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The Oil Boom in "Tulsa"

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Dusty is an avid classic movie fan who wants to share movie stories and evoke conversation about them.

Movie Poster

A Gusher

Tanner's derrick has struck oil

Tanner's derrick has struck oil

Cast

Tulsa

1 hrs. 30 mins Action, Drama, Romance 1949 6.2 stars

Director: Stuart Heisler

Cast: Susan Hayward - Cherokee Lansing

Robert Preston - Brad Brady

Pedro Armendariz - Jim Redbird

Lloyd Gough - Bruce Tanner

Chill Wills - Pinky Jimson - Narrator

Edward Begley - John J. ‘Johnny’ Brady

Note: Spoiler alert. This review reveals the outcome of the movie

Oil Pouring off Hat Brim

Jim Redbird is drenched in oil.  Played by Pedro Armendariz

Jim Redbird is drenched in oil. Played by Pedro Armendariz

Synopsis Part I

This movie is introduced by a narrator (played by Chill Wills) who explains about the city and surrounding area of Tulsa, how it was rich cattle country, but how it became even richer oil country.

The story opens with a rancher, Nelse Lansing, riding on horseback amongst his newly purchased premium Hereford cattle showing them off to his daughter, Cherokee Lansing (played by Susan Hayward) and their friend, Jim Redbird (played by Pedro Armendariz). Jim is a Cherokee Indian and Cherokee Lansing is herself one quarter Cherokee Indian. She is a cowgirl and is very spirited and that is shown by the fast riding she does chasing a calf and rounding it up.

Nelse learns that several of his cattle have died by drinking from a stream polluted by oil seeping from a nearby derrick. The creek was tested by simply lighting a match to seeing if the creek ignites. When it does so they quickly they douse the flames. He rides over to confront the workmen at the derrick and to demand payment. As he approaches he is warned off because the derrick is about to blow, but it’s too late, at that very moment the derrick blows and faming falls from the top, from the gusher, and kills him. Moments later Jim and Cherokee arrive, but it’s too late to do anything. Cherokee and Jim stare at each other momentarily as they are getting drenched in the rain of oil. The derrick is marked as belonging to the Tanner Oil Company and Cherokee sets her heart on revenge on Bruce Tanner (played by Lloyd Gough) the owner.

She goes to see Tanner at his office to demand payment of $2,000 not for blood money, but for the loss of the cattle. She no longer feels vengeful because she is aware that the whole thing was an accident. What she doesn’t realize is that she’s not talking to Tanner in the office, having never met him, but she is talking to his lawyer who is quick to point out that she cannot prove that the oil in the creek that killed the cattle came from Tanner’s well.

Rebuffed she goes to a saloon called “The Longhorn” to see a man named Pinky Jimson (played by Chill Wills). He is her cousin and he is a man about town there in Tulsa. If anyone could help her he could. In a way it’s funny to say that she’s Pinky’s cousin because Pinky is in the endearing habit of addressing everyone he likes as ‘cousin’, but she explains to someone that in her case, they’re ‘blood kin’. Pinky is the piano player at the saloon and he is a very kind soul. But before she arrives at “The Longhorn” she runs into an old boisterous man named Johnny Brady (played by Edward Begley). He has had too much to drink already and has invited the distain of another man who pushes him down into a puddle. Cherokee is there and smacks that assailant with her purse and says to him, “now, you git!” which draws the instant admiration of Johnny who also goes to “The Longhorn” saloon. At the saloon she asks the advice of Pinky Jimson who explains that Tanner is rich and powerful and completely legal in his dealings. Just then their conversation is interrupted by Johnny who wants to reward her for avenging him. He gives her 3 oil leases. She doesn’t want them and tries to dissuade him, but he insists. Johnny gets into a fight with another saloon patron and Cherokee leaves.

The next morning Pinky visits Cherokee and tells her that Johnny died during the night. Cherokee may have wanted to return the leases but she was stuck with them now.

Bruce Tanner, her nemesis, offers to buy her leases from her at a good price, a fair proposition because the leases are for properties that haven’t yet been explored for oil. The properties may not have oil at all and would be essentially worthless. Additionally, exploring for oil, sinking wells, erecting derricks would all be expensive and Cherokee does not have the financial means to do that. But she is a gambler and turns Tanner’s offer down.

Jim offers to give Cherokee all the money he has been saving up to buy expensive Herefords to pay for her to erect an exploratory derrick. She accepts his money and sinks a well. Then seemingly out of nowhere a man shows up and introduces himself to Cherokee. He is Brad Brady (played by Robert Preston) the son of Johnny who gave Cherokee the leases. He doesn’t come with any sort of claim on the leases, but he comes to see with interest what will come from the well. Brad explains that he is a geologist and has been researching the drilling and extraction of oil looking for ways to improve the process. One of the oil drillers there takes offense to Brad’s presence; he resents Brad’s book learning as opposed to his years of experience and they start to fight. The fight lasts a while until Brad prevails. It is then that another oil driller recognizes him as having been a star collegiate football player. Brad is a Princeton grad, an Ivy League educated geologist.

