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The late 1930s saw an upswing in the number of Westerns produced at the major studios in Hollywood, a response to the popularity of lower-budget Western serials and poverty row "oaters" from studios like Republic Pictures. In 1939, John Ford made the classic Stagecoach for producer Walter Wanger and United Artists, and Paramount Pictures released Cecil B. DeMille's large-scale epic Union Pacific. That same year Warner Bros. mounted an expensive Technicolor vehicle for Errol Flynn, Dodge City, and hit upon the idea of casting two of its tough-guy stars, James Cagney and Humphrey Bogart, fresh off Angels with Dirty Faces (1939), in the Western drama The Oklahoma Kid (1939).
In his 1976 autobiography Cagney by Cagney, the star described the genesis of the project: "The picture was an idea of (writer) Ted Paramore's, who conceived of doing the story of the mountain men, particularly of their paragon, Kit Carson. We researched it and I came up with some things I wanted to do, pretty exciting things, I thought. Warner's, without warning pulled Paramore off the script and without a word to me, changed directors. When I got the final script it had as much to do with history as the Katzenjammer Kids. It had become typical horse opera, just another programmer."
Although Cagney may have lamented the loss of historical accuracy (and for the record, United Artists was making their own version of Kit Carson (1940), starring Jon Hall), modern audiences may be taken aback by some of the progressive-sounding dialogue in The Oklahoma Kid concerning the building of the West. The Kid flatly states at one point that the Oklahoma Territory "was stolen from the Indians" at $1.40 an acre, and that he feels no compunction about hijacking the Indian payment, because "the strong take away from the weak, and the smart take away from the strong." When asked why he is not taking part in the land rush, The Kid says, "I crave a nice, easy-going existence [and I] don't take to plowing up new empires."
The Oklahoma Kid is set during the Cherokee Strip land rush of 1893 and the following years as the city of Tulsa is established. John Kincaid (Hugh Sothern) and his son Ned (Harvey Stephens) plan to stake a claim for the new town, but are "beat" to the spot by outlaw Whip McCord (Bogart) and his gang of claim-jumping Sooners. McCord agrees to give up the claim in exchange for all the gambling and saloon rights to the new city. Kincaid regrets the bad deal, as McCord's corruption spreads quickly. The Kincaids try to run for office and clean up the town, but McCord has the elder Kincaid framed for murder. Meanwhile, emerging from the sidelines is the black sheep of the Kincaid family: the boyish bandit known as The Oklahoma Kid (Cagney). He has already had a run-in with McCord when, like Robin Hood, he snatched away the loot that the gang had just hijacked from a government stagecoach. Hearing about the trouble McCord is causing his family, The Kid boldly storms the town to settle things with the gang. He also has time for romance with Jane Hardwick (Rosemary lane), the daughter of the town's upstanding Judge (Donald Crisp).
Much was made at the time of the film's release about the two urban toughs Cagney and Bogart appearing out of their element and uncomfortable in their Western roles. Bogart himself contributed to the press; he was profiled in the New York Times shortly before the film opened, and said "I speak the same lines and do the same things as I do in any other Warner picture. The only difference is that I snarl at the Injuns from under a ten-gallon hat." The publicity department at Warner Bros. could not have been thrilled with that assessment. Cagney later indicated that he took offense at how he was characterized in the press, because by 1938 he had a large stable at his Martha's Vineyard estate and was an experienced rider. According to biographer Michael Freedland, Cagney also spent long hours in training for the role, practicing such moves as mounting a moving horse and firing guns on horseback. In his autobiography Cagney insisted that he had planned to wear old clothes and a "broken-down hat," but the studio handed him a fancy cowboy outfit. Bogart was famously quoted as saying that "Cagney looked like a mushroom under [his] huge western hat."
Fortunately, the film was hardly the fiasco that the advance press and most reviews at the time would indicate. The score by Max Steiner is rousing and inspiring; it is so raring to rip out of the gate, the studio fanfare under the WB shield which opens the film does not even get a chance to finish - the Steiner opening theme segues in and takes over. James Wong Howe's cinematography is naturalistic and first-rate. The primary attraction, though, remains Cagney's bravura performance. The actor bounds about with abundant energy and tongue firmly in cheek, as he tosses off apparently improvised bits of business (as in the scene when he "feels the air"). Cagney also offers up a surprising skill when, while hiding out in Mexico, he effortlessly sings a baby to sleep in both English and Spanish!
Alone amongst the film's critics, Frank S. Nugent in The New York Times seems to have grasped the intended tone of The Oklahoma Kid when he wrote, "Mr. Cagney doesn't urge you to believe him for a second; he's just enjoying himself and, if you want to trail along, so much the better for you. The rest of the cast plays it with almost as straight a face, but not quite the same jauntiness. Perhaps it's just as well. Had they all been as pert as the Kid, the picture would have jumped into the realm of satire; it's on the borderline as it stands."
Producer: Samuel Bischoff
Director: Lloyd Bacon
Screenplay: Warren Duff, Robert Buckner, Edward E. Paramore, Jr., Wally Kline
Cinematography: James Wong Howe
Film Editing: Owen Marks
Music: Max Steiner
Art Direction: Esdras Hartley
Costume Design: Orry-Kelly
Cast: James Cagney (Jim Kincaid/ The Oklahoma Kid), Humphrey Bogart (Whip McCord), Rosemary Lane (Jane Hardwick), Donald Crisp (Judge Hardwick), Harvey Stephens (Ned Kincaid), Hugh Sothern (John Kincaid), Charles Middleton (Alec Martin), Edward Pawley (Ace Doolin), Ward Bond (Wes Handley).
BW-81m. Closed captioning.
by John M. Miller