—Better Than You’ve Been Led to Believe—
Your Bogie Film Fix:
Director: Lloyd Bacon
Jim ‘The Oklahoma Kid’ Kincaid (James Cagney) is an amiable outlaw who really only steals from people who deserve it. When his father and brother are put in harm’s way by a ruthless land thief (Humphrey Bogart), Kincaid looks to set things right.
What I Thought
I had heard so many bad things about this film that I’d prepared myself for the worst.
I’d heard that it was “the film with the two shortest cowboys of all time.” True enough, but I did think that nicknaming Cagney ‘The Oklahoma Kid’ helped a lot. And who cares if the bad guy’s short? Lots of famous bad guys are short!
I’d also heard it was “the film with the cowboys that have gangster accents.” This complaint is a bit more understandable considering that everyone in the film besides Cagney and Bogart seemed to have more Midwestern accents, if not full out drawls. Our two stars though, sound just as if they’d plopped right down outta The Roaring Twenties.
I’d also read from multiple sources that it was “the cowboy film with goofy outfits,” as even Bogart himself thought that Cagney’s costume made him look like a big mushroom:
Although when you consider Bogart’s chapeau:
It makes me wonder, were they out of medium sized hats that day???
I had a lot of similar feelings watching this film as I did when I watched The Return of Doctor X. It may not be the best use of Bogart’s talents, but it was a thoroughly enjoyable film. Cagney especially seems full of endless joy as he grins and charms his way through this movie.
This is my fifth Lloyd Bacon film for the blog after Brother Orchid, Action in the North Atlantic, Marked Woman, and San Quentin, and out of the five, I actually think it’s the film where Bacon has taken the biggest risks. With about twenty minutes left of the movie, I anticipated that it was about to wrap up in the standard, Hollywood cliché, cowboy film way – with Cagney blasting the pistols out of evil doers’ hands and roping everyone up into prison. Much to my surprise, I ended up watching a film that could be labeled as an early precursor to Eastwood’s Unforgiven. (In the tone of the final act only, mind you!)
Director Bacon doesn’t hold back as multiple main characters start to meet violently disturbing ends. Cagney’s Oklahoma Kid responds in kind, finally living up to the reputation that we’ve heard about for the entire movie but hadn’t yet seen, as he systematically begins to take apart Whip McCord’s (Humphrey Bogart) gang one by one.
It made me wish that we could have seen a darker side to Cagney throughout the first three quarters of the film when Director Bacon really seemed to be leaning harder on the comedy while the end of the film probably needed a bit more of a dramatic setup. Quite a few times you’ll wonder, Why exactly are they working so hard to track down The Oklahoma Kid when there are much worse gangsters already destroying everything?
Is it a perfect film? No, definitely not. Is it a great western? No, not really. But it is a decent movie with lots of fun moments, and it has two Hollywood legends playing outside of their normal wheelhouse of roles. With only a finite amount of Cagney and Bogart films to enjoy, I’ll lend The Oklahoma Kid a lot of grace for its lack of credibility.
The Bogart Factor
Whip McCord is a pretty two-dimensional bad guy for Bogart, and there are several times during the film when the character disappears for extended periods. Any shortcomings, though, stem more from the script than from Bogart’s performance. He does his best with a limited role, and he even looks comfortable on horseback. His lack of screen time might have partially been due to the fact that he was concurrently filming Dark Victory with Bette Davis while he was making this film.
We do get to see, what I would consider, the greatest fistfight that I’ve seen in a Bogart movie to date when Bogart and Cagney finally have it out at the end of the film. Starting on the second landing of the saloon, both men (and their stunt doubles) get to the main floor the hard way. Check out the way that Bogart high-kicks Cagney right in the face and then goes after him with a broken bottle! It’s a gritty, violent, and incredibly enjoyable Western fistfight if there ever was one.
If nothing else, we get to see Bogart dressed in black and riding a horse – that’s worth the price of admission alone, isn’t it?
James Cagney is pretty good as Jim Kincaid. Did this guy ever do a bad role? Cagney is endlessly watchable onscreen and seemed to be enjoying himself as he flirts, cons, shoots, and rides his way through the film.
Rosemary Lane is Jane Hardwick, Cagney’s love interest. Much like The Return of Doctor X, I found her capable, but incredibly underwritten. How is it that the same gal gets shortchanged in both of Bogart’s wildest genre films?
Harvey Stephens and Hugh Sothern play Ned and John Kincaid, Cagney’s brother and father, respectively. Both men are solid, holding up a majority of the film when Cagney’s not present. Stephens plays especially earnest and honorable as he rallies a group of men against Bogart’s outlaw with this great line:
Ned Kincaid: “Shootings, killings, robberies, and a mighty orgy of drunkenness! Gambling and vice! All directly traceable to McCord’s influence!”
Hugh Sothern’s exit from the film shocked me, and added the first real emotional weight to the film as it switches gears from lighthearted western to dark revenge tale.
Don’t Forget to Notice
Ray Mayer, who made a career out of showing up in films as a piano player/musician, has one of the funniest moments in the film as Cagney makes a request for a song in the saloon, despite the fact that there’s a man nearby who happens to be trying to kill him.
Classic Bogie Moment
I think that what makes Bogart so great and believable as a bad guy is that even when he’s given a two-dimensional role, he’s able to add some realistic vulnerability. When a typical film villain hears bad news from a henchman, what does he do? He might grimace and grit his teeth. He might furrow his brow and clench his fists. He might snarl and bark with spittle flying in all directions. Not Bogart. While getting bad news in two scenes in particular, he does exactly what an actor is supposed to do. He listens. And while he listens, we can see him actually thinking about what’s being said:
Bogart slowly turns away from the other actor, looking upset, confused, stressed, and even a little scared as he’s forced to adjust his plans in dealing with Cagney and his family. It’s a little trait that I recognize from a lot of his other films, and it’s used well here.
The Bottom Line
If you like Cagney, you need to see this film. If you’re more than a casual fan of Bogart, you’ll find a lot to love about The Oklahoma Kid despite its flaws.