4. Cimarron – Help, Superman, the wheels are coming off

Cimarron 1931 poster


This wagon just about rolls along on one wheel…but an engaging plot and prototype superhero are not enough to save Cimarron from its director’s terminal lack of imagination

Director: Wesley Ruggles

Producer: William LeBaron, Wesley Ruggles

Studio: RKO Radio Pictures

Written by: Howard Estabrook, from the novel by Edna Ferber

Starring: Richard Dix, Irene Dunne, Estelle Taylor

I’m quite relieved not to have to watch another war film for a while.  Those things are gruelling.

I know nothing about Cimarron, which won Best Picture for 1930/1931, except that (based on the lurid film poster shown above) it looks like a western.  I’m not a fan of the genre for its own sake, but good storytelling should transcend genre, so I’m determined not to be put off…

I’ve found a spectacularly low-quality Korean DVD on Amazon – the best I could do.  This in itself does not portend well: Cimarron has evidently not been deemed to be worth digital restoration.  Neither does it seem to have made it into any popular canon of film classics: it appears on no AFI or BFI hit lists that I am aware of, and is rarely screened on TV.  Even the name is unmemorable, and gives no clue as to the subject matter.  It seems silly to judge a film on its name, but I can’t help but feel that the awkwardly unusual  Cimarron (how is it even pronounced?) might have contributed to the movie’s slide into obscurity.

The Hollywood novelist

Before watching the film for the first time, back in January (before this whole blogging enterprise got temporarily derailed for reasons I won’t bother going into), I’d been wondering who in tarnation Edna Ferber had been, who features so prominently on the poster (‘Edna Ferber’s colossal Cimarron!).  I felt that “Edna Ferber” lent a gigglesome aspect to the whole affair, my meandering mind having conflated Dame Edna Everage with a Furby toy, which together with the over-the-top artwork and suspicion that the film might be rubbish, ill-disposed me to take Cimarron seriously (I’m basically picturing a Furby wearing Dame Edna glasses right now, are you?).

Well. My bad.  A few clicks on Wikipedia and within seconds I had learned that Edna Ferber was a prolific American novelist, whose works include Show Boat, which Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II turned into the classic musical, and Giant.  That’s the 1956 film starring Elizabeth Taylor.  Whilst I must confess not to having seen either Giant or any of the various film adaptations of Show Boat, I’m considerably more intrigued and impressed than I was at the outset.  This tells me that whatever kind of novelist Ferber was, she probably knew how to tell a story – or at least Hollywood must have thought so.  Maybe there’ll be a little more to Cimarron than a boy’s own tale of Injuns and gunfights in the saloon.

American History in the making.  I’M TELLING YOU!

Like both All Quiet on the Western Front and Wings, Cimarron takes its source material from recent history, delving only slightly further back in time to the opening of the Unassigned Lands to white settlement.  Through the lives of the central characters, we see the community of Osage, Oklahoma develop from a tiny frontier town first settled following the Oklahoma Land Race of 1889, to a bustling city in the 1930s.

It’s shamelessly patriotic – perhaps after the existential turmoil and uncertainty of international war, part of Cimarron‘s appeal at the time was its reassuringly inward-looking all-Americanness. Although some attempt is made to sympathise with Native Americans, it’s pretty much a white-washed – pun intended – tale of glory.

For the film is at turgid pains to convey that the characters are Making History.  The characters themselves actually refer to this in numerous places throughout the film – and a particular narrative low is towards the end, when the title card flashes up:

“By President Roosevelt’s signature, the territory becomes the state of Oklahoma…..”

This fact – which admittedly does have some relevance to the plot – is then followed quite unnecessarily by a close-ups, first of the President’s signature, and then of a grainy photograph of the president – not especially renowned for his Oklahoma-related activities – himself.  It makes no sense to include this except to rouse a sense of patriotic nostalgia in the audience (bearing in mind that these events were within the life experience of many viewers at the time).  And, you know, people might not have realised that this is a film about AMERICAN HISTORY.  IN THE MAKING.

