The Oklahoma Kid (1939) Starring: James Cagney, Humphrey Bogart, Rosemary Lane, Donald Crisp, Hugh Sothern, Harvey Stephens, Charles Middleton, Edward Pawley, Ward Bond. Directed by Lloyd Bacon. Produced by Hal B. Wallis (Executive Producer), Jack L. Warner (Executive Producer). Screenplay by Warren Duff, Robert Buckner. Story by Edward Paramore and Wally Klein. Run Time: 85 minutes. U.S. Black and White. Western
The Western was one of the most enduring of the genres that Hollywood churned out, first on film and then for the early days of TV. One of the earliest examples of the genre was Edwin S. Porter’s The Great Train Robbery (1903), only a few years removed from the era the stories were set in. During the silent age, all the studios made Westerns, but with the coming of sound many of the Hollywood studios would abandon them, leaving it to smaller studios and producers. But the genre got a shot in the arm in 1939, when the major studios released a slew of Westerns, including Dodge City, Jesse James, Union Pacific, Destry Rides Again, Stagecoach and, our film, The Oklahoma Kid.
The Western is characterized by plots involving America’s westward expansion in the 35 years from just after the Civil War to the turn of the 20th Century. As part of that settlement, Westerns deal with taming of the frontier, the building of the railroads and, of course, the fight between the settlers and the American Indians. The Westerns are also about bringing law and order to the wild frontier and, as such, have a lot of gunplay, with the stereotypical gunfight at high noon.
Looking back, it seems like every star of note from the 1930s and '40s made a Western (and/or a musical) at some point in their career. Of course, there are exceptions to the rule; one obvious exception is Cary Grant, who for one reason or another never appeared in a Western. (His great and good friend, Randolph Scott, appeared in more than 60 Westerns during his career.) But for the most part, name an actor from that time period and chances are good that he appeared in a Western or two.
But there are still some actors that you don’t associate with the genre and two of them star in The Oklahoma Kid: James Cagney and Humphrey Bogart. (Even before seeing the film you know how’s going to be killed, the surprise is by whom.) From their resumes, the casting of Cagney and Bogart in a horse opera seems at best farfetched. Both were best known for their roles in gangster and crime films, so the assignment had to come as a surprise.
Bogart was probably used to such treatment by Warner Bros. He was a workhorse, pardon the pun, for the studio, making eight films that were released in 1939, rarely got top-billing or even second billing and was shown little or no respect by the head of the studios. As an example, Warners would later cast him as Marshall Quesne aka Dr. Maurice Xavier, a corpse come back to life in The Return of Doctor X (1939). (Science fiction is another genre Bogie isn’t associated with either.) Taking a role in a Western must have looked pretty good by comparison.
Cagney, who had left Warner Bros. for a couple of years after suing the studio over his contract and winning, had come back the year before signing a five year contract making $150,000 a film. His first film back was a comedy, Boy Meets Girl (1938), and then back to gangster films with Angels With Dirty Faces (1938), which earned him an Academy Award nomination for Best Actor. Unlike Bogart, Cagney always received top-billing and made only a few films a year. Surprising that one of only three he made in 1939 would be a Western.
The film takes place during the Land Rush of 1893 for an area in the future state of Oklahoma called the Cherokee Strip. Then President Grover Cleveland (Stuart Holmes) signs a proclamation that buys the land once ceded to the Cherokee Indians and opens it up to settlement. The Indians are to be paid for their land in silver, which arrives on board a heavily guarded train. However, once it is transferred to a stagecoach for the rest of the journey, the military accompaniment drops off.
