The Oklahoman

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Allied Artists Pictures grew out of Poverty Row specialists Monogram and produced and distributed movies from the late 40s through to the 70s. The brainchild of Walter Mirisch, the studio aimed to produce what he termed B+ movies, promising a step up from the lower production values Monogram had been associated with. What resulted was a range of films from the instantly forgettable to the memorable, and everything in between. For this blogathon celebrating the work of the studio I’ve chosen a late 50s western, The Oklahoman (1957) starring Joel McCrea, one of the genuine icons of the genre. It’s a brisk tale of love, race and oil, charging home at just under 80 minutes and never pausing for breath.

It’s 1870 in the Oklahoma Territory and a couple of wagons bound for California have stopped off, the reason being that a baby is on the way. Tragically, the mother dies in childbirth and leaves the grieving father, John Brighton (Joel McCrea), with an infant girl and a tough choice to make. The experience has sapped his pioneering spirit and, being a doctor, he decides to stay put in the small town and set up in practice. We jump forward a few years and the child is growing up, reaching that stage where she needs a maternal figure in her life. Brighton finds himself in the enviable position of having two attractive women vying for his affections – the first is the young Indian girl, Maria (Gloria Talbott), he’s hired to look after his daughter, while the other is a widowed rancher, Anne Barnes (Barbara Hale). Thus we’re presented with a romantic triangle with the somewhat bemused doctor as the focal point. Westerns tend to use change as the engine to drive their dramatic content, sometimes it’s changes to the social structure or the spread of civilization and the establishment of the rule of law. In this case, the evolution of society is underway with the absorption of the native people into the community already in progress. That theme is addressed of course but there’s also the matter of shifting economic priorities at play, providing the motivation for the actions of the villains and in the process threatening to cast a shadow over the native-settler relationship. When leading rancher Cass Dobie (Brad Dexter) becomes aware of the large oil deposits on the neighboring land owned by Maria’s father (Michael Pate) he sees the direction the economic wind is blowing. If he can’t get the land by buying it, he’s quite prepared to resort to whatever means are necessary, regardless of who gets in his way or what social damage is caused.

While the oil angle is interesting and a little unusual for a western, it’s the treatment of the racial aspect which stands out particularly in this film. Right from the beginning the Indian characters are shown to be working at integration into white society and, even more notably, being accepted on those terms. The conflicts of the past haven’t been forgotten of course, as a conversation among a few town residents on the boardwalk one evening demonstrates, but they’re spoken of in a philosophical and progressive way – there’s an explicit admission of wrongdoing and an awareness that the fighting had justifications from both sides. What’s more, the question of racial tension only rears its head when the villains force it onto the agenda, and even then those who would seek to reopen old wounds and exploit the resulting hostility remain in the minority; there are as many and perhaps more voices expressing support for the Indians.

The Oklahoman came from the pen of Daniel B Ullman, who had a long list of writing credits to his name. Latterly, he wrote extensively for television but also contributed a significant number of western scripts, including Canyon River, Wichita, At Gunpoint and Face of a Fugitive, to name just a few. The cameraman was another vastly experienced guy, Carl Guthrie, and he helps give the whole thing a look which at least partially belies the modest budget. Director Francis D Lyon started out as an editor and did the bulk of his work for TV. His feature credits are limited (he did take charge of the rather nifty Escort West though) but he does fine with this movie and certainly keeps everything moving at pace.

All too often, the romantic elements can feel like a superficial adjunct, something bolted on to pad the running time or broaden the appeal of a movie. However, with The Oklahoman that’s not an issue; the romance, and the jealousies and confusion arising from it fold neatly into the plot and are integral to the picture. Joel McCrea plays what might be termed a typical McCrea role, that of a stolid and upright individual maneuvered by circumstance into a conflicted position. I think the key to McCrea’s success and enduring popularity among western fans is the smoothly professional way he handled such parts. As he aged he grew in courtliness and took on a more introspective air. That served him well in his scenes with both Gloria Talbott and Barbara Hale, the respectful reserve striking the right tone for a character who has long lived alone and has perhaps come to accept that his path is destined to lie in that direction – the gradual uncoiling of this stiffness adds a whole lot of charm and poignancy to the film. Brad Dexter had an unctuous quality to him, a slippery lack of sincerity, which again is used to good effect here. The ready smile is never any more than a paper-thin facade and you can almost see the self-absorbed computations going on behind it. In support there are nicely written parts for Michael Pate, Anthony Caruso, Verna Felton and Esther Dale. Furthermore, we get to see genre stalwart Ray Teal in a rare sympathetic role.

