THE OKLAHOMA KID, 1939
Prospector’s Kincaid and Hardwick agree on a fiendish deal pushed upon them by outlaw McCord (Bogart) whilst staking claim upon land that will one day become Tulsa. McCord exploits his position encouraging crime and violence in this growing settlement. With his influence McCord stifles all attempts by Kincaid and Hardwick to bring law to the town… but salvation arrives on the horizon in the form of Hardwick’s estranged son Jim (Cagney) – the Oklahoma Kid!
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Every generation is treated to that rare gem of a movie that pits two of Hollywood’s top leading men against each other on screen. The results are sometimes so sizzling they almost burn through the celluloid itself! A recent example was Deniro and Pacino’s face-off in Mann’s Heat in 1995. In 1939 it was all about Cagney versus Bogart. The casting is impeccable with Bogart’s snarling outlaw on quest for money and power foiled by Cagney’s misunderstood rogue.
Like every good Western, The Oklahoma Kid refuses to use heavy black and white strokes of morality in its narrative. Rather, it presents multilayered characters that have servings of both allure and repulse. While Bogart’s rising crime lord commits horrifying acts of murder, he does it with a devious charm so attractive that you are unable to take your eyes off him every second he is on screen. In fact, one could argue McCord is no different to the many capitalists walking outside the jails today. Those who have exploited the laws of Western society to gain great power and wealth unfazed by the blood dripping from their hands.
Dressed in black from his hat to his boots, Bogart looks like Death himself! He slithers out of the desert like a viper with his gang of thugs on tow leaving no doubt about who he is! Bogart is normally associated with roles that require him to play cynical types that show their emotional vulnerability and nobility towards the film’s end. It’s refreshing that Bogart is bad to the bone in this movie; the only way to stop him is to shoot him!
The Bogart/Cagney climactic fistfight is truly a magnificent showdown. Not exactly a surprise, but something we are looking forward to as soon as the film starts. The saloon is ripped to pieces, with the slick Bogart holding his own against the heavy brawler Cagney. The spectacle of violence culminates in McCord meeting his end in true Western fashion. Although Bogart and Cagney have appeared in the same movie before, it’s The Oklahoma Kid that really brings out the best from both men when sharing the screen!
The screen will always love characters that endear over time and win our hearts over as we begin to empathize with them. This is a definite attribute of Cagney’s roguish Jim in The Oklahoma Kid. When we first meet Jim he is but a vagabond, scrambling around the outskirts of his father’s town and appearing without invitation. But over time we realize his isolation is mainly due to his refusal to except the hypocrisy he sees in society and epitomized by McCord. Through this filter his crimes seem to almost border on philanthropy given the progressing chaos that threatens the town. Also it’s only Jim who appears to feel any kind of sympathy for the previous occupiers of the Cherokee Strip: the Native Americans handed a raw deal to vacate the land.
But all said and done the movie belongs to Cagney. He dances, fights and shoots up the screen as the Oklahoma Kid! Playing a full range of character dimensions, Cagney is at once vulnerable; in a delightful scene where he hides from his older brother Ned under a manikin, then charming; inside a fully booked inn he clears out the best room in the house for a young lady and of course compassionate; at the film’s climax he is right by his dying brother’s side. Although Cagney can play hard-nosed crooks to excel, he is most satisfying as the anti-hero!
The great Western anti-hero essentially is a man outside of society, a man following his own moral compass to redeem a society he ultimately cannot be part of. We are used to seeing the Clint Eastwood or John Wayne anti-hero disappear into the stark horizon as much alone as when he arrived. But Cagney’s Jim actually finds love together with a place he can call home. Unlike an Ethan Edwards or The Man with No Name, Jim is fighting for a cause he has a personal stake in. Essentially, there is asylum for this tortured soul in the ivory tower of a happy ending! This makes for a much more satisfying end as, by this point we have come to love Jim as much as his love interest Jane (Lane).
By far the most powerful impression left by the movie is when Cagney’s Jim delivers a powerful mediation about human nature: “…the strong take it away from the weak and the smart take it away from the strong!” Jim is perhaps the only person in the film who actually has piece of mind and contentment; sitting happily at the empty bar enjoying a drink while hundreds of men rush the Cherokee Strip to battle for land that will one day be the source of their undoing. Quite fitting then, that in the end the best things come to The Oklahoma Kid.