The Oklahoman is–well, I don’t want to sell it short because its discussion of racism and prejudice are rather straightforward and singular for pictures of its era–but at its core, the film’s a love triangle between fifty-two year-old Joel McCrea, thirty-five year-old Barbara Hale and twenty-six year-old Gloria Talbott. Talbott’s supposed to be playing an eighteen year-old, McCrea’s probably not supposed to be fifty-something, but I imagine mid-thirties is the intended age for Hale. McCrea’s character is likable enough, but it’s never clear why he’s got to beat women off with a stick. Maybe because he’s the star.
The film’s at its best when it’s concentrating on McCrea’s intolerance for bigotry (Talbott’s playing a Native American, with Michael Pate as her father and McCrea’s friend). The script’s strangely subtle in these scenes. There’s no explanation of what makes McCrea different from the rest of the settlers (there is a fine scene with some guys sitting around after Pate is suspected of murder, deciding they’d understand if he’d all of a sudden just decided to start killing whites). Not much about The Oklahoman is subtle, so this approach sets it apart. Unfortunately, since it doesn’t appear to be intentionally subtle–McCrea doesn’t have a belief in equality, equality is the way it is–there’s a lot the film misses about itself. The villain, Brad Dexter (who gives a pretty lame performance, but he just needs to be nasty so it doesn’t hurt much), isn’t just a bigot, he’s also a would-be oilman, lousy neighbor and aspiring rapist. But he’s also a cattleman and Hale’s a cattlewoman so she defends him in a couple arguments with McCrea. The film doesn’t seem to recognize she’s not just coming off as a cattle rancher herself, it pushes the line to where she’s coming off as a fellow bigot. McCrea’s performance, for the most part, certainly plays like he recognizes it. The chemistry between McCrea and Hale as a romantic couple is mediocre at best. When they’re peers and neighbors who argue–but hold some generally similar opinions and can’t resolve everything else with them–it’s great. Hale’s a strong female character in those scenes.
The Oklahoman has a number of strong female characters, actually. Talbott’s decent, has some good scenes. The script shortchanges her. Verna Felton is awesome as Hale’s mother. She gets the best lines in the film. Esther Dale’s got a small part as McCrea’s five year-old daughter’s caretaker. It’s never explained why McCrea waited until his late forties to start a family… but if the film had taken his age into account, it would have had a lot more potential. The last fifteen minutes or so flushes most of the characters’ strengths. The film forgets Hale’s a cattle rancher, forgets Talbott’s a strong person, ignores daughter Mimi Gibson’s established character. Just before the last scene, Hale explains how it’s going to be and it seems to make sense… except the next scene is completely different and makes no sense.
The film’s not self-conscious about being socially conscious, which is nice. But it does force a romance where there isn’t one and ignores the potential of exploring the characters and situations it creates.
But it moves really fast.
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