Friday, May 3, 2013

Oklahoma vs. Hollywood

Dust Bowl Oklahoma
By mid-Twentieth Century most citizens living outside the borders of Oklahoma, probably thought of this state as a dusty, wind-scoured flatland populated by ruthless outlaws, brutal savages, greedy oil barons, and downtrodden, dirt-poor rubes. And let’s not forget your lean and slow-talking cowboys. 

This is pretty much the perception Hollywood has foisted on the masses about Oklahoma going all the way back to their movie-making beginnings around 1905. For sure, film-makers have seemed to like Oklahoma for its prospects, both the land and its people; but most often, it appears, not in a particularly flattering way. 

But to be fair to the movie people – which, frankly, kind of sticks in my craw – they weren’t all that far off in their portrayals. A lot of notorious outlaws roamed Oklahoma and Indian Territory at one time or another – Bill Doolin’s gang, the Dalton boys, Belle Starr, Henry Starr, the Youngers, Al Jennings, Frank and Jesse, Bonnie and Clyde, just to name a few. And it did sequester some notable battle-prone Native Americans – Geronimo, Quanah Parker, Cherokee Bill, Lone Wolf, Blue Duck (the real one, not McMurtry’s), Ned Christie, Wes Studi.

Will Rogers
As for the cowboys, off the top of my head, there were Tom Mix, Gene Autry, Ben Johnson, Jim Shoulders, James Garner. And, of course, we can’t forget our most famous son, Will Rogers (himself one-quarter Cherokee).

Could’ve been some land and money-grabbing oilmen, too, but the ones I know were hard-working entrepreneurial capitalists who lived the original American dream and came up from nothing. Frank Phillips comes to mind, as does rancher/oilman Charles Francis Colcord. Both of these “oil barons” were very philanthropic, and left a lasting legacy in the state, not the least of which was a mountain of jobs.

In the early Hollywood years Oklahoma outlaws and lawmen appeared on the silver screen; the former glamorized, the latter vilified. And the stilted view of Oklahomans peaked with John Ford’s 1940 film version of John Steinbeck’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Grapes of Wrath. That’s when the poverty-stricken hicks arrived, the “Okies.” But more on that in a minute.

Bill Tilghman
Lawman Bill Tilghman got into the movie business back in 1908 both as a director and actor. He did a series of one-reelers at the request of a man named John R. Abernathy, despite Tilghman’s insistence that he knew nothing about flim-making. In my imagination, I hear Abernathy saying to Tilghman, “It ain’t no big deal, Marshal. Ain’t nobody else knows much about it, neither.”

The first film, The Wolf Hunt, came about as a result of President Teddy Roosevelt coming to the I.T. to do some hunting, meet some Native Americans, and make some speeches. On one hunt, the old Lion Tamer witnessed Abernathy take down a wolf with his bare hands. The president was so impressed, he told Abernathy that if he’d re-enact the feat in a moving picture, he would show it at the White House (something quite unique at that time). So Abernathy, enlisting Tilghman as his director, and a man named Kent, who owned a Curtis motion picture camera, did just that.

Tilghman made several more films, as did the former outlaw turned lawyer, Al Jennings.

[A short aside: Al Jennings went from outlaw to lawyer to politician illustrating the natural selection of elected officials.]

All of Jennings’ films lionized outlaws - particularly himself - and denigrated lawmen. Angered by that, Marshal Tilghman made a film titled The Passing of the Oklahoma Outlaws which sought to re-create the crimes of several Oklahoma bad guys, such as Bill Doolin, Henry Starr, and Jennings, and show them being brought to justice at the competent and honorable hands of peace officers. The movie became a fair success, and inspired Henry Starr to get into film-making about his own exploits. I explored this some in my novel Red Lands Outlaw, the Ballad of Henry Starr.

In my opinion two films had the greatest impact on the world’s perception of Oklahoma and Oklahomans: The Grapes of Wrath and the musical Oklahoma! 
The movie Joads and a Hollywood goat hired as an extra

While it’s a historical fact that many farmers were devastated by the great drought conditions that led to the Dust Bowl, it’s not a historical fact that most of those migrants to California, as a result of it, came from Oklahoma. Most came from the Texas panhandle and western Kansas, the actual geographic heart of the Dust Bowl. Yet, all of those unfortunates were called Okies.

FYI for you non-Okies, Okie is one of those cultural terms which is okay (no pun intended) to call someone if you are one, but considered a derisive slur if you’re not. 

Someone referred to the movie Oklahoma! as a picture postcard of the state. Personally, I think it’s more of a cartoon. While Oklahoma did adopt the title song as its official state song, I don’t think the film displayed any other redeeming social value. There was, though, that line from one of the songs that has always stuck with me: “Oh, the farmers and the cowmen should be friends.” However, I don’t think that issue has ever been totally resolved.

