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Friday, January 9, 2015

THE OKLAHOMA KID (1939)

James Cagney played ‘good’ badman to Humphrey Bogart’s ‘bad’ badman twice in 1939; in THE ROARING TWENTIES (a big ticket Warner debut for vet helmer Raoul Walsh) and in this tease of a Western from dogged studio mainstay Lloyd Bacon. KID gets lost between TWENTIES and EACH DAWN I DIE (Cagney’s other powerhouse release of ‘39), but it’s a sweet little treat all on its own, a Western made by, and even for, non-specialists. It sneaks up and winks at you. The opening sequence is a dilly. Bogie, outfitted by Prada of the West, and his gang of cutthroats hold up a stagecoach, grab a big silver payout meant for the Indian Tribes, then find themselves held up, losing the loot to Cagney’s Oklahoma Kid who manages to make a convincing gang all on his lonesome. (Loaded with kinetic energy & fancy location spotting, can this really be the work of Lloyd Bacon or did some 2nd Unit sharpie call the shots?) The film relaxes thereafter, with a fight for the soul of the new town of Tulsa springing up between Bogie & his vice peddlers vs a circle of do-gooders around Rosemary Lane, the gal who’s claimed Cagney’s heart. Spun out without an ounce of fat in a neat 80 minutes, lenser James Wong Howe manages some fine dusty vistas and there’s a pretty fair Oklahoma Land Rush, largely via stock & ‘borrowed’ footage.* And, as bonus, you can work up your own idea of what THE ADVENTURES OF ROBIN HOOD/’38 might have been like had the original casting idea of Cagney instead of Errol Flynn come about. In hindsight, it seems ridiculous, Flynn simply is Robin of Locksley. But he only got the role when Cagney walked out on his contract in ‘36. And it’s not hard to envision this ‘might-have-been’ from what we see here. Of course, this Oklahoma Robin keeps his ill-gotten gains for himself, but you can still make out the sketch of that other thieving character.

DOUBLE-BILL: *For some great original land rushes, look to William S. Hart’s TUMBLEWEEDS/’25; John Ford’s 3 BAD MEN/’26 and CIMARRON/Wesley Ruggles-‘31; Anthony Mann-‘60. Or try the opening of Ron Howard’s FAR AND AWAY/’92; then skip to the end for his unintentionally hilarious camera move representing Tom Cruise almost giving up the ghost.

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