The Boy From Oklahoma (1954)

Film Review

BOY FROM OKLAHOMA

Release Date: 27 February, 1954

Studio: Warner Bros.

Director: Michael Curtiz

Starring: Will Rogers, Jr., Nancy Olson, Anthony Caruso, Lon Chaney, Jr., Clem Bevans, Sheb Wooley, Slim Pickens, Louis Jean Heydt, Tyler MacDuff, Skippy Torgerson

Screenplay, Frank Davis and Winston Miller; Story by Michael Fessier

Cinematography: Robert Barks

Synopsis

Tom Brewster (Rogers), a correspondence school law student, rides into the town of Blue Rock to mail his law examination papers to Lincoln. Wally Higgins (Ford), postmaster, notices that the letter mailed by Pop Pruty (Bevans), elderly justice of the peace, addressed to the territorial marshal, was written by the late Sheriff Brannigan. Wally informs Barney Turlock (Caruso), saloon owner, mayor, and boss of the town, about the letter. The stage is held up out of Blue Rock and all the mail including the late sheriff’s letter and Tom’s examination papers are stolen. Tom remains in town to get new examination papers. He meets a pretty young lady, Katie Brannigan (Olson) at a dance. but she scorns him.

Turlock proposes that the mild-mannered Tom become the new sheriff. Although he does not wear a gun and his only weapon is a lasso, Tom is elected sheriff and given his badge by Turlock. In his office, Tom is trying on a pair of fine boots when Katie enters and demands he take them off. They belonged to her father, the murdered sheriff, and are too good for weakling Tom. She has come to gather her things from the jail’s living quarters; she will live with her aunt.

Sheriff Brewster proves to be brave, shrewd, and resourceful. He stops drunken Crazy Charlie (Chaney) from shooting up the saloon and gets him to go peacefully to jail. He soon has other miscreants locked up, and Katie is hired to feed them. Assisted by young Johnny Neil (Torgerson), who found the body, Tom investigates the murder of Sheriff Brannigan. At the site where the sheriff’s body was found, Tom discovers an unusual hoof print. Examining the horses tied along the main street, he finds the horse with the unusual shoe belongs to Pete Martin (Wooley), the foreman of Turlock’s ranch. Katie wants to confront Martin, but Tom says they need more evidence.

Turlock decides to get rid of Tom and brings in his cousin, Billy the Kid (MacDuff) to do the job. Tom confronts the Kid who tries to intimidate him, just missing Tom with every shot in his gun. Tom is unmoved, and Billy leaves town in frustration.

Tom threatens to arrest Turlock for giving alcohol to underage Billy. Turlock shows Tom the signed confession of Sheriff Brannigan in which the sheriff states that he worked for Turlock and covered up cattle theft. Tom leaves town rather than disillusion Katie about her father. Pop Pruty, who had mailed the confession and knows it was in the stolen mail, tells Katie the truth about Tom’s departure, and she gets him to come back.

They fool Turlock with a fake letter supposedly written by the Sheriff and send it out on the stage. With the assistance of friendly rancher Paul Evans (Heydt), Tom arrests Martin and Turlock’s other men, including Shorty (Pickens), as they attempt to steal the mail from the stage. Realizing that his men have confessed, Turlock gallops out of town. Tom rides after and lassos him off his horse. Turlock is attempting to shoot Tom when Katie runs up and beats him unconscious with her gun.

After Tom has taken his prisoners to the county jail for trail, he prepares to go east and study law, as he originally intended. He promises Katie that after he obtains his law degree, he will come back to marry her and set up his legal practice in Blue Rock.

Discussion

This enjoyable, leisurely paced western is an unacknowledged reworking of the 1939 film Destry Rides Again with many shared plot elements, particularly the unarmed sheriff hero and his investigation of the mysterious death of the previous sheriff. Western action is reduced in favor of scenes showcasing the hero's bravery, folksy humor, and native shrewdness.

Rogers, Jr., has a pleasant low-key persona, with humor and seriousness appropriately combined. His proficiency with a rope is used to advantage in the plot; the lasso serves as his weapon, he never wears a gun. Rogers, Sr., a fondly remembered movie star and humorist, was expert in rope tricks. Many people in the 1954 audience would have remembered the elder Rogers' aptitude and appreciated this skill in Rogers, Jr., who has some comical moments with it.

