Sunday, January 25, 2015


People will still tell you that John Ford's Stagecoach revived the western as an "A" genre in the golden year of 1939, but they're mistaking a symptom for the cause. The Ford film was just one of a bunch of westerns released in the first half of the golden year alone, the trail being blazed by Twentieth Century-Fox's Jesse James, a film which, unlike Stagecoach, got a sequel one year later. The mere existence of Stagecoach reflects decisions already made by Hollywood to boom the genre after the tentative efforts of 1936 (De Mille's The Plainsman, King Vidor's The Texas Rangers, etc.) What had happened in the intervening years? The main thing seems to be that the big studios realized how much money Republic was making off Gene Autry, who by one measure of fan mail had become the most popular star in movies by 1939. The other studios didn't have to have singing cowboys, though the Warner Bros. B unit did have one in Dick Foran, but they had to have cowboys to tap into the Autry market. So why not cast your top studio stars in westerns? Fox put two of their hottest young actors, Tyrone Power and Henry Fonda, in Jesse James, Warners was putting Errol Flynn into Dodge City, and Ford did finally make a star of John Wayne in Stagecoach. So why not put your established tough guys in westerns? Why not Cagney in a western? Yet people will still tell you that Cagney in The Oklahoma Kid, not to mention Bogart as the villain, is something akin to The Terror of Tiny Town. That verdict, which finds Cagney somewhat preposterous in cowboy garb, was slow in coming, since Warners saw fit to re-release Lloyd Bacon's oater on occasion in the years following its initial release. The contemporary audience may have assumed, as Warners wished, that Cagney's tough-guy persona translated into all eras, as 1935's Frisco Kid had seemingly proved. And he doesn't really seem implausible, now that I've seen this infamous film, unless his type doesn't fit your stereotype of the western hero. It may not have been until Fifties westerns made a fetish of height that Cagney became less convincing -- though he made two more westerns in that very decade. Look at him confront Ward Bond, playing one of Bogart's minions in this picture; Bond towers over our hero, and while 1939 audiences took it for granted that Cagney could tear apart this bit player, later generations may have grown less certain. Cagney is no John Wayne or Gary Cooper or Randolph Scott, but what more do you really need to be a western hero than plausible toughness, which Cagney had in spades? I didn't find him preposterous at all, especially if you accept Oklahoma Kid as a Cagney vehicle first and a western second.

A certain irreverence toward the western may have hurt Cagney with contemporary audiences

As a western, it's an archetypal town-tamer story that looks forward to the sort of reluctant-hero roles Bogart would play when he got the chance. Here Bogart (as the purply-named Whip McCord) leads a gang of gamblers and bandits who are robbed by Cagney after they rob a stage. The Oklahoma Kid -- no one knows him by any other name -- has returned to his native ground to witness the famous Land Rush. Like both versions of Cimarron, Kid makes the blunder of staging this tremendous action scene -- though the action here admittedly isn't so tremendous -- very early in the picture. Bogart's gang are "Sooners" who've jumped the claim of the patriarchal John Kincaid, who'd planned to build a town there. Bogart promptly surrenders his claim, however, on the condition that Kincaid cede him exclusive gambling rights in the new town. Meanwhile, the Kid has sat out the land rush in a saloon, explaining to whoever has time to listen that the whole enterprise is futile. Those who play by the rules now will lose out to the strong, he says, and the strong will lose out to the clever in the end. He has to flee to Mexico after killing one of Bogart's men, and once he returns the town is booming but in ways Kincaid never wanted. The old man's accommodation with Whip McCord can't last much longer, despite the good faith efforts of Judge Hardwick (Donald Crisp), his daughter Jane (Rosemary Lane) and Hardwick's law partner Alec Martin (Charles Middleton in a good-guy role). Bogart concocts a plan to frame Kincaid for murder, trick Hardwick into leaving town, and have his judicial pawn railroad Kincaid to the gallows. Despite the efforts of Jane and the Kid, who has finally let on that he's John Kincaid's black-sheep son, the old man is lynched, hung from a second-story porch. This would seem to prove the Kid's earlier point, but now that it's personal he's not so complacent.

Cagney is Cagney here, and if you can't see him as a westerner I can't help you with this film. There are plenty of characteristic moments, from his forcing a saloon pianist to play "I Don't Want to Play in Your Yard" at gunpoint to his showoff singing of "Rockabye Baby" in Spanish. Oklahoma Kid isn't a great western by any stretch, but it's no more a category error than Frisco Kid was, and as a Cagney vehicle it's perfectly acceptable. Bogart gives his stock 1938-40 villain performance and if you've seen one of those you've really seen them all. He'd return to westerns well before Cagney did, stuck between Flynn and Randolph Scott in Virginia City, but the closest he came to the genre after achieving real stardom was the modern-dress Treasure of the Sierra Madre. Bacon directs competently but you can't quite shake a feeling that, despite Cagney, Warners considered this a second-class project compared to Dodge City, the latter getting Technicolor while Kid goes without. The idea that Kid is a second-class western, at most, may have started right there, but while it really is a second-class western, it could be a lot worse, and it's actually a lot better than its dire reputation -- built perhaps on sight-unseen judgments --  would suggest.

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