For your Plains States pleasure, here are eight memorable films set in Oklahoma.
Oklahoma has been part of the history of movies since 1904, when Thomas Edison shot a western on the 101 Ranch near Ponca City. Since then most films set in Oklahoma were filmed somewhere else, but the best of them captured the spirit of the Sooner State, from a groundbreaking musical to westerns featuring genre icons John Wayne, Randolph Scott, and Joel McCrea.
The Passing of the Oklahoma Outlaws (1915)
One of the few movies set in Oklahoma that was also filmed there, The Passing of the Oklahoma Outlaws was directed by Bill Tilghman, the former Dodge City marshal who counted Bat Masterson and Wyatt Earp among his friends. He shot the film on location in Lincoln and Payne counties, in some of the hideouts used by outlaws in the Wild West era. Tilghman plays himself opposite Arkansas Tom Jones, the only survivor of the Doolin-Dalton Gang.
The first western to win the Academy Award for Best Picture (there wouldn’t be another until Unforgiven 61 years later), Cimarron stars Richard Dix and Irene Dunne as homesteaders in the great Oklahoma land rush of 1889. That historic event was re-created with a mad dash of horses and stagecoaches across 40 acres, captured by 47 cameras positioned by movie action specialist B. Reaves Eason.
The Oklahoma Kid (1939)
After the box office success of the crime drama Angels with Dirty Faces, Warner Bros. re-teamed James Cagney and Humphrey Bogart in a very different setting — Oklahoma in 1893. Cagney plays the title role, a gunfighter seeking revenge after his father is framed for murder. Critics doubted the stars’ cowboy credentials but were entertained nonetheless: “There’s something entirely disarming about the way [Cagney] has tackled horse opera, not pretending a minute to be anything but New York’s Jimmy Cagney all dressed up for a dude ranch,” wrote The New York Times. Bogart was less tactful, telling his costar “In that 10-gallon hat, you look like a mushroom.”
In Old Oklahoma (1943)
John Wayne plays a cowboy who romances school marm Martha Scott, while trying to prevent a corrupt oilman from drilling on Oklahoma Indian lands. In Old Oklahoma also features Dale Evans, four years before she married Roy Rogers, as a singer named Cuddles. No wonder Roy married her.
Return of the Badmen (1948)
In this sequel to Badman’s Territory (1946), an all-star team of western outlaws (The Sundance Kid, Cole Younger, Billy the Kid, the Dalton Gang) joins forces in Oklahoma territory to unleash a reign of terror. Standing in their way is Randolph Scott — so you know that’s not going to end well for the outlaws.
“Meet Cherokee Lansing, Half Wildcat ... Half Angel ... All Woman!” With an ad line like that no wonder audiences flocked to Tulsa, which gave Susan Hayward one of her best tough-girl roles as Cherokee. Oklahoma’s abundant oilfields are the backdrop for this torrid tale of romance and revenge. The film also managed to slip in some advocacy for environmental conservation and responsible land development, decades before that became a political cause.
The film adaptation of the landmark Richard Rodgers/Oscar Hammerstein Broadway musical captures much of the magic of the stage show, despite recasting all of the lead roles. Producers wanted to shoot the movie in the Sooner State, but when no suitable location was found they opted for Nogales, Arizona.
The Oklahoman (1957)
By the 1950s, Joel McCrea had discovered he enjoyed spending time as a real rancher on his spread in Camarillo, California, as much as he did playing ranchers in movies. So he settled on a schedule that allowed him to do both, making a series of low-budget westerns that were each shot in three six-day workweeks. Typical of these is The Oklahoman, with McCrea as a quick-on-the-draw physician. B-movies they may have been, but with more character and substance than many of today’s overstuffed blockbusters.
Read more about Oklahoma in our C&I July 2016 travel issue on newsstands June 7.