Here's what inevitably happens. I share a movie with a friend or a loved one. Something I think they'll really like but probably have not seen. They love it, and I tell them "That was one of my Dad's favorite movies."

So here are some of those movies, my memories and thoughts, and what made them my Dad's favorites.

Saturday, August 22, 2009


And while we’re discussing the westerns of 1939, another favorite of my Dad’s was Warner Brothers’ “The Oklahoma Kid.” So what did my Dad like so much about “The Oklahoma Kid?” Well, it’s a western with James Cagney as the hero and Humphrey Bogart as the villain. What’s not to like about that. It’s Cagney’s first western, after carving out a niche for himself as a contemporary urban tough guy in films such as “The Public Enemy” and “Angels With Dirty Faces.” But Cagney was a versatile and gifted performer. Prior to “The Oklahoma Kid” he had performed in comedies, played hoofers in musicals, and had even essayed the role of Bottom in Warner Brothers’ and Max Reinhart’s production of Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” Nevertheless, critics and audiences seemed to have particular difficulty accepting Cagney in a cowboy role. His co-star Bogart described him in his ten-gallon hat as looking like a mushroom. However, Cagney brings whimsy and eccentricity to what might have been a standard western role, famously coining the pick-up line “feel the air” and singing “I Don’t Want to Play in Your Yard” while fending off the interruptions of bad guy Ward Bond.

In 1939, Bogart was at the stage in his career where he accepted whatever parts Warner Brothers threw at him, and the studio often seemed at a loss to know how best to use him. Most often cast as heavies and gangsters, the western venue was also a departure for him. It would be another two years and ten films before Bogart would achieve true star status with “High Sierra” and “The Maltese Falcon.” Whereas Cagney’s Jim Kincaid is, for the most part, amiable and disarming, Bogart’s Whip McCord, dressed from head to toe in black, is brutal, humorless, course, unattractive, and utterly devoid of any redeeming characteristics.

But I think what might have really attracted my Dad to “The Oklahoma Kid” is that it is a merging of the two favorite genres of his youth, the “B” western that was the love of his childhood, and the tough guy gangster/detective movie, best exemplified by the output of the Warner Brothers studio, that was the mainstay of his adolescence.

My Dad seemed more in tune with Warner Brothers’ films than those of any other studio. During the golden age of the Hollywood studio system, the studios, each run by formidable personalities, all had distinct styles of their own. Having pioneered the use of synchronized sound for motion pictures, Warners was known for biting humor, hard edged, moody, socially-conscious fare and urban, lower-class, tough characters, all of which Dad enjoyed.

The western elements of “The Oklahoma Kid” are obvious. The film even pays homage to the popular singing cowboys of the “B” westerns when Cagney performs not only “I Don’t Want to Play in Your Yard,” but also a Spanish version of ‘Rockaby Baby.” (As a side note, “I Don’t Want to Play in Your Yard” also figures prominently in Warren Beatty’s 1981 film “Reds.”)

The influences of the Warners’ gritty and urban gangster films are more subtle. Although Cagney’s character is quirky and appealing, this is largely a dark drama, with none of the lightness of tone found in “Destry Rides Again” that same year.

Cagney’s charming but sometimes brutal anti-hero, a criminal himself, owes a great deal to his gangster roles. The town of Tulsa is a crowded, tight, noisy place, feeling more like Warners’ New York back lot than the open expanses and simple designs of most previous western settings. Much of the movie takes place at night; even the chase scenes through the rocky wilderness are photographed day for night by renowned cinematographer James Wong Howe. His black and white lighting is often dark with shadows, his compositions are crowded with foreground elements, his camera is often low to the ground, and he keeps the horizon line high in the frame, all visual elements common to more urban fare, and adding to the claustrophobia. Other than in the Oklahoma land rush scenes, there are none of the expansive vistas common to the films of other western directors like John Ford, none of the color and brightness of Warners’ other western from that year, “Dodge City.” There is even a hint of the social consciousness that was evident in Warners’ early, pre production-code films. The film opens with President Grover Cleveland dismayed over his hesitant signing of the Indian Appropriations Bill and his belief that the opening of the Oklahoma territories to settlers is unfair to native Americans. But it is the cynicism and worldliness expressed by Cagney’s character in this exchange that truly mirrors the attitude of many early Warners pictures.  Says the Kid: "The strong take it away from the weak, and the smart take it away from the strong."

And, if you listen closely, you will hear in Max Steiner’s score some of the same motifs that reoccur two years later in “The Maltese Falcon.”
Although Cagney’s character brings some lightness and humor to the proceedings, this is largely a dark and surprisingly violent drama, with none of the lightness of tone found in “Destry Rides Again” that same year. Certain elements of this revenge tale are seen again years later in “Hour of the Gun.”

“The Oklahoma Kid” is probably as close to being an urban gangster film as a western can be.

Amazingly, this is another classic film that has never been released on DVD. Luckily, it airs on Turner Classic Movies with some regularity.

© 2009 Edward Bowen
© 2009 Edward Bowen