The Doolins of Oklahoma

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Movies inspired by real life historical people and events can sometimes come in for a bit of stick. It’s common enough to read reviews and see complaints that things didn’t happen as portrayed on the screen. Personally, I have no objection to people pointing out the inaccuracies in such cases, indeed I’ve done so myself on occasion, but I never feel a movie should be judged or criticized too heavily on that score. Ultimately, history is fact and film is art; if the former is a priority, then I feel a well researched history book should be sought out. While I do think film can stimulate an interest in history, and encourage people to dig into the real facts, it fulfills an altogether different function. A movie needs to be evaluated on its own merits, as an artistic endeavor, and granted the license which comes with that. All this is by way of introducing The Doolins of Oklahoma (1949), which uses a set of authentic historical characters, and some events from their lives, to tell a classic western tale. Sure it departs from what is known to have happened but, for me anyway, this doesn’t detract from the quality of the film in the least.

Our story concerns what was known as The Wild Bunch (no, nothing to do with the Peckinpah movie) who raided banks and trains mainly in Kansas and Oklahoma. It all starts with the botched bank robbery in Coffeyville that saw the Dalton gang wiped out, or almost. Bill Doolin (Randolph Scott) was a member of the gang whose horse came up lame, meaning he had to hang back. Having avoided the massacre of his fellow outlaws, Doolin nevertheless gets involved in a shooting that necessitates going on the run. Putting together his own crew, he proceeds to carry on where the ill-fated Daltons left off. However, as the prologue has already stated, this is the last decade of the 19th century and the frontier is closing fast, civilization and the law are spreading and men like Doolin are being squeezed out. Essentially, Doolin and his confederates are men living on borrowed time and they know it – most of the film involves pursuit, and relentless pursuit at that. The posse led by US Marshal Sam Hughes (George Macready) never lets up once they get a handle on Doolin. However, a western of this period has to be about more than mere hold-ups and shootouts, although there are plenty of those on view. Doolin is one of those classic gunmen yearning to leave his violent and lawless past behind him. For a brief period it even looks like he might have managed it too; an attempt to shake off the marshals leads him to a church in the middle of a service and that in turn introduces him to Elaine Burton (Virginia Huston), whom he weds. Doolin adopts a new identity and settles down, but it’s not to be. His old friends turn up and somewhat cruelly expose him to the in-laws, leaving him with little choice but to strap on his guns again and return to banditry. It’s that old familiar theme of the bad man trying to outrun his past and redeem himself. There are no happy Hollywood endings in this movie but, in a sense, he does achieve his goal. Perhaps it’s appropriate for an outlaw like Bill Doolin that he finally gains his desired redemption in an oblique, left-handed fashion.

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Gordon Douglas is a director who I think it’s fair to say has a few fans among regular readers of this blog. I’m quite fond of his work myself and the more I see of it, the more I like it. As was usual with the studio professionals of the era, Douglas made movies in each of the major genres and did notable work in all of them. There’s a tendency to downgrade the efforts of many of these directors by dismissively labeling them journeymen. I find that as one looks deeper into the filmography of a man such as Douglas it becomes apparent how well crafted his films were. There are a number of highly accomplished pictures to be found, containing memorable scenes and moments of great sensitivity. The Doolins of Oklahoma features a number of what I’d term “instances of realization”, points at which the characters become aware of the full import of their actions. Lesser filmmakers can either downplay or over-egg such key moments, thus robbing them of their impact on the viewer. Two scenes spring to mind in this film, where Douglas hits just the right note and leaves us in no doubt regarding their significance: there’s the aftermath of the Coffeyville massacre where Doolin guns down the traitor who betrayed his friends and so seals his own fate in the eyes of the law, and later there’s his reluctant acceptance of the need to leave his new bride despite everything inside him wanting to do just the opposite. Those scenes are not overplayed in any way, nor are they brushed aside. The characters on the screen know how important they are, we know how important they are, and we know it because the director wanted it that way.

