Disc Jockey: James Cagney hits the Old West in ‘The Oklahoma Kid’

James Cagney heads out west for the 1939 western "The Oklahoma Kid." Credit: Warner Bros.
James Cagney heads out west for the 1939 western “The Oklahoma Kid.”
Credit: Warner Bros.

‘The Oklahoma Kid’
Warner Archive

The western is all but dead today, but it’s such a colossal part of Golden Age Hollywood that it’s hard to believe there was a period — the 1930s — when the eight major studios made almost none of them. The decade began with two massive horse operas: the epic “Cimarron” and “The Big Trail,” the latter starring a young John Wayne, who would lay low until decade’s end. Both bombed. “Cimarron” even won the Best Picture Oscar, but still couldn’t make back its huge budget. The western, for eight years, was kaput, at least in Hollywood.

But they thrived among the poverty row studios, who churned them out by the hundreds. (Some even starred Wayne.) There are many reasons why, in 1939, they made a serious comeback among the majors: the rise of country-western music; the sudden popularity of adventure films over dramas and comedies; the belief among the studios that they could tame them, make them classy and important. But suddenly, at the exact time, everyone was doing them. Tyrone Power and Henry Fonda headlined the Technicolor “Jesse James.” Revered Oscar winning director John Ford eagerly cranked out two in one year: “Stagecoach,” which belatedly made Wayne a star, and “Drums Along the Mohawk,” also with Fonda. Even James Cagney donned a cowboy hat to bark his way through “The Oklahoma Kid,” a rare title now back among the crowds via Warner Bros. on-demand Archive service.

Despite the promise of shifting Cagney to the Old West from the mean streets — to which he’d return later that year, as a remorseful gangster in “The Roaring Twenties” — Cagney’s Kid isn’t all menace. He’s not a good guy, despite the heroic in-silhouette way he’s introduced in the opening credits. But he’s not bad either. He’s in between — a proto-libertarian loner who distrusts civilization, sticks up for Native Americans and immigrants and even knows Spanish. He very hesitantly becomes the obligatory savior to the obligatory rough town, run by the obligatory villainous saloon keeper, Whip McCord (Humphrey Bogart, then a regular Cagney punching bag, including in “The Roaring Twenties”).

If Cagney isn’t as fearsome here as he is when playing gangster, he’s still a motormouthed sparkplug who brings speed and comedy to a genre that would later need both. (The director is Lloyd Bacon, who cast the star as the ideal Broadway director in the primo Busby Berkeley extravaganza “Footlight Parade.”) Cagney is the fastest gun and mouth in the west, shooting the weapons off of baddies and those who interrupt his barroom singing (including the ubiquitous Ward Bond). Later, his big fight with Bogie — bringing his New Yawk accent to where it really doesn’t belong — has a messiness, complete with blood, that doesn’t often appear in either the western or the other films where the two actors square off. It’s too bad Cagney didn’t stick around the genre longer; his CV boasts only two more westerns — three, if you count his narration for 1968’s “Arizona Bushwhackers.”

Also out:

‘I Am Divine’ Born Harris Glenn Milstead, the actor known professionally as Divine stormed his way through many a John Waters salvo before dying at only 42. He was enough of a force to deserve his own documentary, one that digs into his cabaret work, his albums, even his occasionally work for filmmakers who weren’t John Waters.

‘The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug’ The second of Peter Jackson’s enlarged “Lord of the Rings” prequels is a bit more watchable than the first, which is to say it has less sickly hedgehogs. Still.

‘A Touch of Sin’ Chinese minimalist Jia Zhang-ke (“The World”) heads into more traditional fiction territory with his latest, whose three stories of horrendous violence still speak to his love for digging deep into what ails his home nation.

‘Nurse 3-D’ Clothing-allergic bombshell Paz de la Huerta gets her own trashy vehicle, one that embraces offensive stereotypes, including pitting her as a killer bisexual out to destroy the life of a colleague (Katrina Bowden).

Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge


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