The Oklahoma Kid (1939)

Directed by Lloyd Bacon
Written by Warren Duff & Robert Buckner and Edward E. Paramore Jr.

A western with James Cagney and Humphrey Bogart!? How could I have never heard of this film before!? How could The Oklahoma Kid not be a classic!? Well, in the reality of the genre, and a certain truth with all actors, the simple truth is that not everything can be a great film. Even Cagney could make a bad film. Even Bogart could make a bad film. And yes, while perhaps highly unlikely as it may be, Cagney together with Bogart could also make a bad film, even as a western. “Bad” is likely too harsh of a term, though perfectly forgettable is likely not. With true Warner Bros. craftsman Lloyd Bacon behind the camera, The Oklahoma Kid shows potential, and certainly has the star power, but its potential is fully stunted by an extremely standard and uninspired finished product.

Once again, for the third or fourth time already in this marathon, we are treated to a story of the Oklahoma land rush. This time with a spin. The Oklahoma Kid (James Cagney), is a known outlaw in the lands, and after stealing a good sum of money from men, who themselves had stolen it, becomes a target. As the land rush begins, the ruthless Whip McCord (Humphrey Bogart) is a Sooner, who has crossed into the territory early to stake out his claim. In a questionable business deal, McCord persuades the high moral John Kincaid (Hugh Sothern) to let his claim be. In return, Kincaid can build his bustling city of Tulsa, and McCord gets to control all the vice in the city. Once Tulsa becomes a major city, McCord threatens to bring Kincaid down, which summons The Oklahoma Kid, who has an unknown connection to Kincaid, to town to take care of McCord and set Tulsa straight once more.

For whatever reason, throughout the research for this marathon, and even up to when I popped the film into the DVD player, I didn’t realize Humphrey Bogart starred in The Oklahoma Kid as well. I just thought it was a Cagney movie. Had I known this ahead of time, I may have had a higher level of anticipation and expectation for the film. Luckily I didn’t, as this was disappointing any way you cut it. The film starts exciting enough, with the Kid robbing the robbers. Throughout the film we see little moments like this that make us cheer for The Oklahoma Kid, even though he is an outlaw, through and through. He never gives back a la Robin Hood, but he gallivants around town with good manners and appears to be a good guy, except he’s not. He’s still an outlaw. The picture painted of The Oklahoma Kid is a conflicting one, and hard to grapple with.

Pitting outlaw (Oklahoma Kid) against outlaw (McCord), especially when one has a secret relationship with the upstanding moral fiber of the town in Kincaid, creates an intriguing premise for the film, but as I said in the opening, I cannot help but feel Lloyd Bacon’s workmanship diminishes any potential the film may have past its promising premise. I have seen a few of Bacon’s efforts, and each time they have been little more than acceptable, perfectly mediocre entertainment. The Oklahoma Kid fits that mold, but manages to be a disappointment given Cagney and Bogart, who may make up the shortest pair of outlaws in western history. It’s hard not to notice.

It would be easy to blame the very short run time of the film (just 85 minutes) for the narrative’s shortcoming, most notably the backstories of the characters in question, and the development of the relationships forged throughout this story. What drove the Kid to become an outlaw? Why does he continue to do it, in a rather nomadic fashion? What draws him back in, his morals? How, or perhaps, why does the ending of the film seem to come so easily? In the end, The Oklahoma Kid becomes a rather flat depiction of an intriguing story line, one which lacks true spectacle at any moment, or true depth in order to better sympathize with the characters. I just never felt invested in The Oklahoma Kid as a character, his motivations, etc. It all happened too fast and without enough detail.

**1/2 – Average

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