Rogers, Jr., had a relatively brief career as an actor. He made five feature films from 1949-1958 in three of which he played his father, whom he closely resembled, most notably in The Story of Will Rogers (1952). In his final film, Wild Heritage (1958), Rogers played a judge. He was active on television in the 50s, starring in episodes of The Ford Television Theater, The Schlitz Playhouse, and Matinee Theater.

A graduate of Stanford University in journalism, Rogers owned and edited the Beverly Hills Clarion for 18 years, from 1935-1953. He hosted The CBS Morning News from 1957-1958. He was a congressman for a year during WWII before going into the tank corps and fighting in the Battle of the Bulge. He ran unsuccessfully for the US Senate in 1946.

His father's legacy was important to Rogers who participated in events held at the Will Rogers State Historic Park in Santa Monica, CA, and at the Will Rogers Memorial & Birthplace in Claremore, OK, commemorative sites donated for public use by the Rogers Family.

Nancy Olson, pretty, vivacious, and wholesome, began her career with featured roles in major productions. She was nominated for a Best Supporting Actress Academy Award for Sunset Blvd. (1950), her third film. Her success in that film led to a series of films with William Holden: Union Station (1950), Force of Arms (1951), and Submarine Command (1951). During the 50s, she appeared in numerous television productions. After the The Absent-Minded Professor (1961) and Son of Flubber (1963), her film roles declined. She has made few appearances since the 70s.

Veteran performers Clem Bevans, Lon Chaney, Wallace Ford, Anthony Caruso, and Louis Jean Heydt enhance the film. Many other veterans are uncredited extras, including Monte Blue who had been a star in silent Warner Bros. features. Westerners Slim Pickens and Sheb Wooley lead the cattle rustlers.

Born in Oklahoma, Sheb Wooley grew up on a farm. He did some rodeo riding in his youth, and his riding experience along with his Oklahoma accent made him a natural for westerns. He appeared in more than 60 movies, most notably as one of the killers in High Noon (1952), and fifty TV shows, including a continuing role on Rawhide (1959-1965). Wooley was also a notable singer and songwriter of country humor songs. His best-known song Purple People Eaters reached #1 on the pop charts in 1958.

Slim Pickens, a drawling former rodeo rider, appeared in numerous films and TV shows, mostly westerns. His most famous characterization, Major "King" Kong, an air force pilot/cowboy, shouts "yahoo!" and waves his Stetson as he rides a nuclear bomb to destruction in Stanley Kubrick's black comedy Dr. Strangelove (1964).

Although he directed a superb series of films including The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938), Casablanca (1942) and Mildred Pierce (1945), Michael Curtiz has never become as celebrated as other first rank "golden age" directors. His films are more identified with the actors (such as Errol Flynn, Humphrey Bogart or Joan Crawford), than the director. Their excellent performances seem to come directly from them, the influence of the director is not readily apparent. Thematically Curtiz was all over the place, because he was an assembly line director at Warner Bros. studios, making the films assigned by the studio. He lacks a signature look or approach; his camera angles, set-ups, and pacing are skillful and efficient, but without identifying details. Conversely, as a master of classic Hollywood-style film grammar, his best work is the very standard against which later auteurist director's "signature looks" are defined. The Boy from Oklahoma exemplifies a Curtiz film: nicely paced, good set-up of scenes, a high level of performance, the story well-realized and professionally told.

The film's title seems somewhat inappropriate. Roger's, Jr., may have had a version of his father's Oklahoma accent, but he was hardly a "Boy". The studio had already had an Oklahoma Kid, starring James Cagney in 1939, and The Man from Oklahoma, starring Roy Rogers in 1945, so they could not use "Kid" or "Man" and "Guy", "Fellow", or similar term lack appeal, so "Boy" may have been the best appellation available.

References

Slim Pickens, 64, Dies of Pneumonia. Variety, December 12, 1983.

Ailing Will Rogers, Jr., 81, Commits Suicide: Obituary: Actor, Journalist and Former Congressman Worked to Ensure Famous Father’s Legacy. by Sonia Nazario. Los Angeles Times, July 11, 1993.

Will Rogers, Jr., Humorist’s Son, Soldier, Politician, and Actor, 81. New York Times, July 11, 1993.

Sheb Wooley. Obituary. Variety, September 29, 2003.