It’s generally recognized that the original “boy from Oklahoma” was the folksy, rope-twirling philosopher Will Rogers. So there’s a delicious and slightly ironic twist to Warner Bros. Studio’s DVD reissue of the 1954 oater “The Boy From Oklahoma,” which starred the Okie icon’s son, Will Rogers Jr., who was born in New York City and grew up in Beverly Hills.
Offered by the Warner Archive Collection manufactured-on-demand (MOD) DVD series, which has thankfully rescued this and scores of other mid-level programmers from the studio’s vaults, “The Boy From Oklahoma” is a surprisingly crisp, smart and complex Western directed by the studio’s workhorse helmer Michael Curtiz (whose high-end credits include “Casablanca” and “Mildred Pierce,” among others).
It’s Curtiz’s astute direction, keen casting eye and confident, efficient grasp of cinematic storytelling that raises this genre picture a cut above.
The novelty of casting the junior Rogers in the cowboy lead is trumped a bit by a film made two years earlier, in which Curtiz directed “The Will Rogers Story” with the younger Rogers in the role of his dad. Talk about meta-casting.
“The Boy From Oklahoma” stars the laconic Rogers as Tom Brewster, a timid law student, pacifist and teetotaler who comes to a dusty Western frontier town that’s in the throes of a political power struggle. The town’s mayoral campaign pits upright nice guy Paul Evans (Louis Jean Heydt) against corrupt gambler Barney Turlock (Anthony Caruso).
When Turlock wins the office in a landslide, he looks around for a milquetoast sheriff to do his bidding, and his eye falls quickly on Tom, who fares very badly in the local target shooting contest, although he turns out to be a skilled horseman and roper.
Tom initially turns the job down, until he witnesses a robbery of an incriminating letter left behind by the previous sheriff, who was brutally murdered.
Determined to find and punish the sheriff’s killer, Tom takes the badge and, inspired by Katie Brannigan (Nancy Olson), the dead sheriff’s sassy, sharp-shooting daughter, gradually transforms from a namby-pamby law student into a brainy, brawny lawman to be reckoned with.
Surrounded by a supporting cast of pros – ranging from the slickly sinister Caruso and the spitfire Olson to Lon Cheney Jr. as the town’s rabble-rousing drunk and Wallace Ford as Turlock’s shopkeeping lackey – Rogers turned in a solid if understated performance. Clearly, he lacked the charisma of his famous father, but he had enough of his dad’s aw-shucks modesty and wry humor to make Tom a most unlikely yet likable Western hero (note that a few years later the character became a model for TV’s “Sugarfoot,” about a timid Easterner who comes to Oklahoma Territory to practice the law).
“The Boy From Oklahoma” comes without any DVD bonus extras, but Sooners who’ve followed the ups and downs of Will Junior’s eventful but finally tragic life it’ll be a pleasure to see him roping and riding like a born cowboy in this solid Western.
- Dennis King