REVIEWS OF RENTED DVDs I GET IN THE MAIL

CIMARRON (1931)

In Best Picture Winners, C, Classic, Epic, Motion Pictures, Western on May 7, 2010 at 2:30 am

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STUDIO — RKO Radio Pictures

CAST — Richard Dix, Irene Dunn, Estelle Taylor, William Collier Jr., Edna May Oliver

DIRECTOR — Wesley Ruggles

NOT RATED (MPAA Equivalent: PG)

The story of the formation of Oklahoma as a state is fascinating in its own right. More than a few movies have depicted the famous “land-rushes” that took place in the late 19th Century, and Cimarron was among the first to do so.

The word cimarrón itself is Spanish. It means “wild”, “untamed”, “feral”. In the context of the movie, the so-called “Cimarron Territory” in Oklahoma was a strectch of about two million acres of land deeded out to settlers in the 1889 Oklahoma Land Rush. It is here, in the moments prior to this event, that we are introduced to Yancey Cravat (Richard Dix), a flamboyant, self-made man and bona fide rolling stone. Nearly everyone knows who he is in some capacity, as if he were some kind of celebrity. He is an attorney, newspaper man, gunslinger, and preacher all rolled into one. He’s a great friend to have, and a dreadful enemy to fear.

Yancey Cravat (Richard Dix) reunites with his wife Sabra (Irene Dunn) after the Spanish-American War

After Yancey’s attempt at staking a townsite in the ’89 Land Rush failed — He was thwarted by a woman named Dixie Lee (Estelle Taylor) — he returned to his wife and son (and in-laws) in Wichita, Kansas, to announce that he’ll be setting up a newspaper in Osage, a new frontier town in the Oklahoma Territory. Despite protests from Mom and Dad, Sabra (Irene Dunn) vows to accompany her husband to this unknown land. So, Yancey, Sabra, and their young son Cim (short for Cimarron) load up a couple of wagons and make the journey south. On the way, they discover a stowaway, Isaiah (Eugene Jackson), Sabra’s parents’ house boy. He asks to come along, and Yancey just smiles and says “Well, you’ve come this far…”

The plot of Cimarron then spends the next hour-and-a-half leapfrogging over the next 40 years. In that span, the town of Osage transforms from a wild frontier town to a bustling city. And Yancey’s paper, the Oklahoma Wigwam, thrives from a weekly one-sheet publication into a daily voice of equal rights for everyone. But Yancey doesn’t stay around long. He leaves for the Cherokee Strip run of 1893, comes back after serving as a Rough Rider in 1898… In fact, he pretty much comes and goes as he pleases, while long-suffering Sabra stays behind to mind the day-to-day operation of the newspaper.

Now, Yancey Cravat is a noble man. He’s devoted to his wife and family. He feels everyone deserves a fair chance in this world. He knows the Bible from cover to cover. But as I already said, he is the quintessential rolling stone. Early on in the movie, he proudly proclaims that the longest he had stayed in one place was in Wichita, and for the rest of the movie, he lived up to that statement, disappearing for years at time, only to blow into town and act as if he was gone only a few days. I do not claim to be an historian, but behavior like that from a husband isn’t normal by today’s standards, and I don’t think it would’ve been tolerated in 1893, either.

This raises some questions: Why on earth would Sabra stay married to this guy? Better yet, why keep his name as editor-in-chief of the paper? Again, I’m no expert, but if one’s name is prominently and publicly listed as the head of a going concern, it stands to reason that he or she is there to run it. But Yancey doesn’t run the paper; he just owns it. In one scene, Yancey tells Sabra that when she replaces his name with hers as editor-in chief, then she can make the decisions about its content. Well, why doesn’t she? The world may never know…

I’d like to address an issue that is associated with Cimarron: racism. Both Edna Ferber’s novel and this motion picture are reputed to be laced with racial stereotypes. I cannot speak for the novel (I’ve never read it), but the movie does contain material some people may find offensive by today’s standards, like black people using “Mammy-speak” and craving watermelon, and Native Americans being labeled as filthy, uneducated savages. But there are two things to consider. First, this movie was filmed in 1930 (and released early the next year). Hollywood (and much of the U.S.) didn’t really know any better. We are talking about a period when white stage performers put on blackface makeup because blacks themselves weren’t allowed to perform, when a popular radio program about two black men, “Amos & Andy”, was voiced by white actors, and when everything from restaurants to restrooms were labeled “White” and “Colored” throughout the country. Yes, it reads like an excuse, and it probably is. But there is no arguing these were societal norms from a now-embarrassing period in American history.

The other aspect, which I feel balances the stereotyping, is Yancey’s outlook on people in general. He accorded everyone, from Isaiah to the Indians to Dixie Lee (who ran a brothel) with the same respect. He treated Isaiah like a member of his own family. He (rightfully) believed the Indians were forced from their lands to make room for the White Man. And he (successfully) defended Dixie Lee in court when no one else would. And his way of treating people would rub off on his wife, and even onto many of Osage’s citizens (even if Yancey was gone for years at a time). Just something to consider when screening this movie.

Now that we have that behind us, let’s spend a little time on the movie itself. There are moments of brilliance in Cimarron, most notably in the land rush sequence at the beginning. It is amazing to watch, especially when you consider the logistical hurdles involved. In all, over 5,000 extras and 28 cameras were used over the course of a week to shoot it, and the end result is a thrilling joyride through the Oklahoma wilderness. It’s a shame most of the rest of the movie seems bland by comparison. The performances were mixed, from the over-the-top nobility of Richard Dix’s Yancey, to the melodrama of Irene Dunn’s Sabra, to the stereotypical comic relief of Edna May Oliver’s society woman, Mrs. Tracy Wyatt.

There are two shorts that accompany the DVD. One is an early Warner Bros/Vitaphone cartoon called “Red Headed Baby”, one of the first Merrie Melodies produced by Leon Schlesinger. It’s rough around the edges, even for early cartoons, but still fun to watch. The other is a truly rare piece called “The Devil’s Cabaret”. The acting is cheesy and the humor is awful, but what makes it special is that it’s a 1930 two-strip Technicolor film, one of the earliest known to exist. A real treat for fans of early cinema!

I never thought in a million years that my review of Cimarron would be the longest I have written to date. But there was a lot of ground to cover. This is not the best of the Best Picture winners by any stretch of the imagination, but it is a time capsule into cinematic history nonetheless. I would recommend it only to those who specialize in the history of movie-making. For the rest of us, I suggest going with a better Ferber adaptation, 1956’s Giant.

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  1. Yes. Giant. Yes. I suggest Giant.

  2. A spot on review. You try your hardest to like this movie, but you just can’t do it.

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