E.W. Marland was a risk taker. From oil drilling to running for political office, Marland bid high and let fortune write his story. Seventy-six years after his death, TU’s J. Donald Feagin Professor of Music and Professor of Film Studies Joseph Rivers sets that story to music in the documentary “High Stakes: The Life and Times of E.W. Marland.” TU will be hosting a screening of the documentary on Thursday, November 16 at 7:00 p.m. in Gussman Concert Hall. The filmmakers and composer will be present for a question and answer session following the screening.
Nominated for an Emmy, the producers Scott Swearingen, a TU faculty member for 14 years, and Steve Herrin, a TU Film/Radio/TV alumnus, ensured the film is an accurate telling of his story. “E.W. Marland was one of our great oil men and politicians of Oklahoma,” Rivers said. “In 1920, Marland Oil Company produced 10 percent of the world’s market for oil.”
Settling in Ponca City, Marland was a pioneer for workers’ rights by providing healthcare, suitable low-cost housing and even classes to further their education. After his wife’s death, controversy erupted when Marland married his adopted niece, Lydie Roberts. The Marlands were fodder for the paparazzi, and reporters would follow Lydie around town. “She was a very beautiful woman, and she became a legend,” Rivers said.
During a time when oil men like Frank Philips were spending frugally and not drilling as many new wells, Marland was building an elaborate Mediterranean revival-style mansion in Ponca City. The house is now a designated National Historic Landmark, and guests can tour the home and estate. But Marland’s extravagant spending allowed for J.P. Morgan to force him out of Marland Oil, which merged with Continental Oil.
Marland was never down and out for long. In 1932, he was elected to the U.S. Congress, and in 1935, became the Governor of Oklahoma. During the depression and the New Deal, Marland introduced the Little Deal, which placed unemployed Oklahomans in careers focused on building infrastructure. “He was entrepreneurial and vision oriented and really cared for the people,” Rivers said.
In 1941, Marland passed away, leaving his relatively young wife with a mansion she could not afford and a great emptiness in her heart. “She became reclusive and eventually disappeared for 22 years or so. The telling of her return is quite moving. There’s a lot of mystery about those years,” Rivers explained.
Rivers orchestrated the melodies for various characters. “For Marland, we needed something dignified, strong, that had a sense of exploration and generosity all embedded in the feeling of that musical theme,” he said.
Scoring a film is a tedious process. Rivers played with possible themes, and when he received footage, he set the actions and mood to the appropriate music. “It’s a lot of give and take. I would try things, and they would say, ‘could you make it more like this or shift the synchronization to match this?,’” Rivers detailed.
Rivers also oversaw the recording of two songs from 1928, ” There’s a Rainbow ‘Round My Shoulder” and “Ain’t She Sweet,” on the Lorton Performance Center stage to use in the enacted scenes. The film includes additional music by TU graduate Rick Fortner (BME ’83, MM ’95) and Tulsa musicians Shelby Eicher and Mark Bruner.”
The documentary’s screening premiere was held at The Poncan Theatre and more than 700 people attended the black-tie event. In July, Rivers and the other documentary directors were nominees at the Heartland Emmy Awards. “We didn’t win, but to receive that nomination was a great honor,” he said.
Marland’s story enticed the early tabloids and press, and today, he is just as compelling. “The title captures it really well: high stakes. He had joy in exploring and the possibility that we might hit it really big that tantalized and motivated him,” River said.
Marland embodies the patriotic American spirit of exploration. “He had unlimited potential and possibility,” Rivers said.