This leaves the silver as relatively easy pickings for Whip McCord (Humphrey Bogart) and his gang, which includes Wes Handley (Ward Bond), Doolin (Edward Pawley), Curley (Lew Harvey) and Indian Jack Pasco (Trevor Bardette). They rob the stage of the silver and even take a couple of the horses to carry their bounty. But they are being watched by the Oklahoma Kid (James Cagney), a lone horseman.
|Whip McCord (Humphrey Bogart) plans to steal the silver meant to pay off the Indians.|
Using a shortcut, he manages to get ahead of the McCord gang and, after a shootout, takes the horse with the bag of silver.
|The Oklahoma Kid (James Cagney). The smart take from the strong.|
On the eve of the big land rush of 1893, the Oklahoma Kid shows up at a gathering of future settlers in Cherokee City, including those who dream of founding a new city, led by John Kincaid (Hugh Sothern), his son Ned (Harvey Stephens), Judge Hardwick (Donald Crisp) and his daughter Jane (Rosemary Lane). Jane and Ned are already an item and part of their dream is to start a new life together. Uninvited to the square dance, The Kid dances with Jane much to Ned’s dismay. The Kid then rides off, back into town.
|The Kid meets Jane Hardwick (Rosemary Lane) at a pre-land grab dance.|
There he spends some of the silver gambling and catches the eye of Whip, who sends Wes to bring The Kid to him. But The Kid would rather sing, having coerced the piano player into playing I Don't Want to Play in Your Yard (which wasn’t written until 1894; music by Henry W. Petrie, lyrics by Philip Wingate). When Wes bothers him, in typical Cagney persona response, he punches him, knocking the much bigger man to the floor. When Whip and the rest of his gang surround him, demanding the silver, The Kid outsmarts them, shooting only one gang member as he manages to escape.
|Whip wants the silver back, but The Kid isn't going to do so.|
When the Sheriff arrives about the commotion, Whip tells him that The Kid is the one who stole the Indian’s silver and the Sheriff goes looking for him.
The next day, when the Kincaid-led fast riders make it to the Promised Land, they are disappointed to find Whip had already staked a claim to the land they wanted for their town. John threatens to bring Whip up on charges of being a Sooner, but Whip convinces him that would tie up the claim for years, allowing other towns an advantage. He offers instead to split the town with them. They could have the bank, the school and the churches and he would take the saloon and gambling dens. The Kincaids acquiesce.
Meanwhile, back in Cherokee City, The Kid has no interest in the land rush, much to the chagrin of Judge Hardwick, who joins him for a drink. The Judge is to arrive later and help bring law and order to the Kincaid’s town. But The Kid has no interest in the legal system, insisting that the six-shooter is the only real law in the still wild west. He admits that he stole the money and shows no remorse about hijacking the payment, noting the Oklahoma Territory "was stolen from the Indians" at $1.40 an acre, and adding "the strong take away from the weak, and the smart take away from the strong." While they are talking, the Sheriff and his posse arrive to arrest The Kid, who puts up no resistance. But he manages to escape, using the swinging doors of the saloon and jumping on his conveniently untethered horse he rides out of town.
|While sharing a drink with Judge Hardwick (Donald Crisp), The Kid is arrested |
for stealing the silver, but he manages to escape.
We watch while the town of Tulsa blooms from a city of tents to permanent buildings, as symbolized by the Bank, run by John Kincaid, and the Territorial Saloon run by McCord. But the vice that supports McCord creates lawlessness which the other town founders feel is not good for business. John decides to run for mayor on a law and order campaign and Ned runs for Sheriff. McCord can’t let this happen, so he trumps up charges that John killed a man and the elder Kincaid is thrown into his son’s jail.
Still on the run, The Kid reads an old paper detailing how John Kincaid has been arrested for murder. He rides into Tulsa, even though there is a reward for his arrest. He goes to Judge Hardwick’s house and talks with Jane. He reveals that his real name is Jim and that John Kincaid is his father. Sheriff Ned arrives looking for The Kid, but Jane hides him and lies to Ned, telling him The Kid has already left, even though his horse is clearly tied up out in front of their house. Ned leaves and The Kid goes back into hiding.
With Judge Hardwick scheduled to preside at John’s trial, Whip doesn’t like the odds of a conviction, so he cooks up a plan to get the Judge out of the way and have another Judge, Judge Morgan (Arthur Aylesworth), whom he has on his payroll, handle the trial. Whip falsifies a letter from the Judge's brother in Kansas City, saying that he's ill and asking for a visit before he dies. Thinking he has time before the trial, the Judge jumps on the next stagecoach and leaves a note for Jane.
Hours later, when she finds the letter, she knows it’s not true. John’s brother had just sent a postcard from Canada. She decides to try and run down the stage. Out on the trail, The Kid overtakes her. He tells her to go back to town and try to delay the trial and he rides on to stop the stage.
