War of the Wildcats (1943)
aka In Old Oklahoma
From a marketing perspective it’s awfully easy to see why this has become better known as War of the Wildcats. I mean seriously, if I’m to tell you we’re going to sit down and watch a John Wayne movie, based on titles alone which would you pick? Me, I’m going for the one that sounds like a John Wayne film and that’s the title that offers he-man action and excitement so farewell and so long to Oklahoma and all you Okies. All except for Merle Haggard that is. He’s always welcome on my car radio.
As it turns out this is Duke playing it light in what almost borders on the screwball comedy genre though with Duke involved, it’s not going to look that way on the marquee posters. The story starts out with a comical twist as school teacher Martha Scott is attempting to catch a train and leaving her little town behind with it’s little town attitudes of women and what’s prim and proper. She’s looking for adventure and Albert Dekker is on hand as a wealthy oil baron who’s more than willing to show her a good time as the train rolls on in his private car. Enter the Duke as the train picks him up in the middle of nowhere minus his horse. His sudden appearance allows Scott to persuade Dekker to allow Duke to stay in the private car as well thus protecting her virtue that Dekker is eager to spoil.
I think you get the picture.
Duke is quickly smitten with the schoolmarm and at odds with Dekker. When the train arrives at Dekker’s operation, all three will exit the train and Scott will continue to be led by Dekker’s hand and the promises of wealth and a life of luxury. What she doesn’t quite realize is that marriage isn’t in the cards. Duke on the other hand will run afoul of Dekker’s bodyguard, Paul Fix, whom all Duke fans should know instantly as a life long friend and member of the Duke/Ford stock company. Duke figures on keeping Miss Scott close and what’s the best way to do that? Replace Fix as Dekker’s right hand man.
Up to this point the film is somewhat of a lighthearted romantic triangle with Duke doing his best get the cute little gal fresh off the farm to look at him as opposed to the well to do Dekker. Truthfully Dekker isn’t that bad of a fellow with big dreams but when he makes it clear he intends to drill for oil on the reservation and cheat the Indians from their own riches he’s turned himself into a villain and made Duke the obvious choice when picking a horse in this race.
Duke is going to oppose Dekker and his scheme thus finding himself as a representative of the little man when he signs on to lead them to the White House and win a government contract that will not only bring in a wealth of oil but cut the Indians in for 50% of the profits. Duke’s character is made out to be one of Roosevelt’s Rough Riders who served in Cuba and the Philippines with the eventual President enacted here through squinting eyes by Sidney Blackmer. Did I mention George “Gabby” Hayes is in here as well playing Duke’s sidekick? Yes he is and goes about his usual business of damned near stealing the picture with his unique brand of comedy relief.
Of course Dekker isn’t about to let Duke’s party walk off with the profits and there’s a violent showdown between Duke and Fix that still packs a wallop. It’s one of those classic John Wayne “a man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do” scenes. Care to guess who winds up with the gal at the fadeout?
This is an action packed effort from Republic that clocks in at 102 minutes in length under Albert S. Rogell’s direction. Somewhere in here is Rhonda Fleming though I have to admit I didn’t spot her in her film debut. Perhaps if this was a color production her fiery red hair might have given her away. Hey did you ever wanna see Duke Wayne warbling a tune while taking a bath? Here’s your chance. In actuality Duke never shied away from poking a little fun at himself in movies and TV appearances by cutting loose with a song.
Maybe the reason for the title change had something to with trying not to confuse people with the 1942 John Wayne effort, In Old California. Another of Duke’s Republic efforts. Duke as a pharmacist? No, this one works better for the iconic star playing a wildcatter.
Not to be overlooked is Duke’s playing it light. Of course we think of him as that iconic cowboy but let’s not forget his penchant for comedy that would surface in various projects and roles over his long career. In the same year as this release he played leading man opposite the Queen of the screwball comedy herself, Miss Jean Arthur in A Lady Takes a Chance.
Looking to catch up to this rare Duke title? Well I’ve still got an old VHS tape tucked away here in the vault but it has since surfaced on blu ray under the Wildcats title. What does this all mean? It means it’s about time I upgraded.