It may be hard to believe but James Cagney and Humphrey Bogart both did a western – together! Although the concept seems like an oxymoron, incongruent to everything we know about the two beloved screen icons, it works. Let me tell you how.
Of course, Cagney is the good guy, and Bogart at this time in his career was still fulfilling the role of the bad man. However, there’s quite a blurred line when it comes to just which side of right and wrong Cagney stands. After all, the man often played the anti-hero in his films and The Oklahoma Kid is no exception. Which makes the plot of this 1939 gem a little more interesting and far more involved than most westerns of the era. I won’t go into details as that would spoil the fun, but there’s a lot of double-dealing and frame ups happening and Bogart isn’t to blame for all of them. Rosemary Lane fills the role of love interest admirably, and since this film was made in 1939 you know that either Thomas Mitchell or Donald Crisp is playing somebody’s father. In this case it’s the latter. Now that’s certainly a pretty well rounded cast for any film.
This was mid-way in Cagney’s career, marking his thirty-first film. Today most actors don’t accumulate thirty-one films in the span of their entire lives, but as a rule actors worked like journeymen back then, moving from one project to another at a steady pace. This particular job landed right between Angels with Dirty Faces and Each Dawn I Die, and for Bogart (a character actor still struggling to find his place in cinema) this was only one of seven films in which he would appear in the same year. Both men were much better known for gangster films so it’s no surprise this was Cagney’s first western of only three (he would appear in two more “oaters” much later in his career). No, I don’t think anyone thought Cagney would make a home in westerns. With his New York accent and bulldog frame he just didn’t seem to fit the mold. In fact, Bogart (who highly respected Cagney) was widely quoted as saying that his co-star looked like "a mushroom" in his costume – probably mostly due to the ridiculously oversized hat he wore.
So why does the film work? Well, perhaps it’s nostalgia. Perhaps we as devoted fans read so much more into the work watching the performances decades later, long after their personalities have been glorified within the history of the movies that we attribute more qualities to the film than we should. Maybe it’s all that, but I also think it works because in or out of costume, Cagney has a dynamic personality like no other screen presence ever before or since. And a western’s just a gangster film set in another time and place. So as you watch the five and a half foot tall man confront his advisories his character takes on the substantial collective weight of all of his screen personas. It’s not just some forty-year old actor trying to find his place in the second stage of his career, it’s James-freaking-Cagney, and don’t you forget it!
Cagney aside, The Oklahoma Kid is certainly a solidly made film directed by Lloyd Bacon (42nd Street, Footlight Parade), one of the workhorses in Warner Bros.' stable of directors in the 1930s. The studio obviously thought they had stumbled onto a great idea since they also used nothing but top tier talent to fill the rest of the behind the lens team, with James Wong Howe as cinematographer (The Thin Man, Sweet Smell of Success) and Max Steiner as composer (Gone with the Wind, Casablanca). Although it sets no standard for cinematic greatness, the film is entertaining and by all accounts was completed on time and within budget, earning a respectable return upon its investment. How many films can you say that about today? So, the next time The Oklahoma Kid pops up on the TCM roaster be sure to catch it, and you’ll see what good old solid entertainment looks like, as well as see Cagney in that hat! You definitely don’t want to miss that!