Just in case anyone forgot who Theodore Roosevelt was or what he looked like

Just in case anyone forgot who Teddy Roosevelt was or what he looked like

Not being American myself, pretty much everything I know about the historical events referred to is based on this movie and a quick scan of Wikipedia – so please forgive any lapses of ignorance in the subject matter.

Synopsis

The story revolves around the lives of the brilliant trial-lawyer, newspaper editor and improbably named Yancey Cravat (played by Richard Dix), and his intelligent and fashionable wife Sabra (Irene Dunne).  The Cravats move from their comfortable family home in Wichita to the new settlement of Osage, and make a new life there with Yancey as editor of the local paper.  The film depicts their new lives and the development of Osage and of Oklahoma state.

Yancey and Sabra Cimarron movie

Ever actually tried sitting up against a tree?  It’s really uncomfortable

Pioneers sometimes say die

Ironically, for a film about pioneers, Cimarron does absolutely nothing to build on the artistic advancements represented by All Quiet on the Western Front and Wings before it. It may not actually represent a regression (I hesitate to relegate any film to the same species of turkey as The Broadway Melody) – but it’s no  leap forward.  Primarily, it bears the hallmarks of an over-ambitious project that has massively exceeded the abilities of its producers.

Oops we ran out of time

First, there is the time scale.  The movie spans 40 years, but the second two decades are compressed into the last 15 minutes.  It’s the movie equivalent of addressing an envelope, only to realise you’ve started too big and too far to the right, as your handwriting becomes increasingly small and squished against the edge.  Between the titles “1907” and “1929”, literally the only ‘action’ is another intertitle: “OIL-“. Without this the final scene would make no sense, but it’s a lazy way to move the story on.  The effect is that the final events of the film happen so abruptly that I for one struggled to make sense of the narrative.  Suddenly the film, which has been virtually the Yancey Cravat Show, turns out to be a two-hander.  I found myself wanting to rewind and re-assess everything I’d just watched.

Spoiler alert: America is the greatest!

In fact the title cards caused me problems from the start.  The movie opens with this irritating message:

“A nation rising to greatness through the work of men and women…New country opening…Raw land blossoming…Crude towns growing into cities…Territories becoming rich states…”

I realise the ellipses are meant to create an exciting sense of ongoing action, but the effect for me was more like the screen-writers couldn’t be bothered to write in full sentences.  I envisage a narrator making circular “let’s move this along” motions with their hand, and adding “yadda yadda yadda” at the end.

And it gives the game away: the film’s attempts to sympathise with the Indian predicament can only be hollow – it’s pretty clear that manifest destiny is the name of the game and that Cimarron celebrates this as a ‘nation rising to greatness (and on the same subject, the tagline ‘Terrific as All Creation’ is a line in the film, used by Yancey to describe the Land Race itself).

As terrific as all creation!  And by ‘creation’ we mean ‘horse race’

Far more pertinent to the events in hand is the next title, which helpfully situates us in time and place:

“In 1889 President Harrison opened the vast Indian Oklahoma lands for white settlement…..

2,000,000 acres free for the taking, poor and rich pouring in, swarming the border, waiting for the starting gun, at noon, April 22nd…”

Although the poster promises action and horses, in fact the Land Race at the start of the movie is virtually the only exterior action.  This has been filmed on an epic scale, with rows of horses and wagons racing across the plain.  However, although the sweeping vistas recall some of the battle sequences in Wings and All Quiet, the footage fares badly in comparison with the innovative cinematography of either of those two films.  It really offers nothing more than a montage of slightly different camera angles.  An unforgivable continuity error reveals some sloppy editing: a stray barrel appears rolling in the same place at different times.

Faked close-ups of Yancey and Dixie Lee (with the actor riding a ‘horse’ in front of projection screen) look okay and are mercifully brief, but these offer a clue as to why the scene isn’t more satisfying: in the scale depicted, there is little sense of how it is personally experienced by either Yancey or Dixie.  An inability satisfactorily to merge the film’s big themes to the lives of the main characters is a major flaw throughout the film – of which more later.

Oklahoma Land Race Cimarron

Lining up for the starting gun at the start of the Oklahoma Land Race

(Special effects are not this movie’s forte.  When the villain Stanley Fields attempts to shoot Yancey, we see a shot fired at a building just behind Yancey and a full second elapses before his hat jumps up.  We are then shown the bullet hole in the hat and the bullet is described as having been ‘inches’ from Yancey’s skull).

