Wednesday February 01, 2023
Movie Review: The Oklahoma Kid (1939)
Cagney had high hopes when this film was pitched to him by screenwriter Edward E. Paramore, Jr. as an homage to 19th-century mountain men like Kit Carson. Then Warners pulled Paramore and tapped director Lloyd Bacon for his ninth and last teamup with Cagney. “When I got the final script it had as much to do with actual history as the Katzenjammer Kids,” Cagney said in his 1974 memoir. “It had become typical horse opera, just another programmer.”
Sure. But some interesting stuff gets smuggled in.
The movie is set around the Oklahoma Land Rush of 1889 when the U.S. government opened up former Indian territories for settlement. We get grand shots of the land rush, and heroic montages of Tulsa being built up from nothing. The movie celebrates all of this.
Or does it? It begins with no less than Pres. Grover Cleveland (Stuart Holmes) dismissing the land grab. “I was opposed to the opening of any Oklahoma territory to white settlement, because I felt the terms were unfair to the Indians,” he tells the press. “But both houses have now approved the measure. And since I happen to believe that the will of the people is properly expressed through the Congress, I will sign the bill.”
That’s the official dismissal. The unofficial dismissal comes from our outlaw hero.
Half an hour in, he gets into a conversation with the upright Judge Hardwick (Donald Crisp), just as the land rush is underway. Hardwick is astonished that the Kid isn’t participating in it. Doesn’t he have any pride in seeing a civilization carved out of the wilderness?
Kid: Now look. In the first place, the white people steal the land from the Indians, right?
Hardwick: They get paid for it, don't they?
Kid: Paid for? Yeah. A measly dollar and 44 cents an acre, price agreed to at the point of a gun. Then the immigrants sweat and strain and break their hearts carving out a civilization. Fine. Great! Then, when they get it all pretty and prosperous, along come the grafters and land-grabbers and politicians and with one hand skim off the cream and with the other scoop up the gravy. [Shakes head] Not for me.
The veneer of the film is hokum but there’s some blunt truth here. You could even argue that the good white people of the film are actually its villains—blithely cheating the Indians of their land. The only reason they’re not perceived as villains is because you got worse white people: the ones who cheat while cheating the Indians of their land. The nerve.
Feel the air
These are Sooners—scofflaws who leave early for the land grab. (And yes, it cracks me up that the term is somehow celebrated in Oklahoma today.) They’re led by Whip McCord (Humphrey Bogart, excellent as always), whose gang we first see robbing a stagecoach carrying the Indian money. Then our title character appears out of nowhere and robs it back. The Oklahoma Kid is supposed to be a notorious outlaw but what crimes do we actually see him commit? Just this one. He robs robbers. He’s Omar from “The Wire.”
Afterwards, in town, a tall, folksy, mustachioed man, John Kincaid (Hugh Sothern), harangues everyone about how he knows of a spot with rich, rich land, and in the land rush tomorrow he and his son, Ned (Harvey Stephens, forever cuckolded), plan to race to that spot, claim it, and then build a good clean town with good clean people. Who’s with us? (Hurrah!) Then there’s a square dance, the Kid arrives and quickly becomes enamored of Judge Hardwick’s daughter, Jane (Rosemary Lane, of the Lane sisters), who happens to be dating Ned Kincaid. But the Kid gets her alone and tells her to feel the air. No, that’s not a metaphor. Cagney again:
Not long ago I was at a party and a gentleman there said he had seen me on television in the “feel the air” movie. Funny how little things you drop in a picture can become the most memorable things about it for most people. This bit of business derived from a friend of Ed McNamara’s, a gent who had the habit of inhaling deeply when going outdoors, saying, “Feel that air, just feel it!,” and proceeding to do so. Simply to give my one-dimensional character in The Oklahoma Kid something just a trifle memorable, I dropped this little bit in several times—reaching up to feel the air as I said that line—and it persisted in audience memory.
