Tuesday, November 30, 2010

The Oklahoma Cyclone (1930)

Back again with another classic western I was lucky enough to win at Laurie Powers’ pulpwriter.com. This time, we’re going way back to an early Bob Steele picture, The Oklahoma Cyclone, made in 1930. It’s one of the four movies in the box set of DVDs that came from OutWest, Bobbi Jean and Jim Bell’s well-stocked online western store.

Steele (real name Robert Bradbury, Jr.) was the son of director Robert N. Bradbury, who began directing films in 1920 after a short career as a movie actor. Bob and his twin brother had already been in many short films before 1927 when at age 20 he first appeared as Bob Steele in a silent western, Mojave Kid.

The Oklahoma Cyclone is a heck of a film. Made at a time when Hollywood was converting to sound movies, it shows a silent sensibility in its photography and editing. The opening shots of a lone rider pursued by five other men on horseback across a rolling landscape are beautiful in that visually expressive style of 1920s films.

Not surprisingly, there is also some awkwardness in the use of sound technology. The actors speak lines slowly and deliberately for the microphones. For a western, a little too much of the film takes place indoors, where on a set sound could be better recorded.

Scenes are sometimes stiffly arranged in a tableau to be played out before a stationary camera. Almost no lines are spoken with actors on horseback. For all that, the dialogue is often energetic, fierce, and sometimes comical.

Hacienda, photo by Carleton E. Watkins (1829-1916)
The plot. Steele plays the title character, and also goes by the name Jimmy Smith. He’s on the run from the law when we first meet him. He hides in a barn at the Santa Maria hacienda, owned by a Mexican, Don Pablo, with a lovely daughter, Carmelita, and a house full of servants.

The ranch’s cattle herds are taken care of by foreman McKim (Charles King) and his cowhands. The bunch of them are actually thieves, and as the outlaw known as Black Diablo, McKim has a big reward on his head. Admring Jimmy for his spunk, he’s happy to add the young cowboy to the gang.

There are problems right away. The other cowboys don’t like this confident, young newcomer, who has a habit of singing sentimental songs and playing the harmonica. McKim, who has designs on Carmelita, quickly realizes that she is far more interested in Jimmy than himself.

Vaquero, California, 1830s, Time Life Books
Out on roundup, one of McKim’s henchmen, Rawhide (Slim Whitaker), insults Jimmy and tries to get him to draw his gun. But Jimmy is too fast for him, and after shooting the gun from the man's hand, they have a fistfight. Outweighed and only five-foot-five, Jimmy punches the crap out of Rawhide while the other cowboys watch in amazement.

Meanwhile, Jimmy wins the friendship of one of the cowhands, Slim (Al St. John), who encourages him to go straight and make a better life for himself. He learns from Slim that there are plans afoot to rob a bank, then cross the border into Mexico, where the gang will be rich enough to retire from a life of crime.

Jimmy then eludes an attempt by McKim to trap him, this time in Carmelita’s room. He has jumped through an open window and confesses his love for her. She plants a big kiss on his lips before he leaves again. Later, he joins the gang on their bank job.

Afterwards they arrive at a saloon south of the border (where in Prohibition-era Hollywood the cowhands can order up something stronger than coffee). But first they have to oust a Mexican bandit, Gomez, who draws on them, and Jimmy is forced to shoot the gun from his hand. Arms raised in surrender, Gomez has to listen as Slim sings a teasing song to him about a “lavender cowboy.” Meanwhile, the flapper-style saloon girls are waiting for them to start spending their money.

Before the ending, there are some surprises, another fistfight, a father-and-son reunion, some gunfire, and a couple of fatalities before the posse arrives and law and order are restored.

Bob Steele, The Carson City Kid (1940)
Some thoughts. Bob Steele makes a handsome young hero in this film. He has an expressive face and not a bad singing voice. He has an agile physical presence, and in fights he moves like a boxer. At the start of the film, he makes a great entrance in dark clothes and a black hat, and wearing 2-3 days of dark whiskers on his face.

Steele went on to make over 200 films, a great many of them B-westerns. Then in 1939 he appeared as the not-so-likable Curley in Of Mice and Men (with Burgess Meredith and Lon Chaney, Jr.). In later years, he was a regular in the TV series F-Troop.

The Oklahoma Cyclone features almost an honor roll of seasoned actors who would have long careers in B-westerns. Al St. John (Slim) began appearing before long as the comic character actor Fuzzy Q. Jones and was cast in well over 300 films.

Charles King (McKim) was the perennial B-western villain, appearing over his career in over 400 films. Slim Whitaker (Rawhide) was a young cowboy when he took a job as extra and stuntman for Broncho Billy films. He also specialized in B-western villainy and was in 350 films over a period of 30 years.

Last and hardly least was Cliff Lyons, one of McKim’s henchmen, who’d been a rodeo rider and was to make a career as stuntman and stunt coordinator. He was considered an equal of legendary Yakima Canutt. I'm guessing it's Lyons doing the hard riding in the film's opening sequence. He takes a horse down a long steep grade of loose rock. Then at full gallop he loosens the saddle and removes the bridle from the horse so he can take cover with them as soon as he jumps off.

The beautiful and apparently bilingual Rita Rey (Carmelita) had only a brief career in movies. Her seemingly authentic Spanish accent was more than a little thick for monolingual audiences. Interestingly, a fair amount of Spanish is spoken in the film. Steele’s Jimmy claims to speak Spanish as well, after a stay in Mexico where, he says with a grin, “the señoritas taught me – plenty.”

Cowboy, art by AHF El Vaquero
Eyebrows may have been raised at the Hayes Office by the sexual innuendo in the film. Not to mention Al St. John’s occasional camping and the ambiguity of the buddying up (“I’m feelin’ like a blushin’ female,” Jimmy says when McKim warmly shakes his hand). But enforcement of the Production Code was still a few years away.

All told, this is an enjoyable film. As one of the first all-talking B-westerns, it hasn’t found the right balance between talk and action. Some of the action, like the bank robbery, takes place entirely off screen. So do the secret meetings of Jimmy and Carmelita, where he comes into possession of her handkerchief.

I’m guessing it’s aiming for more of an adult audience than the host of formula B-westerns that followed in the 1930s. As such, it’s definitely got its enjoyable moments.

Image credits: wikimedia.org

Coming up: Frank H. Spearman, Whispering Smith (1906)


  1. Have not seen this one. Man there were a lot of films made in those days that we don't really hear anything about anymore.

  2. I saw a lot of Steele's westerns on TV when I was a kid. I liked them all pretty well, though I don't remember any of the titles.

  3. Bob Steele was one of my heroes as a kid and I was surprised to see him in the credits of "Of Mice and Men" shown over the weekend on TCM, thinking he was strictly in the traditional cowboy films.