Then (in case any of you who have actually seen the film is wondering about the elephant in the room) the film is over-shadowed by race issues (TCM’s review for example describes the black servant boy Isaiah and the Jewish tailor Sol Levy as ‘painful stereotypes’).  This is a shame, because for all its weaknesses, from a story-telling perspective Cimarron has plenty to offer: compelling characters, action and entertainment.  But structurally it just does not hold up, and the direction can best be described as ‘adequate’.  Wesley Ruggles had a few modest hits after Cimarron, but he was not a visionary like William Wellman or Lewis Milestone.

The Leading Man – a prototype superhero?

Richard Dix bears a distinctive honour shared by only a very few: a silent movie star to achieve success in the Talkies.  He had been best known for roles such as John McTavish in Cecil B. deMille’s 1923 film The Ten Commandments and, funnily enough, portraying Native American Wing Foot in 1929’s Redskin. (The latter is, by all accounts, an astonishingly sensitive depiction of a Navajo man trying to reconcile his traditional culture with a westernised education.  For further information you could do a lot worse than this thoughtful review by Movies, Silently, a blog which always makes me want to hit up Amazon for a bunch of silent movie DVDs).

Dix, who was nominated an Oscar for Best Actor for his performance in Cimarron (he lost out to Lionel Barrymore – that’s Drew’s great-uncle – in A Free Soul), is undoubtedly well-cast as the vigorous Yancey, whose searing intellect and leadership quality is matched only by his physical prowess and shooting skills. The actor was a ruggedly handsome man and his screen presence is beyond doubt, as he devours every scene with an old-fashioned masculine charisma.  Dix also also manages some comic flourishes, particularly during his two major speeches, leading a church service and at the trial of Dixie Lee.

Richard Dix as Yancey Cravat

In its review of Redskin, Movies, Silently praises Dix’s range: “As an actor, Dix was a powerhouse. He had natural screen presence that allowed him to quietly take control of his scenes. However, unlike many other equally forceful stars, he was able to dial things back to convey softer emotions. Redskin called for all of his versatility.”

Not having seen Redskin, I will have to take the blog’s word for it, but unfortunately this range is not fully apparent in Cimarron.  He cannot be said ‘quietly’ to take control of scenes: he attacks them with a ferocity that threatens to demolish everything in his path.  Nor does he exactly ‘dial it back’ too often – his quieter moments are often heavy with condescension, mere opportunities to explain patronisingly to his wife why he had to kill a man/stand against her in court to defend another woman/abandon her for years on end, rather than naturalistic character development.

Dix glares and glowers through every scene (did he get a headache from straining his eyes? I often wonder the same about Robert Pattinson in Twilight), but his acting is not so much bad, as in a style which seems very over-the-top and I wonder if this lack of subtlety is a hangover from his silent movie experience.  Dix’s facial expressions appear to be intended to be viewed from a distance of fifty feet.  Wesley Ruggles must also take some of the blame for this, favouring as he does set-pieces over close-ups.  When close-ups occur, they have tremendous effect either dramatically or in moving the action forward, and I lament the fact that there are not more in the film.

The effect is devastatingly cartoonish.  Yancey may be entertaining to watch, but the many layers we are given to understand he has are just not credible: he is supposed to be a gentleman who forgives a young woman for cheating him out of his land, but who also carves notches in the handle of his gun.  He purports to be a loving husband and father, yet abandons his family for the thrill of adventuring to new lands.  He is a revered pillar of the community, yet a free-spirited liberal who has a preternatural understanding of society’s downtrodden and speaks up for the underdog.

And Dix’s vigorous performance is at odds with a character who behaves mercurially – how could a man who is so solidly anchored in each scene ever become a drifter?

But on the other hand Dix can only work with what he’s got, and the story just asks far too much of his character.  If his apparent omnipotence destroys any credible interaction with his wife and companions, it is nevertheless somehow irresistible, and I think it’s interesting to think of Yancey almost as a comic book superhero, one whose thirst for adventure is like kryptonite.  Viewed in this way, Yancey and Sabra’s story makes a lot more sense.