The Oklahoman is available on DVD in the US as part of the Warner Archive line and there’s also a European edition, which I own. The film is part of a 2-disc set from Spain, paired up with Jacques Tourneur’s Wichita. The transfer is good enough without being especially noteworthy. Presented in anamorphic scope and boasting generally strong colors, it can look a bit soft from time to time but is in reasonable shape for all that. The disc is a very basic one with no extra features whatsoever and the Spanish subtitles are optional and can be disabled either through the setup menu or on the fly via the remote. I’m very fond of these short, punchy westerns from the late 50s and anything with Joel McCrea in the lead ought to be recommendation enough in itself. Check it out, if you get the chance.

This piece is offered as part of the Allied Artists Blogathon hosted by Toby at 50 Westerns from the 50s. I’d like to suggest readers visit the site and check out the other contributions to this blogathon dedicated to the films of Allied Artists by following the link above. Alternatively, feel free to click on the badge below, which will take you to the same destination.

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34 thoughts on “The Oklahoman

  1. I was joust going to say I look forward to getting this – but then realised that, of course on your say so, I already have the Spanish DVD with WICHITA! So will definitely get round tho this sooner rather than later – as ever thanks, 🙂

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  2. A fine choice for this Blogathon, Colin, and an interesting review. I’m so glad someone chose one of Joel McCrea’s several Allied Artists westerns to write about. Coincidentally, I only recently acquired the Warner Archive ‘scope print of this and watched it only last week, so it’s still fresh in my mind. (Not the first time but previous viewings had been pan & scan).
    McCrea made better westerns than ‘THE OKLAHOMAN’ but I am a huge fan of his and even lesser McCrea still hits the spot for me. Good choice!

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  3. Neat choice Colin, I am glad that you picked up on the racial aspect in the story.
    I don’t know if Westerners sitting outside saloons would have had such liberal views in 1870 though.
    It’s a shame that McCrea’s relationship with Jacques Tourneur never carried on beyond
    WICHITA;I feel Tourneur would have made a more dynamic movie,than Lyon.
    Interestingly this film played as a main feature in England.

    Regarding the subject of Native Americans and “integration into white society” you might want
    to seek out Phil Karlson’s BLACK GOLD recently released by Warner Archive and soon to
    be released in Spain.
    BLACK GOLD too is an Allied Artists picture and although set in the present day (1949) it
    does depict Native Americans moving up the social scale when oil is discovered on their land.

    Back to Lyon-ESCORT WEST has it’s admirers but I’m not one of them.It’s a pity John Wayne
    (who’s production company made the film) never took the role himself with a bigger budget and
    a better director. I feel the film would have been a great vehicle for him. That’s not taking
    anything away from Victor Mature who is very good in the film. I just feel the vehicle was strong
    enough to have been something more.
    I’m sorry Colin but I find Lyon one of the dullest of directors and his other McCrea film GUNSIGHT
    RIDGE could have used a far better director.

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    • Black Gold sounds like it might be interesting. Lyon wasn’t hugely experienced when it came to features but I feel his work on this film was OK and it never hangs around or outstays its welcome.

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  4. Pingback: The Allied Artists Blogathon. | 50 Westerns From The 50s.

  5. A very good choice for the blogathon, Colin! I enjoyed this one very much. I like the way you capture McCrea’s “respectful reserve” and also the courtly manners of his Western characters. His characters were both well-mannered and thoughtful, a very appealing combination. I found THE OKLAHOMAN a very solid film for McCrea, not as good as his best (WICHITA may be my favorite of the ’50s), but still very enjoyable.

    As an aside, I’m also glad to see the positive words in your review for ESCORT WEST, a film I like a great deal.

    Best wishes,
    Laura

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  6. Thank you for your interesting review of The Oklahoman. Honestly, I found this to be the weakest of Daniel Ullman`s output. Incidentally I prefer Gunsight Ridge and Escort West from Lyon over this. Best regards.

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  7. The “trash addict” in me has fond memories of Lyon’s CASTLE OF EVIL which has a cast
    way above this sort of nonsense. Scott Brady,Virginia Mayo,David Brian,Hugh Marlowe all
    at very low points in their careers. Mayo plays a character called “Sable” Polaski!!!
    Nice to see Lyon worthy of some sort of discussion.

    Off topic….
    I see Koch Media still have their on-going deal with Universal running alongside their
    “Classic Westerns In High Definition” imprint.
    They have just announced two new Blu Rays of Universal Westerns…Rudolph Mate’s
    MISSISSIPPI GAMBLER and Jesse Hibbs’ THE SPOLIERS.
    I’ve never been able to track down an acceptable version of the latter so that’s good news,and
    it’s announced as being in 2.0 widescreen to boot…great news.

    Even further off topic……
    Colin,did you notice that the BFI are releasing BEAT GIRL on Blu Ray.
    A guilty pleasure to be sure but a time capsule if ever there was one.

