He was born in New York City, raised in Beverly Hills and he was 43 years old when he starred in the title role of “The Boy from Oklahoma.” He may have been a bit old for the “boy” part of the title, and his origins were far from red dirt country, but the name Will Rogers Jr. certainly seemed to make him just right for the role of an Okie.
This amiable oater from 1954 stars the son of Oologah’s favorite son as Tom Brewster, an easygoing drifter who’s studying law by correspondence course. As the story opens, he’s riding into Bluerock, N.M. — a rowdy town where the sheriff was recently killed — to mail in his final exam.
When corrupt Mayor Barney Turlock (Anthony Caruso) discovers this good-natured stranger drinks nothing stronger than sarsaparilla and would rather twirl a rope than ever carry a gun, Brewster is offered the sheriff’s job. He declines, but when his exam papers are taken in a stagecoach robbery, Brewster changes his mind and pins on the badge.
This gets him crossways with the dead sheriff’s daughter, Katie (a feisty Nancy Olson), who has no respect for a man who won’t carry a firearm, especially one who has the audacity to think he can fill her father’s boots. But she begins to have a change of heart when Tom disarms Bible-quoting, trigger-happy town drunk Crazy Charlie (Lon Chaney, Jr.) with some homespun, gospel-based reasoning rather than a revolver. And when he determines to find out who murdered Katie’s father, she starts to feel downright warm toward him.
Meanwhile, Turlock is beginning to realize he’s underestimated Tom, and he sets his henchmen (Slim Pickens, Sheb Wooley, among others) and his cousin, Billy the Kid (Tyler MacDuff) on the folksy lawman.
Will Tom manage to survive and win out with only his rope tricks and his native wits against all this firepower?
This may sound like potential corn on the cob to some, but with a script based on a Saturday Evening Post story by screenwriter Michael Fessier (“You Were Never Lovelier”) and the direction of none other than Michael Curtiz (“Casablanca”), “The Boy from Oklahoma” is unexpectedly well-crafted entertainment. And there are other genuine connections to the Sooner state with the presence of Oklahoma City-born Chaney and Erick, OK-born Wooley. And Rogers Jr. sure looks and sounds like his dad, walking around with that coil of rope in his hand spouting amusing bits of down-home wisdom.
This film became the basis for “Sugarfoot,” a popular 1957-61 Warner Bros. TV series that starred Will Hutchins as Brewster.
“The Boy from Oklahoma” is available from warnerarchive.com.
— Gene Triplett