Although I wasn't expecting much from The Boy from Oklahoma, this pastoral 1954 Western won me over with its disarming story, smooth direction, and offbeat, appealing cast (headed by Will Rogers, Junior!). As an ideal candidate for the made-on-demand (m.o.d.) market, it's perfectly appropriate that the folks at Warner Archives have reissued it as part of their program of bringing their lesser-known film and TV holdings back into circulation.
While prepping this review of The Boy from Oklahoma, it came as a surprise to find that this obscure Western was one of just 21 films released by the Warner Brothers studio in 1954. That year's release slate included Hitchcock's Dial M. for Murder, Judy Garland's comeback vehicle A Star Is Born, prototypical plane crash epic The High and the Mighty, and giant ant rampage flick Them! (oh, and Paul Newman's misbegotten sword-and-sandals debut in The Silver Chalice). It was transition time as Warners was taking on the threat of television with fewer, bigger projects that employed an arsenal of gimmicks - color (present on all but three films that year), widescreen (eight CinemaScope releases), and 3-D (three releases). Sized up against such ostentatious company, a modest genre picture like The Boy from Oklahoma came as a cozy throwback to the earlier days at W.B. - right down to enlisting the studio's most prolific director, Michael Curtiz.
There is one bit of uniqueness about The Boy from Oklahoma, and that's the casting of Will Rogers, Jr. in the leading role of Tom Brewster. While the junior Rogers lacks the screen charisma of his dad, his laconic presence actually works in the context of this film. Tom is an unpretentious law student - a pacifist and teetotaler, awkward with the ladies, inept with a gun, yet skilled at horsemanship and roping - who finds himself sidelined in a rough-and-tumble 1800s town caught in a power struggle. As he arrives in town, the mayoral election results come in with a landslide victory for Barney Turlock (Anthony Caruso), a corrupt gambler, over his nice-guy opponent Paul Evans (Louis Jean Heydt). At first, Turlock doesn't have much use for the stranger in town. When he sees that Tom fared badly in a target shooting contest, however, Turlock approaches Tom to fill in as an ineffectual new sheriff. Tom initially turns him down, changing his mind when his ride out of town is interrupted by bandits stealing an incriminating letter sent by the murdered previous sheriff. In his pursuit to find the previous sheriff's killer and punish the guilty party, Tom evolves from wishy washy law student into a bona fide hero - with the help of Katie Brannigan (Nancy Olsen), his predecessor's fiery, sharp-shooting daughter.
The multifaceted, interesting characters that populate The Boy from Oklahoma give it an appeal that makes it memorable, even for people who aren't particularly fond of Westerns. Will Rogers, Jr. may be somewhat lacking as a magnetic screen personality, but his laconic acting style fits for the role of Tom Brewster, an atypical Western protagonist who uses brains over brawn. The assertive yet feminine Katie Brannigan is another instance of a unique Western character of depth, played with a gratifying subtlety by Nancy Olson. Even Anthony Caruso's villainous character has the gravity of a guy who's just doing what he can to get by. Other, smaller characters leave a good impression as well: Wallace Ford as a weasely shopkeeper in Turlock's grasp, Lon Chaney, Jr. as a drunk rabble-rouser, Clem Bevans as the deceptively simple old coot who becomes an invaluable asset to Tom and Katie. Michael Curtiz's direction moves things along efficiently, yet it appears that he took the time to do some thoughtfully composed shots (like the one with Olson longingly gazing at her reflection in a trough of water).
Despite the DVD's packaging, The Boy from Oklahoma isn't a rollicking comedy. It is, however, a nicely crafted Western that is worth seeking out. Warner Bros. later adapted the film for the TV series Sugarfoot, which ran for four seasons in 1957-61.
Warner Archives' release of The Boy from Oklahoma arrives on m.o.d. disc with a crisp, somewhat weathered but pleasant looking 4:3 presentation. The film was developed using the WarnerColor process, resulting in a more muted palette than what would usually be found with 1950s color cinema. The picture has a fair amount of dust and speckles, but it looks good overall.
The mono mix for this film is a decently mixed affair, with raggedy yet clear dialogue and a rousing musical score which never intrudes too much. No subtitles or alternate audio on this simple release.
None. The menu designs seem to constantly change on the Warner Archive stuff - this one sports a photo of their iconic water tower (which no longer holds water).
For a medium-grade Western starring Will Rogers' not-so-charismatic son and cranked out by Warner Brothers' resident workhorse (that would be Michael Curtiz), The Boy from Oklahoma winds up being a surprisingly good watch. The 1954 oater boasts a tense, absorbing story, tactful direction, and - despite the lack of presence by Will Rogers, Jr. - a vivid and memorable cast. Recommended.
Matt Hinrichs is a designer, artist, film critic and jack-of-all-trades in Phoenix, Arizona. Since 2000, he has been blogging at Scrubbles.net. 4 Color Cowboy is his repository of Western-kitsch imagery, while other films he's experienced are logged at Letterboxd. He also welcomes friends on Twitter @4colorcowboy.