Friday, June 21, 2013

Cimarron (Best Picture 1931)

Cimarron is another one of these early films that I never would have watched if it had not won the Academy Award for Best Picture. I have never heard of the male star, Richard Dix, and only nominally know Irene Dunne, the female star. I did a little research on her and found that she starred with Cary Grant in three well-known films: The Awful Truth, My Favorite Wife, and Penny Serenade. She was nominated again for The Awful Truth, which I have never seen. I have seen the other two, though, and Penny Serenade should be better known than it is because she and Grant are both wonderful in it. It is one of Cary Grant's two Academy Award nominations, although he never won.  
The interesting thing to me before I actually saw this film was to notice that in 1930 the credits for motion pictures still have not been standardized. Check out what it says:
"Edna Ferber's Cimmaron
Richard Dix Irene Dunne Estelle Taylor
A Wes Ruggles Production"  
So...who is the Director? Watching the film you still would not figure it out, as the credits list producer and screen-writers but not the director. It looks like Wes Ruggles *is* the director (according to Leonard Maltin Guide) but this is the first movie I've seen where the credits were so confusing.
this scene never appeared in the movie
The film opens with the Great 1889 Oklahoma Land Rush, where lawyer/reporter/publisher Yancy Cravat (Dix) intends to stake a claim on a piece of land he has already picked out. He's shadowed by Dixie Lee (Taylor), who connives her way into grabbing his land for herself. This sets the stage for... well....nothing. Yancy gives up; without staking a claim anywhere on the land, he returns to his wife and her family in Kansas. He has decided instead to move to Osage, Oklahoma to help establish a newspaper there. His wife Sabra (Dunne) decides to accompany him over the strong objections of her mother.
So right off I am thinking, "What the hell...??!" A good chunk of time and effort is taken up showing us the Land Rush, but then NOTHING comes of it. The drama of him being cheated is shuffled off the stage immediately; he has one line about if she had been a man he would have punched her; that's it. For all the dramatic set-up of the Rush this was a huge emotional let-down. Maybe it resonated more with the audience at the time; I don't know why the movie didn't just start with him in Kansas for all the meaning the opening scenes had to the overall story.
The first third of the movie is devoted Yancy and Sabra, their trek to Oklahoma, and their attempts to build a life for themselves in Osage. By the time they arrive, Sabra is ready to go back and Yancy can't wait to get started. It's obvious that Yancy is a well-known character in the Territory, respected and admired by the majority of the towns' people. He is feared or loathed by the rest, haha. He is shown to be a "good" person: he actually wears a white hat and one of the rogues he meets calls him out on it. He becomes a successful publisher  who not only solves the murder of his predecessor, he goads the murderer into a shoot-out and takes him out in self-defense. Pretty clever.
This is the by-far best part of the movie. The relationship between Yancy and Sabra is still interesting; the supporting characters of the town are interesting, too. One is Sol Levy (George E. Stone), a salesman with a cart who ends up opening Osage's biggest department store. He is bullied by the rogues as a stereotypical Jew, but defended by Yancy. He is welcomed into the non-denominational church the town begins (with Yancy as the default ad hoc preacher), which to me spoke volumes about the sense of inclusion and tolerance of either 1. Oklahoma or 2. late-Twenties Hollywood (or both).
Another supporting character of note is houseboy Isaiah, played by Eugene Jackson. Jackson is more well-known as "Pineapple" in the Our Gang comedy shorts. However, in Cimarron he is the house boy for Sabra's family who stows away with the Cravats in one of their covered wagons when they leave Kansas. He pleads to be allowed to go on to "Oklahomy" and they embrace him. He is almost treated as one of the family, although I noticed he didn't sleep in the same hotel with them when they first arrive. Perhaps he had to stay with the wagons? Then later his permanent lodgings are never made clear, but he does seem to have free reign in their home. Unfortunately, when The Kid and his gang shoot up the town, Isaiah is one of the victims. I can't say that I was surprised; Hollywood is notorious for killing off the minority characters. Still, it was nice to see the depth of sadness expressed by the leads at his death, and I imagine it would have been very easy to edit the character out completely, so kudos for having him there at all.
In fact, politics and morality are very strong themes of this movie. Yancy and Sabra have discussions about important topics throughout the story. Yancy is very progressive: besides his affection for Isaiah, he believes Native Americans should be treated equally and that the town madam should not be thrown into jail. The last third of the film addresses these issues specifically. Although it was interesting to see Hollywood embrace these liberal stances, it didn't make for good drama. The whole last section of the film is talk talk talk, which is odd in a movie that is ostensibly a Western. As the film lumbers on and time passes to show the town of Osage as a big city, I started thinking that the film would never end! Finally there is an unveiling of a statue in downtown Osage (I think?) dedicated to the Spirit of Osage or something. I'm not sure. When it is finally unveiled, lo and behond if it doesn't look like young Yancy Cravat. The End.
I had more than a few problems with this movie, but first let's talk about what it did right. The opening Land Rush is still impressive some 75 years later. The scale is fantastic and the camera work is varied and dramatic. Tom Cruise's movie on the same subject, Far And Away, wasn't filmed any better.  Also, as I mentioned earlier the characters in the movie are interesting and fun to watch. As the two children get older they begin to mimic their parents (one for him, one for her), which was also interesting. And lastly, the overall theme of "society is good, but too much of anything is bad" was illustrated well. Yancy represented "live and let live" but if you wouldn't do that or let others do that, watch out! The gossiping, self-righteous characters were held up to ridicule, which is something I did not expect to see.
Now let's talk more about the gaping plot holes, so big that Yancy could have driven his covered wagon through! First, of course, is the absolute lack of meaning for including the Land Rush. Later, the same type of emotional and climactic shuffle occurs when there is another Land Rush and Yancy decides to join that one, too. It's four years later (we know because a date flashes up on screen) and Osage has become a respectable little town. Suddenly Yancy gets the wanderlust, wait, he's going to claim land for them to build a farm on? He broods about The Advance of Civilization, especially as embodied by his wife's Ladies' Club, then wondering if it's right to steal the land from the Native Americans, decides to depart that very day. With a quick good-bye to his wife he's gone.

