TULSA is largely forgotten today (unless you’re older and actually from Tulsa), but it’s rather interesting, even surprising, along with being fanciful-adoring and cornball. A period piece (the 1920s), about the oil boom and its effect on people (wealth & greed) and— “drop-me-through-floor, Aggie!”—the environment!
Ever-feisty Susan Hayward, looking as gorgeous as her 32-year-old hotness could in 1949 Technicolor, plays ‘Cherokee Lansing’ . She gets even with rapacious oil drillers by beating them at their own game, loading up on profit, even while geologist boyfriend ‘Brad Brady’ (Robert Preston) tells her they need to be careful they don’t ruin the landscape and water while slurping all those profits. Indian buddy ‘Jim Redbird’ (played by Mexican honcho Pedro Armendariz) has his complaints as well.
Speaking of gush, the folksy narration and singing from Chill Wills (doing his ‘cousin’ shtick) is enough to keep you off flapjacks and syrup until the Ogallala Aquifer fills back up.
Directed by Stuart Heisler, the pitch for tending to nature is so far ahead of any movie of its time it’s startling, but this ecological warning is wedded-bedded with saluting the beeswax out of oil as a Wonderful Elixir of Progress. What a substance, kids!
This saga joins a supertanker load of other refined crude. Pump out Boom Town and Oklahoma Crude, which dealt with the old days of rowdy roughnecks; Giant, tangentially with the wealth; macho action turkeys Maracaibo and Hellfighters with well-blaze fighters; and the more recent at-what-cost? party-spoilers There Will Be Blood and Promised Land, which paint a bleaker, blacker picture of ‘ol Jed’s Texas Tea. Only 1953’s industry-commercial-masquerading-as-adventure Thunder Bay surpassed Tulsa‘s drill-baby cheerleading, when it had Jimmy Stewart reassuring shrimp-fishermen in the Gulf of Mexico that everything black will turn out blue (if they’ll just not question authority, silly small-fry’s). Worked out swell.
Yet the ‘watch out for water and green prairie for grazing cattle ‘ talk in this 90-minute epic is still a surprise, eons before the problem really hit home.
Topping it off, the last fifteen minutes climaxes with a stops-pulled spectacle as an entire field of derricks blows mile-high and the cast perform assorted brave deeds in the pyrotechnics. The conflagration was/is impressive enough that it garnered a deserved Oscar nomination for special effects (a friendly gorilla named Mighty Joe Young ran off with that coveted statue).
Drilled for $1,158,000, it brought $2,340,000 to the surface, still not enough to break even, $747,000 being untapped. This, despite a publicity harangue in the title city which staged a “Petroleum Industry On Wheels” procession through downtown. The “Tulsa Tribune” used a lot of oil running the presses with the headlines “Hollywood, Oil Merge In Gigantic Parade: Estimated 100,000 Persons See Miles-Long Procession Of Petroleum Equipment.” Naturally, most was shot in California, though some location work was done on the 12,600 acre ranch belonging to–aw, shucks, the Governor of Oklahoma, Roy J. Turner, over yonder in Sulphur, Oklahoma.
The paean to Black Gold making Tulsa glow didn’t include mentioning Tulsa making itself less Black, with the infamous Tulsa Race Riot of 1921, an explosion of murder, looting and arson following Memorial Day that left hundreds dead, black & white, and burned to the ground the wealthiest African-American community in the nation at the time, the ‘Negro Wall Street’. Not the kind of publicity you really need to boost the town. The resulting hush-up was/is one of the great official-criminal-social scandals of 20th-century American history.
Anyway, history missed-lesson aside, this curious, hard-to-place movie looks great in Technicolor, with sassy Susan and that liquid inferno. With Lloyd Gough, Ed Begley, Jimmy Conlin and Lola Albright.