The Oklahoma Kid (1939)

Cagney and Bogart leave the mean streets of New York far behind them in this mainly lighthearted Western – which I’d say is a must for fans of either or both. Cagney seems to enjoy himself as a mixed-up outlaw, who turns out to be a hero almost by mistake.

Unfortunately, Bogart doesn’t have such a good role to get his teeth into. This was made only a year after Angels With Dirty Faces and he is really playing the same type of sour-faced bad guy he played there, obsessed with money and killing to get it – or, rather, getting other people to do the killing for him. The only good thing about his character is that he has a truly great name, Whip McCord!

As in Angels, Cagney really seems too nice to be a criminal, and is mainly seen acting as a vigilante rather than a thief.

Spoilers behind cut

His character, Jim Kincaid, is the rebel son of a would-be mayor, who rides back into town to try to save his father from the gallows when he is framed for murder. I was slightly startled by Jim’s explanation of why he has dropped out of the family and got on to the wrong side of the law – because he doesn’t agree with their “empire-building, land-grabbing” ways and considers that the pioneers are stealing the land from the Indians.

I saw someone on the imdb asking how on earth Warner managed to slip these comments in under the Hays code, which seems a good question. (There is a cheesy tagged-on ending where Cagney gets the girl (Rosemary Lane), and suddenly heads off to do some “empire-building” of his own in Arizona, but this doesn’t carry much conviction.)
Fun moments include a sequence near the start where Cagney decides he wants to sing ‘I Don’t Want to Play In Your Yard’ in a saloon (according to the John McCabe biography, he included this because it was his father’s favourite song), and forces a reluctant pianist to play. As he leans on the piano warbling, Bogie is itching for a fight and sends a message: “Tell that little squirt over there I want to see him.” The message comes back: “He doesn’t want to see you!” Cagney manages to continue singing while having a punch-up with another punter, but does actually stop in mid-song when it comes to a gun-fight. At another point in the film, he also sings ‘Rockabye Baby’ in Spanish – the baby does its best to steal this scene by grabbing and eating Cagney’s tie!

Although Cagney plays a character continually described as a “kid” or “young lad”, he was actually 40 when he made the movie, a few months older than Bogart, whose character seems to be much older and more world-weary. This means Jim is a good 15 years older than Jane (Rosemary Lane). Also, I was a bit unfair in saying that he “gets the girl”. In fact, she is the one who pursues and “gets” him, declaring her love first, proposing and in effect forcibly marrying him. Rosemary Lane gives an appealing performance – I don’t think I’ve seen her in anything else, but will look out for her in future.

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