At first blush, the 1939 Western The Oklahoma Kid looks like kitsch -- and certainly for some folks I bet it probably is. Casting city slickers like James Cagney and Humphrey Bogart as opposing Wild West outlaws (with Cagney in the white hat and Bogart in the black) seems like it should be a joke, right? But the darnedest thing is that, despite the leads' sometimes out-of-place New York attitudes, The Oklahoma Kid is a solidly entertaining shoot-'em-up.
Inspired by the same period in U.S. history that provided the backdrop for Ron Howard's Far and Away, the film opens with Grover Cleveland signing the Indian Appropriations Act of 1889, officially buying the unsettled lands in Oklahoma from the Indians to open up to settlers, known as Boomers. A load of freshly minted silver, meant to be given to Native American tribes as payment for their land, gets hijacked by Whip McCord (Bogart) and his gang. But, before the gang can get too far, they get hijacked by The Oklahoma Kid (Cagney). (This is actually a slightly strange scene, because it's fun to see one clever gunslinger get the better of a whole gang, but it's a little troubling that the Kid appears to keep the loot for himself.)
McCord doesn't take it lying down, and he frames the Kid for the original hijacking -- after all, he's got the coins on him. The Kid gives the law the slip, but McCord's got bigger fish to fry. A group of people, including banker John Kincaid (Hugh Sothern), have found the perfect spot to build a town. When the Oklahoma Land Rush begins the following day, and thousands of folks will be racing their horses and wagons to find a plot of land to call their own, Kincaid and Co. will be sure to be the first folks on that spot... Except that McCord, acting like the low-down dog that he is, cheats the well-meaning future townsfolk. He and his gang manage to sneak out to the plot of land undetected and claim it first. He makes a deal with Kincaid and the others to let them build their town on "his" land, just as long as he can run the town's saloon and casino. They acquiesce.
As anyone could have predicted, the growing town becomes overrun with criminals and other lowlifes. Kincaid decides to run for mayor to bring law and order to his new home, but McCord -- who has enough corrupt officials and lawmen in his pocket -- frames Kincaid for a murder. The Kid meanwhile has been hiding out with a friendly Mexican family (a particularly charming scene has the Kid try to quiet a crying baby by muddling his way through "Rock-a-bye Baby" in Spanish). When the Kid gets the news that Kincaid might have a date with the gallows, he rushes back to town. It turns out that the Kid is actually Jim Kincaid, estranged son of the accused and brother of the town's new sheriff Ned Kincaid (Harvey Stephens).
John Kincaid refuses to let his prodigal son intervene on his behalf, but that doesn't stop the Kid from getting into a series of showdowns with McCord's gang members. The Kid never draws first, but he draws faster, and McCord's gang gets smaller and smaller. (This is one of the few straight-faced movies where I can remember the hero blowing on his gun barrel after winning a shootout. More than any of his wiseguy mannerisms, this has got to be the weirdest detail about Cagney's performance in this movie.) These series of fights eventually climax in a pulse-quickening mano-a-mano brawl between Cagney and Bogart (and their stunt doubles).
How Green Was My Valley's Donald Crisp plays a judge who implicitly condones the Kid's viligante tactics, when it appears that traditional law won't get the job done. Rosemary Lane plays the judge's daughter and the Kid's love interest. Warner house director Lloyd Bacon (whose most famous films are probably his collaborations with Busby Berkeley, like 42nd Street) does an effective job of staging the action setpieces and keeping the story zipping along. The movie runs a mere 80 minutes, and not a moment is wasted.
Overall, The Oklahoma Kid is a worthwhile showcase for Cagney and Bogart, and fans of the stars should get a good kick out of the film.
The Oklahoma Kid has been released as part of Warner's Archive Collection of manufactured-on-demand (MOD) DVD-Rs.
The standard 1.37:1 image is not completely clean, but the clarity is very good. Apart from a few shots that appear soft, James Wong Howe's photography is nicely reproduced, with a high level of detail for a standard-def presentation and an excellent range of contrast. The main drawback is that the print from which this transfer was taken has plenty of sporadic damage, such as splotches, scratches, dirt, and other specks. It seems like there must have been a few nearly pristine reels mixed in with others that had seen more usage or damage. If you're wrapped up in the story, it's easy to overlook these flaws, considering the video quality overall.
The mono audio is pretty standard for a movie of this era. It's pretty trebly, with not a lot of bass response, though it never gets distorted on the high end. Max Steiner's musical score is enjoyably brash and exciting.
Just a trailer, taken from a lower-quality video master. As one might expect from this era of Hollywood filmmaking, the trailer amusingly oversells the movie as the most magnificent work of cinema ever made.
I went into The Oklahoma Kid expecting it to be at least a little tongue-in-cheek. I was pleasantly surprised to find instead a lean, mean action flick about an outlaw dealing out his own brand of justice. While not exactly a gangster movie with horses, The Oklahoma Kid doesn't seem so different from Cagney and Bogart's other starring vehicles of this era. And that's good. Recommended.
Justin Remer is a filmmaker, oddball musician, and lifelong movie buff. You can check out this new, short music documentary he directed, Stop Making Fun of Me.