Phil Truman has authored three of what he calls, “Oklahoma-centric” novels. His first, GAME, an American Novel is a sports inspirational about small town schoolboy football. Legends of Tsalagee weaves a tale of mystery and adventure in a small town. A 2013 Peacemaker Award nominee, Red Lands Outlaw, the Ballad of Henry Starr is Phil’s first foray into the western genre in this historical novel about the life and times of an Oklahoma outlaw. He has won numerous awards for his short fiction, and his western short story “Last Will for an Outlaw” will appear in LaFrontera’s anthology, Dead or Alive, due to be released June 2013.
Phil’s website is:


  1. Do you know if any of those old movies are still viewable and available?

    As for the dust bowl, I think all the Nebraskans went to Idaho. Both my husband's family and my dad's family moved there. But there were a few from Oklahoma, too. My aunt married one--he wasn't the stereotype, though. Just the opposite. She called him Tex just to get his goat. :)

  2. I did a research paper when I was an undergrad in which I compared newspaper accounts of "Okies" from papers on the East Coast to papers on the West Coast during the Depression/Dust Bowl era. What I expected to find, correctly as it turned out, was that East Coast papers offered a very sympathetic view of them and most West Coast papers presented very negative views. It is much like the situation with Indians in the post-Civil War period: Americans living East of the Mississippi had a sympathetic and often romanticized view of them, while those living west of the Big River (hey, that should be the name of a series!) did not, and were much more likely to call for their extermination (including Oz-master L. Frank Baum.) Before Indian Removal (another Oklahoma connection!), most Southerners had those negative views of Indians, while Northeasterners did not. What this all proves, to my mind, is that it is human nature (at its worst, not its best) to make an "other" of, and have enmity toward, any group that is directly competing with you for resources, and it is much easier to have sympathy for that other when you are not in direct competition with them for anything. Steinbeck had it right when he portrayed the enmity many Californians had for Dust Bowl migrants, who were coming to the Golden State to compete with them for jobs. On the other hand, the influx of "Okies" into California gave us, a generation later, country music's Bakersfield Sound, led by those great Okie offspring Merle Haggard and Buck Owens.

  3. And let's not forget that Depression Era icon (and Okie) of American folk music, Woody Guthrie. Thanks for your insight, Troy. Good stuff.

  4. Excellent post. Also worth a mention: William S. Hart's TUMBLEWEEDS (1925).

    Another OK musician who relocated to California was Bob Wills.

  5. "'Take Me Back to Tulsa.' Haw, take it away, Leon!" Remember waking up to that Bob Wills tune on my grandma's radio. Thanks, Ron.

  6. Hey Phil, my fellow Okie! LOL A great post, as always--I really enjoyed this, since this is my home state, too. A side note on Abernathy. Did you know that his two boys still hold the record for the youngest LONG RIDERS in history? When they were 5 and 7, they talked him into allowing them to ride alone from Frederick, OK, to the governor's mansion in New Mexico Territory. John Abernathy (whose nickname was Take 'Em Alive Jack) was good friends with the governor. Other rides followed that one, but I always wonder what in the world was he thinking? LOL You probably know all this, but I just find it so fascinating that all this actually happened. So much rich history here in Oklahoma.

    Lots of great info here. I have your book--have not had a chance to read it yet, but I'm looking forward to it. You always have such great posts.

  7. Phil,

    Excellent article. Will Rogers is reason enough to revere Oklahoma. He was one of our greatest humurists and a man of keen insight when the country most needed his sharp wit.

    Charlie Steel

  8. Cheyrl - Didn't know that about John Abernathy. Thanks for sharing!

    Charlie - We could sure use ole Will's wit now on the political scene, couldn't we? So much is comical, so much is not. Appreciate your comments, brother.

  9. Thanks for this informative post, Phil. Good to know that about the use of the term - are we allowed to say it?

    I was also interested to read about Bill Tilghman, as I am looking forward to reading James Reasoner's novel in the West of the Big River series.


  10. Great blog-and good comments. Thanks, all.

  11. Nice post. I used to work the border areas around Lake Texoma. Sometimes we'd even sneak across and poach arrests in OK. Kept a bunch of prisoners in Ardmore. Some of the best beans and cornbread I've ever eaten--in a jail or anywhere.

  12. Thanks for the read, Mike.

    Keith - Oh, you can call us Okies, even if you ain't one. Thing is, we're not as sensitive about it as we once were. In fact, some of us may even be proudful about it.

    Marc - We can make them beans 'n cornbread, now. You'uns come on back when you can stay longer.