Jeff Arnold’s West

The blog of a Western fan, for other Western fans

The Boy from Oklahoma (Warner Bros, 1954)

 

Delightful

 

The Boy from Oklahoma was Michael Curtiz’s last Western at Warners, and it has often been regarded as a minor, even disappointing picture compared with the Errol Flynn ones, but unjustly so because it’s an absolute charmer. And it was directed with vim and pace such as to mark it out, in my view, as one of the best oaters Curtiz did (for he wasn’t really a natural in the genre).

 

Casablanca it wasn’t but still highly enjoyable

 

It starred the former publisher of the Beverly Hills Citizen newspaper, wartime Congressman and soldier Will Rogers Jr, who would later be special assistant to the Commission on Indian Affairs in the Johnson administration. Curtiz had directed Rogers in a biopic of his father, The Story of Will Rogers, in 1952 and as an actor Rogers had a folksy aw-shucks charm, distinctly reminiscent of the Destry­-period James Stewart. He would later be one of the hosts of the syndicated re-runs of Death Valley Days and he made his last feature Western, Wild Heritage (review soon), in 1958. He had (probably inherited) expert roping skills and he shows them off throughout The Boy from Oklahoma. He was an all-round natural in a light-hearted, maybe even – the title reinforcing this – slightly juvenile Western.

 

Will Jr

 

Curtiz and Rogers tried hard to get that title changed to something a bit more dramatic and grown up – Rogers was in his mid-40s at the time and hardly a boy – but the studio insisted.

 

 

Western Will

 

The screenplay was by Frank Davis (Springfield Rifle, The Story of Will Rogers and later The Indian Fighter and an episode of the show Sugarfoot, which was spun off from The Boy) and Winston Miller (as an actor, the little boy in The Iron Horse but as a writer, many excellent Westerns, notably My Darling Clementine), from a Saturday Evening Post story, The Sheriff is Scared, by Michael Fessier (his Woman They Almost Lynched had been made the year before), and it had enough quirkiness to hold the interest and distinguish the picture as more than a run-of-the-mill B-Western (though Warners allotted a very modest budget).

 

The picture was shot by Hitchcock favorite Robert Burks in WarnerColor (which still looks good; it doesn’t always last so well) on Warner Ranch locations.

 

The story tells of a young law student, Tom Brewster, persuaded to delay his trip to Lincoln, NM and become sheriff of Bluerock, who upholds the law in town without a gun, using homespun wisdom (and his rope) instead. He falls for the feisty daughter of the previous (murdered) peace officer, Kate (Nancy Olson, good as the tomboy gal with a gun). In this way the picture looks back a bit to Destry Rides Again and forward to Support Your Local Sheriff!

 

It’s lurve (eventually)

 

Probably the best feature of The Boy from Oklahoma, though, is the outstanding cast of character actors. The chief villain is one of those classic besuited crooked saloon owners with a mustache, Barney Turlock, who has just got himself elected mayor again in what was undoubtedly a rigged election. Turlock is played by the great Anthony Caruso, who had been doing square-jawed bad guys onscreen since 1940, was a close personal friend of Alan Ladd’s and appeared in eleven of Ladd’s pictures, and graced 25 feature Westerns altogether, ending with a handful of regrettable spaghettis but I suppose we must forgive him.

 

Caruso with henchmen Sheb ‘n’ Slim

 

Jim Griffith too

 

Of course any proper saloon owner-crook has to have henchmen, that was de rigueur, but Turlock’s are especially well qualified. They are derby-hatted drunk James Griffith, burly cowpoke Slim Pickens and their boss, the excellent Sheb Wooley. Not bad, huh. Not only that, Turlock has the town postmaster in his pocket and that’s Wallace Ford. When he really needs muscle, Turlock calls in his cousin, who is none other than two-gun outlaw Billy the Kid (Tyler MacDuff). How is a sheriff without a gun going to face down that lot?

 

Even Billy the Kid

 

The éminence grise of the town is the old JP, who keeps his counsel and has lasted to the age of 72, he says, by doing so. That’s our old pal Clem Bevans, 75.

 

Will, Clem and Wally

 

Louis Jean Heydt is a (not very nice) townsman, singer/bandleader and later talk-show host Merv Griffin is another townsman, who is soft on Kate (though of course he won’t get far, she being destined for the arms of the sheriff). Lon Chaney Jr is the scripture-quoting drunken Crazy Charlie, rather like Indian Charlie in Wyatt Earp movies, whom the young sheriff talks down and persuades to take up residence in the jail where he will get free meals and be away from his wife.

 

Lon was born in Oklahoma too (there’s Charlie Watts ducking out of the way)

 

Monte Blue, Frank Borzage, Harry Lauter and Jack Perrin are other townsmen. Denver Pyle is the blacksmith. Charles Watts is the bar tender in the saloon. Honestly, you couldn’t ask for a better cast.

 

Denver is the smith

 

There’s also a little boy (Skip Torgerson) with whom the sheriff pals up – he teaches the lad to rope. This gives another juvenile slant to the Western.

 

The picture is as much a crime investigation yarn as a Western, as the new sheriff sets about solving the murder of his predecessor. Someone calls him a gumshoe at one point and I thought that sounded a bit too modern for a Western but actually I discovered that the earliest use of the word gumshoe is from 1841, in the Wheeling (West Virginia) Times & Advertiser. Who knew?

 

There’s a horse race (unfortunately disfigured by the actors riding fake horses with back-projection, because Nancy Olson was afraid of horses), a shootin’ contest (won by Kate), a stage hold-up, a necktie party, a last-reel showdown, all the necessary accoutrements. Sheriff Tom defuses the wild and angry Billy the Kid, who is quaffing whiskey, and arrests Turlock for selling alcohol to a minor.

 

Nancy proves an apt pupil

 

Quite frankly, I thought this one was entirely delightful, one of the most enjoyable light-hearted Westerns I’ve seen in ages.

 

 

2 Responses

  1. This one has me mildly intrigued – what a great supporting cast! I have a soft spot for movies like these, not every Western has to be an action packed shoot ‘em up or Shakespearian psychodrama – sometimes a fun little movie that doesn’t take itself too seriously is just what’s needed.

    After falling down the rabbit hole trying to find it online or through our local library looks like I’m left with watching it on a local TV station’s late night movie – at least it’s not the late, late movie! Or I could buy a copy and then sell it on…easier to just stay up late and tolerate the commercials.

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