While the Judge and The Kid ride back to Tulsa, the trial goes ahead and John Kincaid is found guilty of murder. When The Kid gets back to town, he tries to break his father out of jail, but he refuses to go, putting his faith in the law. But to make sure he gets the result he wants, Whip sends a band of vigilante’s to carry out “justice”. Sheriff Ned can’t stop them and John is hung outside the jail.
|Whip calls for vigilantes to carry out justice and hang John Kincaid.|
The Kid learns about his father’s hanging from Jane and her father and, equipped with the names of those who led the vigilantes, goes out to seek revenge. One by one, he kills Whip’s cohorts, making sure that, even when there are no witnesses, the circumstances are self-defense, before heading for Whip himself. But when The Kid confronts Whip, Ned has already been there to arrest Whip and has been mortally wounded. In the gunfight, it is Ned who actually shoots and kills Whip, saving The Kid’s life.
|After killing one of Whip's men, The Kid blows on his gun barrel.|
Afterwards, The Kid returns to the Judge’s house, where Jane sort of throws herself at him, telling him that she’s in love with him. The Kid feels the same and the two are quickly married by her father, the Judge.
The film was not well received by critics nor was it a box office success. In a contemporary review, Frank S. Nugent wrote in the New York Times that while “Mr. Cagney doesn't urge you to believe him for a second;” the rest of cast doesn’t play their parts with his “jauntiness.”, adding, “Had they all been as pert as The Kid, the picture would have jumped into the realm of satire; it's on the border-line as it stands.” John Mosher at the New Yorker called the film “This week’s disappointment.” Other reviews called out the incongruity of having Cagney with his “Bowery Accent” star in a Western, though some, like Howard Barnes, writing for the New York Herald Tribune, called Cagney’s performance a “tour-de-force.” Audiences apparently disagreed with Mr. Barnes.
The Oklahoma Kid does have a certain genre-bending feel to it and that has to do with the casting. Perhaps if it had been Cagney or Bogart alone, things would not seem so odd. But putting them into a story about fighting over the control of liquor and power sounds too much like a gangster film. (Just replace Chicago for Tulsa and move the story up thirty years and you're almost there as it is.) Bogart himself contributed to the notion. In a New York Times profile shortly before the film opened, he 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."
|Both Bogart and Cagney look a little stiff in their Western attire.|
It doesn’t help that the both lead actors look and sound like fish out of water. Neither would pass for hardened western pioneers. And their costumes and make up don’t help either. Cagney’s ten gallon hat is a little too big for his head, even Bogart was famously quoted as saying that "Cagney looked like a mushroom under [his] huge western hat." Add to that, his boots are on the outside of his jeans and he wears a neckerchief that is almost a stand in for a tie. Despite The Kid’s reputation, he just doesn’t look menacing.
|In a publicity shot for the film, Cagney almost looks swallowed up by the costume.|
The project was originally conceived as the story of the mountain men by writer Ted Paramore; Cagney was very interested. In his 1975 biography, Cagney by Cagney, he wrote "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."
While the film may have some troubles with historical accuracy, this has never been a strong suit with Hollywood. The film acts like this is the only land rush in Oklahoma, when in fact there were several. And Tulsa was not founded in 1893, but rather the city was first settled by the Lochapoka Muscogee Indians between 1826 and 1836. Lewis Perryman built a log cabin and established a trading post in 1846 and the first Post Office opened in 1879 on a ranch owned by one of Perryman’s sons. By the time Kincaid founded the town in the movie the Atlantic and Pacific Railroad had already reached Tulsa 11 years earlier. But no one watches a Western for historical accuracy.
The Oklahoma Kid is not a great Western, but it is not a bad movie. Seeing Cagney and Bogart together, they only shared the screen three times, makes it worthwhile. You just wonder why Warners would have chosen to use up one of those occasions on a story that neither seemed right for. This might be a fish out of water Western, but the fish don’t get much bigger than Cagney or Bogart.
The Oklahoma Kid is available from the Warner Archive:
The Oklahoma Kid is available from the Warner Archive: