The Oklahoma Kid is western gone schlock
This week’s Throwback Thursday offering is a miscast, misleading, misfire of a western that doesn’t come close to hitting the mark. Does it have moments? Yes … but they’re few and far between. Go into the film with that in mind and you’ll come out somewhat amused.
Remember the casting errors from The Ten Commandments? You know the ones. Edward G. Robinson as that weasel Dathan? (Each time I see him in that role I can’t help hearing Billy Crystal’s routine caricaturing Robinson’s voice: “Where’s yer Moses now … ???”) My beloved Vincent Price as Baka the master builder? Ugh. And as foreboding a figure as Yul Brynner’s Rameses was, the character just didn’t set well in the grand scheme of that classic.
Well, The Oklahoma Kid came almost a generation before The Ten Commandments and courtesy of the central casting monkey business department. It features a couple well known gangsters attempting to put an old west twist on characters they couldn’t possibly pull off.
James Cagney, as the titular Oklahoma Kid, is oft times so carefree it seems many of his scenes are walk-on cameo stints. Throughout the film, his demeanor mimics the high-waist pants he wears — he doesn’t care how he appears to others (same goes for those pants) and it frequently translates to a haughtiness uncharacteristic of cowboy flicks. There’s no haughtiness in westerns! There are dashing good guys! Bad guys with an agenda and ulterior motives! Grumpy general store patrons! Not the kind of haughtiness Cagney puts on display. He floats through the role putting on airs wherever he goes, making certain it’s known he’s above the law. Rules don’t apply to him.
On the other side of the fence, at least Humphrey Bogart’s Whip McCord puts a little effort into his part as the town scourge with underhanded smiles and ulterior motives. He takes advantage when it suits him, pulls fast ones out from underneath everyone he comes in contact with and works those motives in plain sight of everyone. He’s the consummate opportunist bad guy, something that should translate well in a western. But his character suffers from noirish sneers and unscrupulousness that works better in other mediums, not in the old west.
If you don’t know the story, eager beaver folk anxious to get at recently purchased Indian lands are met by the likes of “sooners” such as Whip McCord and his henchmen, thugs who greedily want to take advantage of opportunity. Staking claims early, McCord finagles a deal turning the newly established town of Tulsa into a haven for drunkards, gamblers and other corrupt types. The law and many of the townsfolk realize McCord is in charge and, in an attempt to right the ship, collaborate to oust his authority. But election proceedings for a new mayor wind up with candidate John Kincaid (as realized by the not-too-shabby Hugh Sothern, later revealed as The Kid’s father) being framed for murder. To the rescue comes Kincaid’s wayfaring, system-bucking son. He’s too late to save his father from being lynched and his estranged brother from succumbing to a six-foot-under nap but, in comic turn, (Warning: Spoilers!) he saves the day (sort of) and
gets steals the gal his brother had the hots for.
Sounds like a typical western, doesn’t it? It sure does. But there’s a lot going against it, not the least of which are stars Cagney and Bogart. But not all is lost. There are a few rays of hope and jocularity (some even intended) peppered within the story… and especially so at tale’s end. (I couldn’t control the bout of laughter I had over the film’s conclusion. That I won’t spoil for the would-be viewer.)
Speaking of laughter and miscues, they’re difficult to miss in The Oklahoma Kid. The way Cagney rides a horse? His steed should have been killed several times over in the picture. While the frantic rides he forced the animal to withstand didn’t do it, the sprints down steep hills and runs through fields of treacherous softball-sized rocks certainly should have done the trick. (Of note: There’s one scene where the poor horse shows a fog of steam coming off it from a hurried ride. That doesn’t make up for the comically sped up runs star and animal endure, but at the very least we get to see some semblance of realism.) The fights staged in the film? Those, too, lean more of toward the fictional and laughable end of the spectrum.
If you’re in the market for a movie with plenty of elements to be avoided when making a western, you’ve come to the right place with The Oklahoma Kid.
As an archival film, this little ditty boasts an above average black and white transfer housing a healthy dose of tics and pops and clicks common to a 1930s era offering. There are no extras nor any bonus material on the DVD … unless you count the chutzpah offered by that of Cagney in his role.
The Oklahoma Kid was graciously provided by The Warner Archive Collection for this CliqueClack review.