I’ve recently started to re-watch the Richard Slotkin lectures on the Western genre, he goes into great detail about how the genre was reborn in 1939. From spending the majority of the 1930’s in the obscurity of the B-movie, it was regenerated as part of re-engerising the country during the great depression, encouraging the public to look back and celebrate their recent history. In the past I’ve looked at both Stagecoach and Dodge City, even Union Pacific that were all released during that prolific year in Hollywood history. Another lesser known piece is The Oklahoma Kid (1939) that was part of Warner Brothers attempt to breathe new life into the Western. Slotkin didn’t really have many kind words for the film, putting it down to mis-casting of both James Cagney and Humphrey Bogart who were known more for their gangster roles during the decade. Criminals fighting back against an unfair system. The genre itself was a reformed Western in a different guise, brought up-to-date with tommy guns and speakeasy’s in place of Winchesters and saloons.
I had to see for myself just what The Oklahoma Kid was all about, seeing a younger Cagey and Bogart who are clearly out of their comfort zones. Having previously seen Bogart paired opposite Errol Flynn (who suited the genre) in Virginia City (1940) an unspoken sequel to Dodge City released the previous year. Set up as another chance to see the dashing Aussie in the West, with only a few lines of dialogue to explain his accent, allowing the audience to easily accept him in the Wild West as we wait for him to ride in and save the day. He’s nowhere to be found in The Oklahoma Kid, the other Warners production of 1939. A smaller production that had spent more money on having two big actors share the screen.
It didn’t take long for me to see that Cagney was not really playing the cowboy, he was still the gangster out for himself. We first meet him as he robs sacks of gold meant for the Cherokee nation who had just been forced off thier land in what was fast becoming Oklahoma state. The Kid (Cagney) is seen lurking in the rocks, waiting to make his move on men lead by Whip McCord (Bogart) who have just left a stagecoach. One bad-guy steals from another, there’s no sense of respect for each of them. You admire the Kid’s ingenuity but left wondering whose side is this guy on. He steals money from thieves, why didn’t he join the other men? Does he only work alone like Ringo the Kid (John Wayne) who we know would never commit such a crime. Oklahoma seems to lack any sense if morality. We have yet to learn what McCord is all about, beyond the fact he wants to steal money meant for the poor.
The film is again set-up as a historical Western, much like Dodge City and Union Pacific, allowing us to believe that these events could have happened, we are transported to the era when America was progress, long before the Great Depression. We are nearing the close of the frontier now, set in the mid 1890’s, where not so many future Westerns are set unless it serves a different purpose thematically to the film. We are present at the birth of a new State, settlers have gathered for a land-rush that grounds the film in some sense of history, real or fictional, it sets the scene for progress and the film to unfold. A lot of work goes into the storytelling of both Dodge and Kid the backdrop is seen to be very important.
In most films of the Golden age there is usually a clearly defined hero, however in both Dodge and Kid the heroes are reluctant, more so The Kid as he wants to only help when it serves his own purpose. Leaving our screens to focus on corruption to set into the young town of Tulsa after McCord blackmail’s town founder and future mayor Ned Kincaid (Harvey Stephens) allowing for vices to co-exist with virtue, becoming just another Wild West town full of gambling, alcohol and sex, with the church pushed to the back. Progress is still a long way off for this young town. Bogart’s gang have laid the foundations to own the town of Tulsa, even explaining as much before the land rush is even over. Bending the rules for his own ends.
We meet The Kid again living in a hut, there’s a baby crying, we are led to believe that this could be his baby, who we learn is Mexican as he sing to them in Spanish. Before learning that this is just a hideout, as there’s a $500 reward for him, not that bothers him. Riding into Tulsa to find his father’s Ned Kincaid has been framed for murder, under the penalty of hanging, the traditional punishment in the West. How can this upstanding citizen who ran for mayor be capable of committing such a crime. The Kid or as we learn is the son of Kincaid, the bad son who was left to lead a life of crime. The Kid puts family above all other priorities, as we see his drive to clear his father’s name sees him push for his own form of justice. However his guns only get him so far, when the advice of Jane Hardwick (Rosemary Lane) tells him that he needs the law on his side to do things the right way.
What follows is a showdown that stretches the length of the West as McCord’s men are tracked down and killed. Just like a gangster driving around led by rumours as he tracks down those who have wronged him. The Kid has only his horse and tracks to follow and that’s enough to see him leave only McCord for the final showdown. Staged just like a gangster film we know we aren’t far from the urban streets of the Chicago or New York when it comes to these two leads. Both actors are very much out of their comfort zone here resorting to fisticuffs until one is shot. We never really left the 1930’s, not with Cagney and Bogie together. Run for Cover (1955) sees a far more at ease actor in the genre, having broken free from the tropes and language of a genre that define and typecast him for a decade. Whilst Bogart came into his own during the 1940’s as Film noir and darker roles beckoned for him.
I can see that the money was spent on Dodge City, with the large set pieces and far expanded cast. The Oklahoma Kid still clings to the language of B-Westerns, the sped up horse chase across the open country, the costumes and characters that are mostly 2 dimensional, the running time doesn’t really allow much to happen when we cross so much time during this film. Now I’ve seen practically all the major Westerns of 1939 I can see that some are still trying to make the leap to the big budgets and concepts that allowed it last for over 30 years.