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      • Yep! I love the job Koch do on their high def Universal Westerns.
        Interesting that imdb lists 2.0 as the correct ratio.
        I received the Koch Blu Ray of GUN FOR A COWARD this morning and from a
        cursory look it’s a major improvement over the DVD

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        • Gun for a Coward looked OK on DVD in my opinion, maybe a little heavy, but could stand an upgrade. I’ve no doubt the new Blu-ray is an improvement. I really admire Koch’s dedication to the western too.

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  8. Always liked The Oklahoman and its cast. By the way, that poster isn’t one of the best! Michael Pate plays a very sympathetic role in this, quite unlike his ruthless gunman in Randolph Scott’s A Lawless Street. Actually Pate played a similar sympathetic Indian role in another McCrea western, The Tall Stranger.
    Hope you are home and well.

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    • It’s a characteristic Dexter was able to convey very successfully and he could use it either in an endearing or a more threatening way. There is indeed a terrific cast and that’s one of the big attractions of the film for me.

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  9. “As he aged he grew in courtliness and took on a more introspective air. ”

    That’s a wonderful description of later Joel McCrea. Of course, he could vary this and do something different–memorably in FORT MASSACRE–but mostly rings variations on this persona and it’s always effective. The post-WICHITA movies may not be his best as a group but there is little to dislike for me and of course the qualities you describe in him contribute memorably to the sublime testament of RIDE THE HIGH COUNTRY that followed the 50s ones.

    For me, this is a fair account of THE OKLAHOMAN as well as I remember it. I only saw it once and my memory is that was pan and scan on TV so want to make a point to get back to it in proper anamorphic presentation. Even with a lesser director like Lyon, one wants to see it properly.

    John Knight is always very hard on Lyon, but though he does not mean a lot to me, I think he’s usually capable. To wish for Tourneur makes sense, of course–he was arguably McCrea’s ideal director, given his quietness and subtlety which puts just the right atmosphere around McCrea, and further WICHITA, a hit in its day and the first of AA’s scope and color westerns I believe, is on a level above those ones that followed, but Tourneur, though one of the Western’s greatest directors, was not a specialist in the genre. Just be glad for the three movies he did make with McCrea.

    I like one Lyon movie a lot–his mid 50s U-I horror movie CULT OF THE COBRA which has a rich atmosphere and compelling premise he makes the most of, while among his Westerns, I too like ESCORT WEST (not one of the best 1959 Westerns but I enjoyed it) and maybe GUNSIGHT RIDGE more than THE OKLAHOMAN though would need to see all of these again to say more about it.

    I remember the relationships with the two women here, a good aspect of the story and pretty well done, especially with these actresses. The alluring Gloria Talbott always comes ever well for me, and Barbara Hale does especially in Westerns, where she always seems conspicuously authentic–I’m thinking especially of LAST OF THE COMANCHES, THE LONE HAND (also co-starring with McCrea), and SEMINOLE.

    Thanks for contributing this. You always make me want to see it again, or for the first time.

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    • Thank you, Blake. I don’t mind Lyon – OK, he’s not the most memorable of directors but what I have seen of his work seemed acceptable – it’s not inspired or anything of course yet I don’t feel discouraged when I see him credited.

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  10. I thought I would expand a bit on BLACK GOLD which I mentioned earlier.
    For years I mistakenly thought it was one of those “Wildcatter” pictures.
    Actually the Black Gold in the title refers to a horse.
    Story concerns a Native American couple who adopt a Chinese orphan who goes on to be a
    champion jockey. There is,I believe a degree of fact in the story.
    The film does have moments of racism and mean spiritedness but there is also compassion and
    humanity. There are extremely moving scenes where Anthony Quinn (excellent) in spite of
    his new found wealth and social position,feels a burning desire to still connect to the “old ways”
    These scenes are really well done and very moving.
    I had considered featuring this film for Toby’s Allied Artists blogathon.
    I’m certainly glad I did not after reading Blake’s monolithic piece on HELL TO ETERNITY another
    Karlson picture.
    I hope you get the chance to see BLACK GOLD Colin,I think you will find much to enjoy in this
    film.

    Blake,I don’t think I’m too hard on Lyon a director I find not only dull but his films have no sense of
    urgency. I have never seen CULT OF THE COBRA which has developed some sort of “cult (sorry)
    reputation.
    In Robert Nott’s wonderful book “Last Of The Cowboy Heroes” there is a quote from Gloria Talbott
    who says Lyon basically made sure the actors were on their marks and then told them to say
    their lines……I rest my case!

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  11. Colin
    While I have heard about this one, I have not seen it as of yet. Your first rate review has me adding said title to the list. Thanks

    Gord

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