“OIL! He can dig it out of the ground! He can dish it out to the dames!”
Director: Frank McDonald
Cast: Richard Arlen, Arline Judge, William Frawley
Synopsis: A penniless oilman meets a con woman and her partner on his way to hitting a gusher.
A wildcatter is someone who drills for oil in an area unproven as a source for the black stuff. It’s the kind of subject that you’d expect to provide fodder for more expensive fare than this modest B-movie from Pine-Thomas Productions, and had in fact provided the subject matter for MGM’s Boom Town in 1940. Instead of Spencer Tracy and Clark Gable, we have here Richard Arlen (Alice in Wonderland, Warlock) and Larry ‘Buster’ Crabbe as rival oil men drilling for oil in neighbouring wells in order to win a $25,000 prize for bringing in the first oil well in the town of Antril Bend.
We first meet Johnny Maverick (Arlen) as a penniless chancer who picks up hitchhiker Harold ‘Chicopee’ Nevins (a fresh-faced Elisha Cook Jr — The Indian Fighter, The Killing) on the way to Antril Bend to have a crack at winning that $25,000. On the outskirts of the town they stumble across oil, and the penniless Maverick has to use some not entirely legal financial manoeuvres in order to raise the necessary funds to buy the land under which the oil is located. In order to manage this he has Chicopee sell his half-interest to oilman Gus Sloane (John Dilson), who then employs Maverick’s bitter rival Mike Rawlins (former Flash Gordon Crabbe, who was then in the midst of his stint as serial hero Billy the Kid) as his foreman.
As the two rival wells drill ever deeper into the earth in the race to be the first to strike oil, Chicopee dies in an ‘accident’ devised by one of Rawlins’ men. When grifter Nan Deering (Arline Judge — An American Tragedy) and her partner Oliver Westbrook (William Frawley — Mad About Music, Roxie Hart) hear of the tragedy, Deering poses as the dead man’s sister in an attempt to con Maverick out of half of the winnings he will win if his well beats Rawlins’ to that oil.
Wildcat is a typical 1940s B-movie — short (a running time of just over one hour), fast-paced, and cheaply-made, it succeeds in delivering an entertaining tale and manages some decent action sequences despite its lack of budget. It also boasts a reasonable cast for this level of movie — the likes of Arlen, Crabbe, Cook Jr. and Frawley were all established Hollywood character actors when Wildcat was made, while Arthur Hunnicut makes his screen debut. There’s not much in the way of characterisation to speak of — each character is defined by the way they react to events that happen to or around them rather than by any back story, and the story’s ending can be more or less predicted the moment all its component parts are in place, but it still proves to be an adequate time-filler.
(Reviewed 26th April 2014)