Anyway, Kincaid probably gabbed too much about the spot with rich land, because McCord and his men—cheating, sooning—beat him there and strike a deal. Sure, you can build your town, old man, but we want exclusive rights to all saloons and gambling houses. Kincaid accepts, and we see that town (Tulsa) being hewed out of nothing; but instead of the ideal community Kincaid envisioned, it becomes overrun with rowdies and the lawless.
The Kid, meanwhile, is hiding out with a Mexican couple. There’s a nice scene when their baby cries, the Kid begins to sing “Rock a Bye Baby,” catches himself, then continues in Spanish. It’s here, when he’s unpacking foodstuffs, that he sees a headline about John Kincaid being charged with murder. That’s when he tells Pedro (George Regas), his supposed host, to saddle his horse.
Why does he care? Who’s John Kincaid to him? The big reveal, which he tells Jane in Tulsa, is that Kincaid is his father. Then he tells it to Judge Hardwick. Then he can’t shut up and blabs it to the crooks as he’s locking them up in order to spring the old man. But of course Dad refuses to go. Too upstanding. So McCord whips a crowd into a frenzy, they break into the jailhouse and lynch him. That’s a fairly powerful scene, actually. In the hands of a better director—Michael Curtiz, for example—it might’ve become legendary.
Now it’s up to the Kid, a.k.a. Jim Kincaid, to exact revenge, by pursuing and killing McCord’s four henchmen. Indian Joe (Trevor Bardette) gets it in a saloon, Curley (Lew Harvey) at a farmhouse, and Handley (Ward Bond, that SOB) atop a train. The bad guys draw first, of course. The Kid finds the last, Doolin (Edward Pawley), wandering in the desert, parched, etc., and he gives up without a fight. Then he confesses that McCord was the one who whipped up the lynch mob, meaning McCord can face trial. He can face justice. Which leads to this great exchange as the Kid leaves to pursue McCord.
Hardwick: Listen son, I know just how you feel.
Kid: In that case you won't hold me up with a lot of talk, will you?
By this point, Ned Kincaid—the Kid’s brother, remember—is U.S. Marshall, and both he and the Kid arrive at McCord’s saloon at the same time. Ned wants to bring him in, the Kid wants to kill him. So of course it’s Ned who winds up killing McCord, after being shot himself. Both men die. This is after a long, drawn-out fistfight, with bad cuts between Cagney/Bogie and their stunt doubles, that reminded me of nothing so much as fistfights in movie serials or on, say, 1960s “Star Trek” episodes. Did previous Cagney flicks have such battles? I don’t remember any. Super cheesy.
As is the ending. The Kid is about to cut out for the wide-open spaces of the Arizona Territory, while Jane—not at all distraught over the death of Ned—flirts, and suggests, and then gets Dad, the judge, to marry them on the spot. And they do. Bummer. I wanted him back with the Mexican couple.
This is Cagney’s first western, and it led to some guffaws, not least from his co-star. Bogart said that in his 10-gallon hat Cagney looked like a mushroom. He does look oddly smaller here. Others had trouble seeing Cagney, the kid from the Lower East Side, the gangster's gangster, hanging with horses; but of course by then he was a gentleman farmer on Martha’s Vineyard. “I am, have been, and will be always a man for horses,” he said in his memoir. But the rep was the rep. Even so, I don’t think the movie hurt him—he still made Quigley’s list of top 10 box-office champions of 1939.
Beyond the cream/gravy speech, he gets in a few good bits. After dismissing the land grab to Judge Hardwick, the sheriff shows up in the saloon to arrest the Kid and we get this exchange:
Sheriff: I’m Abe Collins.
Sheriff: Abe Collins!
Kid: Is he?
Hardwick: Yes, he’s the sheriff.
I flashed on the Marx Brothers—it has that kind of patter. The Kid is basically Groucho dealing with another stuffed shirt.
Earlier, in the saloon, Cagney sang “I Don’t Want to Play in Your Yard,” which was not only Cagney’s father’s favorite song but fits the movie, too. We never find out why Jim Kincaid split off from his family, but, yeah, he doesn’t want to play in their yard. We don’t want him to, either. But the thrust of the film is getting him back there—with all the good white people. Shame.
See my shorter and sweeter review from 2002 here.