Aside from Douglas, there were other influential figures at work behind the camera. Yakima Canutt is noted for his stunt and second unit work on a range of pictures during the classic era – John Ford’s Stagecoach being one of the best known – and his hand is in evidence here. The action scenes have the kind of drive, authenticity and heart-stopping quality often associated with the man. In particular, the climactic stampede bears all the hallmarks of Canutt. And then there’s the cinematography of Charles Lawton, a man capable of capturing beautiful images in both black and white and color. The Doolins of Oklahoma makes excellent use of those Lone Pine locations which are a familiar sight to western fans, and the interior scenes are also expressively and atmospherically lit by this experienced and talented cameraman.

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Randolph Scott’s decision to focus almost exclusively on westerns in the post-WWII years was not only a smart career move on his part, but also benefited the genre enormously. Most leading men of the time were capable of playing western characters, and indeed a significant number of them did so. Having said that, Scott was what I’d call the perfect fit for the genre – his slow Southern delivery and lean, leathery looks simply belonged in the west. More important than that though was the personality of the man, which shone through in all his roles, embodying three key ingredients: dignity, decency and resignation. These characteristics meant he was in a position to play the kind of complex figures who made the post-war western such an interesting and rewarding viewing experience. Scott’s heroes were nearly always three-dimensional because the man playing them invested them with that quality. And his anti-heroes, as is the case in The Doolins of Oklahoma, were all the more credible as a result of the subtle little quirks he brought to them. Two scenes in this movie stood out for me as marvelous examples of Scott at his best. The first occurs when Doolin returns to the home he once reluctantly abandoned, in the hopes of laying up there for a time. On arrival, he’s immediately struck by how well-kept the place is, and then the truth hits home – his wife had never left despite his absence. There’s something remarkably poignant about the way this flash of understanding affects him, and the way his innate integrity colors his reaction. The second comes right at the end, as Doolin and Elaine are reunited in the little church where they first met. This is a moment of destiny, a make-or-break point for the character. Scott’s playing is faultless; as he stands in the dark with the woman he loves in his arms, the regret and sadness wash over his features with the knowledge that there’s only one honorable course of action open to him.

Stoicism is a word often used in relation to Scott, and it could be applied here too. However, it’s the term I’d more readily employ to describe Virginia Huston’s portrayal of Doolin’s wife. Hers was a brief film career, but she was presented with a fine opportunity to shine in this movie. It’s a pivotal role in a sense, not flashy or showy, but one on which much of the script’s logic hangs. It called for a woman whose faith in and loyalty to her husband is sufficiently strong to force a character like Doolin to reassess himself. I think Huston nailed those aspects and thus rendered the relationship with Scott wholly believable. The supporting cast is particularly strong and features parts for George Macready, John Ireland, Jock Mahoney (who apparently also doubled for Scott in the fight scenes), Louise Allbritton, Noah Beery Jr, Frank Fenton and Charles Kemper among others.

The Doolins of Oklahoma was a film I’d never seen until it came out via a TCM/Sony collection of Randolph Scott westerns – a set which now looks like it may be out of print actually. The movie looks very well with no significant damage on show, and good contrast levels leave the black and white photography appearing nice and crisp. The extra features offered consist of a series of galleries highlighting the posters, lobby cards, still and publicity photographs. Anyone who is a fan of Randolph Scott, or just westerns in general, will surely take something positive away from this film. I was highly impressed both by Scott’s lead performance and by the smooth direction of Gordon Douglas. The film shows the progression taking place in the star’s work that would lead inevitably to those towering roles in the late 50s and the beginning of the 60s. It also provides evidence of the growing maturity of the genre itself on the eve of its golden decade. Recommended.

This piece is offered as part of the Randolph Scott Blogathon hosted by Toby of the ever entertaining and informative 50 Westerns from the 50s. I strongly urge all readers should head over there and check out the other contributions to this celebration of Scott’s work by following the link above. Alternatively, you can click on the badge below and that will lead you to the same destination.