At the conclusion of the fight the derrick erupts. Immediately all are elated, but that euphoria is short lived because it’s not oil, but salt water that spouts out. One driller sadly tells Cherokee that salt water is the death knell to an oil drilling operation. To them all seems lost, but Brad tastes the salt water and his facial expression seems to indicate that he senses something.

Cherokee is a Gambler

Cherokee rolls the dice. Played by Susan Hayward

Cherokee rolls the dice. Played by Susan Hayward

Synopsis Part II

Back at the hotel in town Tanner offers to buy the remaining leases from Cherokee, but as he’s making the offer Brad shows up with an idea. He tells Cherokee to put casing in the drill hole then pour cement down into the well. After the cement hardens she should then drill down through the cement hopefully to reach oil which he thinks may be below the salt water. Cherokee has no more money to invest, but Tanner offers her the money in exchange for the remaining leases if the new well fails to produce oil. Cherokee accepts the money, names Brad as her partner and starts to work.

Despite Brad’s expertise the new well yields nothing and they have used up their money. Brad invites Cherokee to dinner, a farewell gesture, but instead of dinner he takes her into the casino. As was mentioned before, Cherokee likes to gamble. The two of them get involved in a dice game and Cherokee is having a run of luck. Tanner is there too and he bets on Cherokee’s dice rolls. Her luck runs out after a while and she loses, but just at that moment one of her drillers comes in to announce that they’ve struck oil and it’s a gusher! The whole casino, it seems, goes out to the derrick to see the sight of the gusher; it is a dramatic scene. Brad begins to direct people on various tasks to stop the gusher and save the oil.

Jim shows up and shows disappointment on his face because Cherokee has caught oil fever; she has transitioned from being a rancher to being an oil woman. After the gusher is stopped Cherokee kisses Brad and Jim’s disappointment grows even more.

Brad does some research and realizes that Jim’s property is also sitting on oil. Jim however is not exited because he is an idealist regarding his cattle vocation. Brad realizes this and immediately tells Jim that “oil and cattle can get along together”. Brad explains that with the spacing of derricks “one to every ten acres” they will be able to have plenty of grazing land and still extract enough oil for tremendous income.

Brad holds a meeting to explain his plans of conservation. The meeting doesn’t go as well as Brad wanted. The land owners realized that they could make money hand over fist if they jammed more derricks on their property and they didn’t care so much about conservation or ruining the land afterwards.

Tanner speaks up during the meeting; he is opposed to these conservation efforts and he convinces most of the land owners to side with him. Cherokee offers to drill more derricks if that’s what the people want. Jim asks for a promise that his land will remain on the conservation plan, less derricks more grazing land. Brad confronts Cherokee and asks whether it is she or Tanner who’s calling the shots. When she says that she’s just facing facts, he responds regarding those facts, “I don’t have to like them but I think you do.”

Later, Cherokee takes Brad to dinner. Cherokee does understand the wisdom of conservation and she talks Brad into pursuing his plans legislatively. She pushes him to get into politics. At a charity function for the opera society Brad gets the governor to look into his plans while in an upstairs room Tanner and Cherokee sign a contract for even more oil production and seal it with an innocent kiss just as Brad walks in. He immediately leaves broken hearted. As Cherokee follows him down the stairs Brad won’t listen to any explanation so Cherokee makes a grand announcement from a balcony that she and Brad are getting married.

Although Brad is happy with the announcement they soon have a fight and the engagement is off. In short Brad is not happy about how the easy money of oil has clouded Cherokee’s thinking. Cherokee argues that she has made him who he is today – actually it was he that has made her.

The next day Tanner takes steps to grab Jim’s land. Tanner is friends with the local judge and they all meet along with Cherokee to get Jim to permit more wells on his land. They strong-arm him by questioning his competency. The judge threatens to have him declared incompetent if he doesn’t allow more drilling on his land. Jim tells Cherokee that they consider him just another crazy Indian and this really gets to her. When Cherokee hears him say that and sees what they are doing to him she has the change of heart we’ve all been waiting for.

Jim goes out to see his cattle and when he finds some of them dead by the creek he tests the creek with a match. The creek has a large amount of oil in it and the match starts an out of control fire which moves quickly into the field of derricks nearby starting a great conflagration.

What happens next is the most dramatic fire and rescue movie scene I can think of. Everyone arrives to help put out the fire, but Cherokee looking for Jim also gets caught in the middle of it. Brad, riding a bulldozer, goes in to rescue them.

In the end they were able to save Jim’s land but the others’ lands were destroyed – because the derricks were too close together.

After rescuing Jim and Cherokee Brad’s plans for conservation are accepted and the engagement between Brad and Cherokee is back on.

