The Oklahoma Kid—James Cagney, Humphrey Bogart, Rosemary Lane, Donald Crisp, Harvey Stephens, Hugh Sothern, Ward Bond (1937; Lloyd Bacon)
The most obvious feature of this western from 1937 is that the two best-known actors in it have the most urban personas of any from the 20th century. That’s perhaps one reason why James Cagney and Humphrey Bogart didn’t make many westerns. They don’t sound all that authentic in a western, either.
The Oklahoma Kid: “Listen, I learned this about human nature when I was but so high, and that is: that the strong take away from the weak, and the smart take it away from the strong.”
Cagney plays the outlaw of the title, the Oklahoma Kid. It is 1893, the eve of the famous Oklahoma land rush into the Cherokee Strip (the largest land run in U.S. history). There were several Oklahoma land rushes, the most famous in 1889 and 1893, featured in Tumbleweeds (1925, William S. Hart’s last film), Cimarron (both 1931 and 1960 versions) and Far and Away (1992), among other movies. The land to be opened to settlers this time has been bought from the Indians for a pittance, but even that pittance is robbed from a stagecoach by the evil Whip McCord (Humphrey Bogart) and his gang. However, it is also stolen from them by… the Oklahoma Kid. McCord sees to it that the original crime is attributed to the Kid, instead of to his own gang.
Meanwhile, law-abiding folk are planning to set up the town that will become Tulsa. The Kincaids, father John (Hugh Sothern) and son Ned (Harvey Stephens), will ride their fastest horses and claim the site. Judge Hardwick (Donald Crisp) and daughter Jane (Rosemary Lane) will come along shortly after, with law and civilization. However, McCord and his men are Sooners, sneaking across to the land the night before the gun goes off, and they claim the Kincaid’s site first. The Kincaids strike a deal: they get the town site they want, but have to agree that McCord gets exclusive rights to saloons, booze and gambling. That sets up a conflict between the forces of law (regular folks) and chaos (McCord).
When there’s talk of setting up a vigilance committee, McCord frames John Kincaid for a murder. It turns out that the Oklahoma Kid is Jim Kincaid, John’s wild son, and he comes back to help the old man. He brings back Judge Harwick to hear the case, but he’s too late, and a venal hack judge has sentenced John to hang. John refuses to be busted out of jail, though, and, as Ned, now the local sheriff, pursues the Kid, McCord whips a mob into a fury. By the time Ned and the Kid get back to town, their father is dead.
The Kid starts to hunt down the four of McCord’s men who led the mob: Indian Joe, Wes Handley (Ward Bond), Curley and Ace Doolin. The last is Doolin, whom he wounds, and Doolin testifies to McCord’s involvement. Ned goes to arrest McCord, but McCord gets the drop on him and shoots him. The Kid comes up the back way, and McCord looks like he will get him, too. But the dying Ned shoots McCord, the Kid’s name is cleared of the original robbery charges, and he gets Jane Hardwick, who had previously been engaged to Ned. (Ned was apparently unaware that guys named Ned never get the girl in movies.)
This had a bigger budget than most 1930s westerns, as we can tell from the top-flight stars and main-line director. Cagney’s particular form of screen energy dominates the movie, making the Kid seem kind of a pre-gangster of the plains. Cagney was a bigger star than Bogart at this stage of Bogart’s career. Cagney and Bogart didn’t get along well on the set, much as their characters didn’t, although they went on to make Angels with Dirty Faces (1938) and The Roaring Twenties (1939) together—gangster movies, for which they seem much better suited. Cagney made two more westerns in the 1950s as his career was coming to a close: Run for Cover (1955), and Tribute to a Bad Man (1956). Bogart made at least one more; he shows up as a Mexican bandit chieftain in Virginia City (1940). This film is surprisingly watchable, considering the apparent unsuitability of the casting and the fact that it’s from an era when westerns were generally made very cheaply and had little cinematic prestige. Director Lloyd Bacon was versatile (his work includes 42nd Street and other musicals with Busby Berkeley as choreographer and Knute Rockne, All American), but he didn’t make many westerns. According to Cagney, Bacon wasn’t the director originally slated to direct.
Cagney wasn’t entirely happy with the way the project turned out. In his 1976 autobiography Cagney by Cagney, he described how the project started: “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.” Bogart, profiled in the New York Times just before the film’s release, seemed not all that wild about it. “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.” Actually, Cagney’s hat is significantly larger than Bogart’s. Bogart seemed preoccupied by the hats; he was famously quoted as saying that “Cagney looked like a mushroom under [his] huge western hat.”
Music is by Max Steiner; cinematography is by the legendary James Wong Howe. Shot on the Iverson Ranch in Chatsworth, California. In black and white, at 81 minutes.