Celluloid Soonerland

Larry Van Meter spots an anomaly in a Forties Western:

Unable to find a seat on the train, she is rescued by Jim Gardner, who owns the luxury car at the back of the train. Jim as it turns out is one of the new Oklahoma millionaires, having struck it rich in the oil fields of Sapulpa. He’s also a cad, clear to everyone except this “New Woman.” Gardner takes a shine to Catherine, gives her the nickname “Kitten,” and invites her to get off the train with him in Sapulpa. Now, maybe [director] Albert Rogell wasn’t paying attention during this scene, or maybe he had forgotten his Oklahoma geography, but the train from Cleveland to Kansas City doesn’t stop in Sapulpa. But maybe this is Oklahoma’s fate in the American cinema, an indeterminate place somewhere on the American map.

Which explains, sort of, the premise of Sooner Cinema: Oklahoma Goes to the Movies (Oklahoma City: Forty-Sixth Star Press, 2009), edited by Van Meter, which collects nineteen essays on the image of the Sooner State as portrayed in American film, from the days of silents to the present, with stops at Cimarron, The Grapes of Wrath and The Outsiders, just to name a few.

Telling a tale set in “an indeterminate place” has its advantages: you can make it up as you go along, as Albert Rogell did in 1943 while shooting In Old Oklahoma, which he actually shot in even-older Utah, and nobody will raise a fuss: for the 297 million Americans who don’t live here, Oklahoma could be as remote as Timbuktu. They know we belong to the land, and the land we belong to is, well, kinda bland, when it isn’t openly hostile.

Sooner Cinema acknowledges this phenomenon without taking umbrage. Filmmakers tell stories, and sometimes those stories drown out considerations of place: those snowcapped mountains just outside McAlester in True Grit don’t resemble anything you or I have ever seen just outside McAlester. But True Grit‘s story wasn’t about Oklahoma so much as it was about the No Man’s Land it was once thought to be in the territorial days — and ultimately, it was about John Wayne, a man bigger than any No Man’s Land ever was. In this context, getting the facts straight about Oklahoma is a secondary, maybe tertiary, consideration. In fact, Hal Ashby’s Bound for Glory, a biography of Woody Guthrie, somehow manages not to mention Oklahoma at all.

Then again, being associated with a vague sort of mythology may work to Oklahoma’s advantage. Van Meter notes in his introduction:

[I]s there any Wyoming film that doesn’t show the Grand Tetons? or a Colorado film that doesn’t incorporate the Rockies? or a Hawaii film that doesn’t show a surfer? Oklahoma films aren’t compelled to show the state’s X to prove its Oklahoma-ness.

If you live here, and if you ever expect to have to explain to someone from New Jersey or New Brunswick or New Delhi what it’s like to live in Oklahoma, Sooner Cinema will make your task that much easier: you’ll know the difference between celluloid and reality, and you’ll be able to tell when that difference actually matters. And if this task somehow doesn’t fall to you, you’ll still have the pleasure of discovering some cinematic wonders set practically in your own back yard. If this be mythology, make the most of it.

(Review copy furnished by the publishers.)


  1. Jeffro »

    28 June 2009 · 11:34 am

    I challenge anyone to show me any relation to the western Kansas countryside portrayed in Gunsmoke and the reality. Any trees that were here were long gone by Dodge City’s salad days, stripped for construction of forts and cities. There is a difference between locations near Hollywood vs outside my front door. I gotta say, Oklahoma definitely has some topographical diversity going on compared to Kansas. The Panhandle vs the mountains in SE OK? Way too cool. We do have the Flint Hills, which are a fairly subtle beauty.

    But, we’ll always have Dorothy, the Yellow Brick Road, and tornadoes.

  2. McGehee »

    28 June 2009 · 11:59 am

    In fact, Hal Ashby’s Bound for Glory, a biography of Woody Guthrie, somehow manages not to mention Oklahoma at all.

    I finally got around to trying to watch that movie after having had and enjoyed what I had thought was its soundtrack (with vocals by David Carradine!) many years ago. My disappointment at there being almost no singing was enough to make me return the DVD only half-watched.

    And until you mentioned it I hadn’t noticed the omission of Oklahoma from the movie, since the songs on the album had made no bones about where Woody was from.

  3. McGehee »

    28 June 2009 · 12:00 pm

    [I]s there any Wyoming film that doesn’t show the Grand Tetons?

    There was a scene in “Lonesome Dove” set in Wyoming’s Powder River country, not a Teton in sight. Of course, they could have filmed the scene on Edwards Dry Lake Bed for all I could tell.

  4. McGehee »

    28 June 2009 · 12:03 pm

    As for Oklahoma-ness, I would have thought the oil well on the Capitol grounds in OKC would have worked, but “Saving Grace” hasn’t shown it yet. The one unmistakably OKC location they have used wasn’t significant before a certain April day in 1995.

  5. CGHill »

    28 June 2009 · 12:21 pm

    Once a year they come down and shoot a few more exteriors.

  6. Sooner Cinema Reviewed at http://www.dustbury.com/ « »

    28 June 2009 · 12:35 pm

    […] Celluloid Soonerland […]

  7. Lisa Paul »

    28 June 2009 · 10:29 pm

    Hitchcock totally messed up perceptions of San Francisco for everyone as he would have a character walk across the street near one landmark and end up clear across town at another. Then there is the shock you discover when you move here and realize, no, every apartment doesn’t have a stunning view of the Golden Gate bridge.

    Don’t get me started on Bullit. Every Englishman who comes here tries to replicate the car chase –which is impossible since it actually goes through several non-contiguous neighborhoods and into the next county all while ostensibly staying in “downtown” San Francisco.

  8. CGHill »

    28 June 2009 · 10:34 pm

    Close as I came to such a thing was seeking out Mulholland Drive and Dead Man’s Curve in L.A. Mulholland was more or less intact; the Curve had been flattened a bit, taking the scare out of it, and anyway it wasn’t quite where Jan said it was.

    So maybe it’s a good thing I didn’t come to San Francisco. I’d probably wander into some restaurant and ask for Rice-A-Roni.

  9. Lisa Paul »

    30 June 2009 · 1:50 pm

    I know I’m prejudiced, but I have to say San Francisco and Venice are the two places I’ve been that really look like the postcards. It’s just that we don’t look like Hitchcock “engineered” us. Although Venice looks exactly like Nicholas Roeg imagined in “Don’t Look Now”. Minus Julie Christie. Which is a big minus.

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