Cherokee Splattered with Oil

When the oil gushes being spattered is not a nuisance but a pleasure

When the oil gushes being spattered is not a nuisance but a pleasure

Analysis Part I

This movie did not do very well at the box office and it was poorly rated by the critics. IMDB only gave it 6.2 stars, but I find this all to be puzzling. To me it is both an interesting and an exciting movie. For those reasons I find it easy to watch. There’s a bit of history in it as it tells about the development of the city of Tulsa and the development of the oil industry around it. The movie depicts the conflict that existed between the oilmen and the cattlemen in the early part of the twentieth century. There is a focus upon the need to stanch rampant greed by considering the compromise solution offered through conservation, an issue which strongly played out in history especially in the 1930s, and especially in that region as a lack of conservation contributed to the dust bowl problems there. Oil greed is no different and Cherokee Lansing fell victim to its infectiousness.

Cherokee is what was called a ‘wildcat’ oiler. There were those who had stakes on parcels of land that may or may not have produced and oil at all. It was a very expensive gamble to be a ‘wildcatter’. This story is about one of the successful ones.

The movie’s turning point comes rather late in the story when Cherokee’s oil fever breaks and she sees the devastation that it has wreaked. Brad was correct when he said, “oil and cattle can get along.”

Pinky Jimson calls everyone he likes ‘cousin’ and he used it as an indicator of his favor in one scene when Cherokee had her change of heart away from oil greed. He tells Brad, “she’s my cousin again” indicating that she’s come back to the fold. That’s not just the character speaking. The actor, Chill Wills, called his friends ‘cousin’ quite often in his personal life. This is an example of an actor brings his own personality into the role he plays and as I mentioned earlier it is an endearing habit.

The movie takes place in the west, but it is not in the genre of a Western in the sense of the “old west” with cowboys and Indians. It’s more of a “new west” 20th century style setting. The visual impact is at times quite sobering, instead of the vast open prairies where the cattle roam, there are ‘cities’ of oil derricks dotting those prairies. There are still cowboys and Indians but they are not opposed to each other. In fact, Jim Redbird is both a cowboy and an Indian, combined in one man.


The Opera Fundraiser

The music grates on Pinky Jimson (in the foreground).  Played by Chill Wills

The music grates on Pinky Jimson (in the foreground). Played by Chill Wills

Analysis Part II

The plot structure and characters are typical for this sort of conflict. There’s Bruce Tanner – the big oil business man, there’s Jim Redbird opposing him, the traditional cattle rancher. In the middle of them is Cherokee Lansing the daughter of a cattle rancher who is lured by the money of oil and is torn between the two vocations. Finally there is Brad Brady the scientific expert who tries to play the peacemaker - add romance to the mix and you have a great story. And this is no ordinary movie-style love triangle. It’s a love quadrangle, because Bruce, Brad and Jim are all in love with Cherokee.

Jim has been in love with Cherokee for a long time and that’s apparent in the first scene when he suggests that he could use help in running a future household.

Bruce is like an enemy from the start, but a benevolent enemy. He helps Cherokee a lot … when it helps his interests. His romance for her may have been good for business in his estimation.

Brad comes in the middle, a knowledgeable ambitious man who can hold his own in a conflict. He has energy and brashness. He meets Cherokee at her level in all things. He wants to reconcile the two factions of the war which is raging within Cherokee, the factions of oil and cattle which are personified in the other two men. He wants to coordinate the legitimate goals of Bruce with the legitimate aspirations of Jim. His line, “oil and cattle can get along together”, is therefore pivotal to the movie.

On one level the movie is about the development of the oil industry, but on a different and greater level the movie is about conservation of the land. The question is not just about how to extract the oil, but how to do so without ruining the land. Both the extraction of oil and the raising of cattle are legitimate and lucrative business interests.

The movie has several moments which touch our various emotions. Beyond the draw of the multifaceted romance there are other features which delight and excite. There is a scene of comedic relief in the cultural distinction shown between two vastly different music genres. In the scene of the opera society’s fund raiser an opera singer is performing and it obviously grates on Pinky’s nerves until he can’t stand it. So he decides to show the opera crowd how things are done there in Oklahoma. He sits at the piano and performs a country/western style number. The opera singer begins to sing along, but still using an operatic voice much to Pinky’s chagrin, but he is able to calm her enthusiasm down and continue with the song as it was intended to be sung. Hmmm, maybe this is why Country/Western is called “Opry Music”.

There are exciting scenes as well. The fight scene comes to mind where we first see what Brad is made of. Growing in intensity, then, is the gusher scene where we are treated to the emotion of excitement. The camera easily catches the oil as it spatters all the revelers. Being drenched in new found oil is not a nuisance, but a joy. This is contrasted, by the way, to the first scene where Cherokee’s father is killed due to a gusher at Tanner’s derrick. In that scene the oil is shown as a negative and consuming thing especially as it pours off the brim of Jim’s hat.

Finally the greatest moment of excitement comes in the great conflagration, the last 15 minutes of the movie. In this scene the oil field is consumed by fire as a frantic rescue is made. It’s very dramatic. A tremendous amount of pyrotechnics went into this production. I find this scene to be one of the most exciting I’ve watched in any movie. A quick perusal of other reviews says the same thing. That scene earned this movie an Oscar nomination for its special effects.

The Great Conflagration

The whole oil field is on fire.

The whole oil field is on fire.

The Movie in its Entirety

Comments

steve bertsch on June 04, 2020:

it was one heck of a romantic thriller. and what a gal!