Jeff Arnold’s West

The blog of a Western fan, for other Western fans

 

A Western? Nah.

 

Tulsa is often called a Western, in TV listings, guides and so on, and indeed, the first reel is Western enough, with Oklahoma cattle ranchers out riding and finding steers poisoned at a creek. Soon, though, it becomes an urban romance, set in Tulsa obviously, in very unconvincing 1920s (the clothes, make-up and so on are very obviously 1940s). Not only that, it becomes a rather tiresome and silly film.

 

 

This despite starring Susan Hayward, utterly beautiful and a fine actress. Ms Hayward was one of the many hopefuls to be Scarlett O’Hara, was Isobel Rivers in Beau Geste with Gary Cooper and finally got to be a scarlet(t) woman in the South in Cecil B DeMille’s Reap the Wild Wind. She was oft Oscar-nominated (justly) but the prize was snatched away by the likes of Loretta Young and Olivia de Havilland (she finally made it in 1958) but all this is by the way. What of her Westerns? I hear you cry.

 

Wow

 

Well, yes. She was excellent in the genre, I can tell you. She started in the Jacques Tourneur-directed Canyon Passage in 1946, a film I especially like, was yet again a Southern belle in the so-so Tap Roots with Van Heflin in ’48, and after Tulsa – Western or not, probably not – she was superb in the fine and underrated Rawhide with Tyrone Power in 1951. Then she was maybe a tad miscast (but still fine) in Nicholas Ray’s rodeo picture with Robert Mitchum The Lusty Men in ’52, she would star with Coop again in Garden of Evil in 1954, and would finish (indeed, it was her last picture; she was diagnosed with cancer) with a terrific performance with William Holden in The Revengers in 1972. Not bad, huh.

 

Mind, she doesn’t get much of a chance to show off her skills in Tulsa because of the leaden directing and ham-fisted writing.

 

It comes gushing in at $1000 an hour

 

 

The former was by Stuart Heisler, who went right back to the early silent days, was an editor for Samuel Goldwyn in the 1920s, started directing B-pictures at Paramount in the 40s, and turned out a plethora of routine films which were usually underwhelming, with the occasional successful exception. He didn’t helm Westerns much, despite a long career, and those he did were not top-drawer: he did Along Came Jones for Gary Cooper in 1945, which was quite fun but that’s about all, returned to direct the plodding Dallas with Coop in 1950, and in 1956 he’d direct Tab Hunter in The Burning Hills and Clayton Moore in a big-screen version of The Lone Ranger. That was it. This lack of Western form didn’t hurt him much on Tulsa, though, because it wasn’t one. It was, however, clumsily directed and badly paced.

 

4/10, Stuart

 

The clunky writing (and the script is most pedestrian) was surprisingly by Frank Nugent, who ought to have done better, in collaboration with Curtis Kenyon, from a novel by Richard Wormser. As Dennis Schwartz says, “It’s at best an average American Dream story, told in a soap opera, cliché-ridden and glossy style.”

 

Still, there are compensations, Ms Hayward for one, and her co-star was an actor I’ve always liked, Robert Preston (the subject of our last post, so click the link for some Prestonography). He specialized in charming-rogue parts and was very good at them. You kind of know what character you are going to get as soon as you see Preston, though in fact on this one he doesn’t appear till 25 minutes in. He plays an oilman, Brad Brady, who has knocked around the world and knows his stuff. In fact ‘Edward Begley’ is his dad, playing it unusually high, wide and handsome for Ed, and giving it plenty, so that Preston’s vim and dash-type character seems like a chip off the old block. Unfortunately, though, Ed is summarily killed off-screen so he’s soon written out.

 

Preston does his thing

 

Hayward’s character, Cherokee Lansing, is unusually unsympathetic for a heroine. Right away in the first scene, with those ranchers ridin’ the range, she gallops off yahooing to harass a poor calf, thinking it frightfully amusing to let it know “who’s boss”, though as the two participants of this chase act out, it’s not easy to tell which is the silly cow. I think the scene was designed to show her spirit, or something. Her rather kitsch cowgirl dude costume doesn’t help either. It’s oil that is polluting that creek, and killing the cattle, and unscrupulous oil tycoon Tanner (Lloyd Gough) is responsible, though he laughs at Cherokee’s claims for compensation, even though her dad (Harry Shannon) was killed when a gusher sent falling debris down on his head. So Cherokee lost herd, parent and ranch in the same afternoon, which must have been a bit of a bummer.

 

As the story pans out, Cherokee changes, thanks to the drilling expertise of Brad, from an angry ex-cattlewoman to a greedy oil baron before our very eyes, out-smarting even Tanner. In fact in the end she and Tanner merge their businesses into a greedy corporate conglomerate and rape the land, to the dismay of the local ranchers and farmers, especially Native American Jim Redbird (Pedro Armendariz), who loves her, and the ruthless oilpersons squeeze ever more barrels of crude out of the oilfield and turn beautiful Oklahoma into a nightmarish landscape from hell.

 

But a lot of it is fancy parties at the mansion she buys, and not Western at all, and not even good.

 

The picture was a Walter Wanger production and apparently Wanger had been aiming at Hoagy Carmichael, Canyon Passage-style, to do the wry narration and sing a couple of songs, notably the title ballad, but Carmichael was too expensive so a cut-price version was found in the shape of Chill Wills, who does his best “as a poor man’s Will Rogers folksy philosopher” as Schwartz says (he did in fact have a nice voice).

 

Checking that she’s oily enough (Alamy photo)

 

It is also said that Wanger wanted Robert Mitchum instead of Foster but by ’49 Mitchum was a hot property and wasn’t going to do lightweight stuff like this, and certainly not for peanuts.

 

Paul E Burns, Lane Chandler, Iron Eyes Cody, Franklyn Farnum, Chief Yowlachie, Jay Silverheels and even John Dehner all have bit parts but are uncredited, and I didn’t spot half of them.

 

The picture did get Oscar-nominated for special effects, which were indeed quite advanced for the time, and this was due especially to the last-reel fire in the oilfield. The picture’s in Technicolor and shot by Winton Hoch, no less (Oscar winner the same year for She Wore a Yellow Ribbon), so RKO were clearly throwing some budget at it. Though titled Tulsa, there are only a couple of perfunctory stock-footage shots of the Oklahoma city, the action being filmed elsewhere.

 

In the end, Redbird going from the steadiest (boringly so, really) character in the story to a raving nutcase and pyromaniac in the space of three minutes (poor Armendariz, having to act that out) and the extremely unconvincing and equally rapid last-minute conversion of Cherokee from money-grabbing oil magnate to a conservationist Greta Thunberg would have admired, were down to poor writing and directing, I fear, and the two changes come close to ruining the movie, or at least making it laughable, which I suppose amounts to the same thing.

 

Sincerely, dear e-readers, if you haven’t seen this one, you have missed little.

 

But then it isn’t a Western, so who cares?

 

 

3 Responses

  1. I liked it — a lot, except for Preston. Tulsa needs a real leading-man not a character guy. On the other hand, what would you expect if Ed Begley were your father?

    About Beau Geste, Gary Cooper is in it, and top billed, but the male part is played by Ray Milland, who gets the girl. An aside: Only a lunatic would believe Cooper, Preston, and Milland were brothers.

    Otherwise, Tulsa is great. I saw it in 1949 and wanted to move there, just to see and hear Chill Wills. That fantasy still holds.

  2. I like Chill Wills, especially the younger, slimmer version who appeared in George O’Brien’s early RKO westerns. But a little bit of the guy can go a long, long way.

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