A few things you ought to know about Tulsa (the movie)
Live in or near Tulsa? Like movies? OK, so how well do you know the Susan Hayward-Robert Preston classic?
1 It’s turning 60 this month.
“Tulsa,” a Technicolor melodrama set during this city’s oil-boom heyday, had its world premiere in T-Town April 13, 1949, showing at four different theaters: the Rialto, Orpheum, Ritz and Majestic. The film’s stars, along with its producer (and briefly, its director), flew in to do ample advance publicity. These events peaked with a “Petroleum Industry on Wheels” parade through downtown, wherein the stars waved at a jam-packed crowd of thousands. Also in the parade, per its title, was a long line of enormous oil-industry machinery. The headline, and subhead, of the April 13 Tulsa Tribune ran thus: “Hollywood, Oil Merge in Gigantic Parade: Estimated 100,000 Persons See Miles-Long Procession of Petroleum Equipment.” Indeed, the movie even triggered a “Tulsa Day,” as officially proclaimed by then-Gov. Roy J. Turner. Local shops had “Tulsa Day” sales, people were encouraged to “dress Western,” kids got out of school, etc.
2 It has a theme song, as sung by a character meant to echo Will Rogers.
The tune in question is also called “Tulsa.” With a loping gait and a vintage-cowboy-movie feeling, the song is catchy enough — but as this isn’t a vintage cowboy movie, it’s possibly out of place here. Warbling this tune — on two or three occasions, throughout “Tulsa” — is the Texas-born, veteran character actor Chill Wills. He plays a saloon-haunting, aw-shucks-charming piano player and plainspoken sage who addresses everyone as “Cousin.” (His odd name reflects an ironic joke on the part of his parents; Wills was born on an extremely hot July day.)
3 Little of it was actually filmed here.
A few location shots and minor scenes, yes, but most of “Tulsa” was actually filmed in Hollywood — and on a 12,600-acre cattle ranch (near Sulphur) owned by the aforementioned Gov. Turner. The place was called Hereford Heaven. The film’s crew built — and then totally burned (see below) — an entire oil-well field in a corner of this ranch.
4 Its plot is, well, a bit hackneyed.
It’s cattle interests vs. oil interests, basically. The story of “Tulsa” goes like so: A young woman (named Cherokee Lansing, played by the gorgeous Susan Hayward) blames the death of her cattleman father on a big-shot Tulsa oilman; she then enters the oil biz in order to beat the big shot at his own game. When she strikes oil, greed, very unsurprisingly, enters the picture. Eventually, she has compromised or broken all the promises she made to those she cares for. But then, in the end, she sees the error of her ways — while also seeing that, when it comes to oil, conservation-minded drilling is the only way to go (which is what Robert Preston, her geologist-sidekick-boyfriend, has been saying all along). The reviewer for Time used “rambling and logy with clichés” to describe the narrative; the New York Times critic went with “cliché-loaded.” All the same, it’s fun to watch, especially if you hail from these parts.
5 It was up for an Oscar.
“Tulsa” was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Special Effects. This stems from the huge fire that occupies the last several minutes of the film. It’s a catastrophic, impressively dangerous-looking blaze (particularly for 1949) in which many derricks, storage tanks and whatnot are razed to the ground. Plenty of dynamite, too. Pyromaniacs will love it.
6 It’s not the only movie to come out of Hollywood about Oklahomans and their oil
Looking for further chapters in our state’s petroleum-based history by way of Tinseltown mythology? Of course you are. Consider “Boom Town” (1940) with Clark Gable and Spencer Tracy, and “Oklahoma Crude” (1973) with George C. Scott and Faye Dunaway.
Scott Gregory hosts “All This Jazz” on Public Radio 89.5 KWGS, where he also serves as the producer and editor of “Studio Tulsa.”