this scene never appeared, either

Just as we never saw any aftermath for the original Land Rush, we never see any dramatic fall-out from his departure from Osage, either. Irene Dunne doesn't weep and struggle; she seems to go on with her two children well enough and even becomes the de facto newspaper publisher. There is no growth for her character whatsoever, which is probably why she didn't win the Academy Award she was nominated for. This is when the movie really breaks down: instead of following either Sabra OR Yancy and telling us one of their stories, what we get is an instant "Five Years Later" flash on the screen again and Yancy is suddenly returning as if he just went out for a leisurely ride. There is no explanation as to where he was or why he didn't come back sooner. He is wearing some type of uniform; she says, "You've been fighting?" he replies, "Yes," and that is that. We never even hear if he got land in this Land Rush or some other woman cheated him out of his stake again!
Speaking of that woman, *she* is now the focus of the last part of the movie. It seems Yancy had to come back plot-wise so that he can stand up for the town madam and teach the citizens one more lesson about not throwing stones at glass houses. We get an extended (and ODD!) court room scene where he excuses the presence of a whorehouse in Osage and excuses Dixie Lee because she had a hard life. All this time I was thinking, "uh....who exactly is going to this whore house if the town is so frickin' righteous?" Even more oddly (sorry, we're almost done here) is that the same plot contrivance is used AGAIN when we skip ahead ANOTHER five years to show us Yancy writing an editorial about Native Americans' rights and then disappearing AGAIN!
Irene Dunne made up as "1920s Sabra"
So, to sum it up: the movie Cimarron in its last half is all over the place! If the spotlight had stayed on Sabra and her struggles after Yancy left it could have been a remarkable movie. Unfortunately, it wanted to tell an "epic" tale where the characters are secondary to the History. As history it was interesting (I'm a sucker for historical dramas) but as a drama, it was severely lacking.    

Cimarron (1930)
*Academy Award Best Picture 1930-31*
Produced by William LeBaron
Directed by Wesley Ruggles
*Screenplay by Howard Estabrook*
based on the novel by Edna Ferber
(won Academy Award for Best Adapted Material)
I couldn't find any trailer to this film on youtube but if you would like to watch the 4 minute "defense" trial scene, for some reason that has been uploaded. You can find it here:

Also Nominated:
(in alphabetical order)
East Lynne
The Front Page
Tracker Horn 
Well, for the first time here I have actually *heard* of some of these other nominees, even though I have never seen any of them. The Front Page here is the original version, not the Walter Matthau-Jack Lemmon version or the Cary Grant-Rosalind Russell His Girl Friday version I am more familiar with (and that I have actually seen!). Skippy is the movie that starred Jackie Cooper. This is the movie where, he has been quoted as saying, he had to cry on cue and he was able to do so only because the director told him that he was going to kill his dog if he didn't! And *that* director (Norman Taurog) won the Best Director Oscar, even though Skippy did not win the Best Picture Oscar. Serves him right.  

1 comment:

  1. Nice review, Russell. Ity seems like an interesting but strangely executed movie. I'd be interested in seeing ti sometime.