Modest but enjoyable
The Oklahoman is a mid-budget ‘town’ Western, with the emphasis on character and human interest rather than action. That doesn’t mean it was weak. McCrea was never weak, and he was, once again, supported by a very strong cast of old-faithful Western character actors. The always entertaining Brad Dexter is the bad guy, Michael Pate is an Indian (obviously), Anthony Caruso is his friend and Ray Teal is a leading townsman. And the love interest is provided by Barbara Hale. It’s a good line-up.
Still, The Oklahoman was in color and CinemaScope (like Wichita). It was no cheapo B-movie. It was nicely shot by Carl E Guthrie, who would also be the DP on The Gunfight at Dodge City and episodes of McCrea’s Wichita Town on TV, with Californian locations standing in well for Oklahoma. The Warners’ Archive Collection DVD is good. There’s some pleasant music by Hans Salter. And if modest in scope, the movie still had some classic Western moments, such as a last-reel quick-draw showdown on Main Street between Joel and Brad.
Like Wichita and The First Texan, it was written by the more-than-competent Daniel B Ullman, who also worked on a total of 40 big-screen oaters, including five with McCrea.
McCrea excelled at the affable, peaceful hero who reluctantly but efficiently gets tough when the going does, and this is exactly the character he has here. He is a doctor, John Brighton, on his way by wagon train to California in 1870, whose wife dies in childbirth, leaving him a widower with a baby daughter to bring up in the small town of Cherokee Wells, Oklahoma Territory. He very quickly establishes himself as decent doc, loved by all, and there are scenes verging on the bucolic as we see how universally he is admired. Of course the Decent Doc is a well-known figure in Westerns.
Dexter plays cattle baron Cass Dobie. He’s one of those ruthless ranchers we know so well, the ones who want the whole valley. He already has enough land for his cattle but he is after the oil, you see. The good doc is very slow on the uptake about this, but fair enough, I suppose. It was 1870 after all, a quarter of a century before Oklahoma oil became a thing. Universal’s Joe Dakota would be released six months later, so oil-based skullduggery Westerns were becoming rather à la mode.
Cass’s brother Mel (Douglas Dick, small parts in a few Westerns but nothing startling) is even more ruthless than he, and he tries to kill farmer Charlie (Pate) while illegally taking oil samples, but he isn’t a very good shot (he proved that in the first reel) and Indian Charlie is much faster with a knife. Mel ends face down in the oily pond. Self-defense, yes, but Charlie is an Indian…
Hale is another local rancher, Anne Barnes, much less ruthless, and she takes a shine to the doc. We can tell it will be lerve in the last scene. I like Barbara Hale. Although best known as Della for saying, “What I don’t understand, Perry, is…”, allowing Ray Burr to explain how clever he was, at the end of every Perry Mason episode, she in fact did quite a few Westerns, including West of the Pecos with Robert Mitchum, Last of the Comanches with Broderick Crawford, Seminole with Rock Hudson and 7th Cavalry with Randolph Scott. She had already co-starred with McCrea on The Lone Hand back in ’53. So it’s a good record.
Anne’s nose is put out of joint, though, because Indian Charlie’s glam eighteen-year-old daughter Maria (Gloria Talbott, 26) has moved into his household to look after the little daughter, and small-town rumors fly about the ‘scandal’. In fact the movie has something interesting to say about the damage malicious tongues can do and what should be the reaction of those wagged-against. I’m not the greatest Gloria Talbott fan and I hope you will forgive me for saying I think she looked a bit odd. She would do this again (look a bit odd, I mean) with Joel in Cattle Empire in 1958 and yet again with Fred MacMurray in The Oregon Trail the year after that. She would be back in Oklahoma in 1960 with Bill Williams (Mr Barbara Hale) in Oklahoma Territory.
There are two amusing old ladies, Mrs Fitzgerald, who owns the boarding house where the doc lives and Mrs Waynebrook, Anne Barnes’s mother, out on their ranch. The former is played by Esther Dale in her last movie, while the latter is Verna Felton. Both have a slightly Jane Darwell-ish mien. They add to the picture.
You can spot eternal baddie Bill Coontz as a Dobie henchman, and, if you don’t blink, the likes of Harry Lauter and Kermit Maynard as townsmen, as well as other recognizable Western faces.
There’s a party with a barn dance in which Brad does a lively turkey-trot with Gloria. He ends it by insulting the doc and it nearly comes to fisticuffs but the news of the death in the oily pool of brother Mel puts a stop to that. It’s only postponed, though…
As Cass says threateningly, Charlie is going to pay, one way or another. There’ll be an inquest and the decent marshal (John Pickard) wants to do the right thing but whatever the juridic result, the ruthless rancher is going to get revenge. When Cass and the doc finally do get to punching each other out, and Doc wins, the townsmen warn the medico that Cass is gunning for him. Doc Brighton straps on a not very hippocratic Colt now and the showdown looms…
All good stuff – a bit on the mild side, perhaps, and certainly no thrilling, sprawling A-Western. But it has a lot in its favor, not least in showing the Cherokee people as civilized and integrated yet still put-upon and discriminated against, and because of some excellent performances from fine Western actors, notably McCrea himself as, once again, a decent upstanding Western hero.
It reminds us a bit of Strange Lady in Town, a 1955 Warners Western with Greer Garson as a lady doctor setting up in Santa Fe in 1880, with racism replacing the misogyny Greer’s doc had to combat. Worthy themes but not exactly thrilling. Having a quartet of women was rather good, though, two young ‘n’ glamorous, two old and amusing. I liked that bit.
It isn’t quite clear why the mild doc in his 50s (McCrea was 52) would have all these women falling at his feet (in the case of la Talbott literally) but he was Joel McCrea, I guess, and still pretty handsome. He is slow on the uptake about these women too (a bit plodding, our doc) and it takes him ages actually to realize that they fancy him. You wouldn’t call the relationship between the doc and rancher Anne electric, exactly.
You gotta see it. It’s a Joel McCrea Western after all. But don’t expect too much, just an enjoyable 80 minutes.