons rolling, they look like the genuine article and not Hollywood recollections of such. Because it's in black-and-white, this also somehow reinforces the film's credentials - a pity that Cagney and Bogart's performances undo all that hard work. Other than that, this is every bit as cheesy and hammy as a croque monsieur with a stirring soundtrack, a charming belle for our hero to woo and enough smoky shootouts to satisfy fans of the genre.
- Cagney's first appearance in a western. The only other two he performed in - Run For Cover and Tribute To A Bad Man - were released much later in his career in the 1950s.
- Bogart and Cagney were rivals off-screen, both attempting to be the top guy at Warner Bros. studios. Bogart claimed that Cagney looked like a mushroom once he was in costume while Cagney wrote a short poem that he sent to Bogart after he caught his co-star picking his nose while stuck in traffic.
- Hugh Sothern and Al J. Jennings, who appeared uncredited as one of the townsmen, had apparently participated in the 1895 Oklahoma land-rush of the Kickapoo lands. Incidentally, Tulsa wasn't founded after any land-rush - it wasn't founded until 1898.
What's not to like?
Glossing over the hackneyed script and clichéd feel of the thing, the film is hampered by its two leading men. Cagney never feels right or comfortable in the role as the Kid - he looks somewhat ridiculous in his cowboy garb and the role never seems to know whether he's an eccentric charmer, a resourceful outlaw or straight-up idiot. The lack of an Oklahoman accent also doesn't help him or Bogart, who seems equally out-of-place as the stereotypical baddie dressed in black, in case there was any doubt. Bogart does slightly better as McCord but you never reconcile his appearance with his more famous roles in films like Casablanca or The Maltese Falcon.
These days, the film doesn't offer viewers much besides an illuminating look at one of the craziest periods of American history when thousands rushed across the land and smashed a piece of wood into the earth to claim it. It's fascinating to see such a slapdash law come into effect - countless citizens camping alongside the Cherokee Outlet, waiting for a pistol-shot to signify the dash to stake a claim on wild, untamed lands on the dreams of founding an empire, as one character put it. To an outsider like myself, it seems like anarchy and therefore no surprise that the West was as lawless as it was.
Should I watch it?
The Oklahoma Kid might not be the most entertaining or enjoyable example of a western but it is kinda watchable in its own way. It's fascinating watching two iconic actors from Hollywood's golden era in a melodramatic western that neither of them can make work. It's like watching the likes of Sean Penn or Meryl Streep in some mockbuster nonsense like Sharknado - off-putting but strangely compulsive.
Great For: film historians, Tulsa residents
Not So Great For: modern western fans, Cagney or Bogart, black-and-white snobs
What else should I watch?
The Oklahoma Kid might not have featured too highly on the career retrospectives of Cagney and Bogart but both men have featured on more than their fair share of timeless Hollywood classics. Cagney was more associated with tough-guy roles and gangsters in films such as The Public Enemy and the classic Angels With Dirty Faces although he would eventually win his Best Actor Oscar for his performance in the musical Yankee Doodle Dandy in 1942. Bogart, of course, will forever be linked to the hard-boiled cynics of film noir. His breakthrough in The Maltese Falcon would lead to the likes of Casablanca, The Big Sleep and The African Queen, earning Bogie his own Best Actor Oscar.
Westerns were among the most popular films produced from the very dawn of the twentieth century until the 1960s. While they made not be made as often as they were, they appears to be a much greater emphasis on quality rather than quantity. Recent examples such as Quentin Tarantino's Django Unchained and The Revenant have proved popular with both critics and audiences and demonstrate that more than 100 years after the first western - 1903's The Great Train Robbery - there is still life in the genre long after its peak popularity.
© 2018 Benjamin Cox