The Leading Lady

Irene Dunne is simply magnificent as Sabra, ably portraying each stage of the character’s life from lovestruck young wife willing to follow Yancey anywhere, to newspaper editor and, ultimately, sexagenarian Congresswoman. (Dunne was similarly nominated for the Best Actress Oscar, but lost out to older actress Marie Dressler in Min and Bill).

Irene Dunne as Sabra Cravat

She was a leading exponent of “smell the fart” acting

A large part of the plot revolves around the tension between Sabra’s traditional, conservative views and Yancey’s progressive ones.  This reaches two main crisis-points: at the trial of Dixie Lee and in the acceptance of the Cherokee Ruby as the Cravats’ daughter-in-law.  Next to Dix’s overpowering superhero, Dunne remains authentically human: Sabra may need to develop her ideas about Native Americans and certain women, but her every word and deed rings with emotional honesty and we sympathise with her because of it.

She put the ‘O!’ in ‘Osage’!

Estelle Taylor as Dixie Lee Cimarron

I once stayed in a hotel in Tanzania that had a sign above the reception desk stating WOMEN OF MORAL TURPITUDE NOT ALLOWED IN ROOMS.  Readers, I fear Dixie Lee is one such morally turpid female.  The film, somewhat prudishly (given we are still pre-Code), never openly acknowledges that Dixie is a prostitute; we are left to draw this conclusion ourselves from Dixie’s entourage of garishly painted girlfriends and various hints in the script.

In a well-worn storyline, Sabra doesn’t like how friendly Yancey seems to be with Dixie.  Then, when Yancey resurfaces out of the blue after an absence of five years, and learns that Sabra has led a campaign to get Dixie Lee sent to jail, his first act is to defend Dixie in court against his wife.  He alone has realised that Dixie is forced to earn a living this way because of her tragic life of hard luck and mistreatment.

Dixie Lee Estelle Taylor Cimarron 1931

“Without her you’d have had no fun/Since March of 1861”

There is real drama in the conflict between, on the one hand, Sabra’s moral disgust at Dixie’s lifestyle and her sense of betrayal by Yancey, who has taken Dixie’s side against her for reasons Sabra cannot comprehend and suspects might not be pure; and on the other hand, the sad truth of Dixie’s lot in life and Yancey’s compassion towards her.  How will this be resolved?

Again however, the Big Ideas trump credible character motivation.  Despite being publicly humiliated in court by her husband who has only just returned from a five year absence, Sabra’s capitulation to Yancey’s way of thinking and her forgiveness of him is sudden and complete.  Yancey delivers a preachy and pompous speech, explaining that the ‘real criminal’ was ‘social order’ rather than Dixie herself.  I found the ending of The Simpsons episode, ‘Bart After Dark’, when Marge’s attempts to shut down the Maison Derrière are frustrated by the merry ditty We Put the Spring! in Springfield!’ more believable.  And again, the idea of parachuting in a hero who is apparently answerable to no-one in order to fight social injustice is more in keeping with the idea of Yancey as a mythical Superman-like figure than a real person.

The advent of colour on film

Cimarron is the first winner to feature non-white cast members, and this in itself must be viewed as an evolutionary step forward.  The sale of Indian lands, the fate of Native Americans and their role in US society is openly discussed and challenged, and an interracial marriage is a key plot point.  However, as noted above, this is severely undermined by the fervently patriotic tone of the film from the very beginning.

Yancey – ever on the side of the victim – has a professed respect and appreciation of native Americans.  He teaches his son the meaning of Indian words and approves of his interracial marriage to Ruby, the Indian girl (while Sabra is horrified).  During the church service when the collection is being made, he pointedly exempts the Indians present from contributing, and adds that “a Cherokee is too smart to put anything in the contribution box of a race that’s robbed him of his birthright.”  To commemorate Oklahoma’s entry into statehood he pens a pro-Indian editorial which goes on to become a classic.

But the the Cherokees themselves are silent –  never more than blank-faced parts of the scenery, there to make Yancey look good.  For he is also obsessed with taking a new piece of the opened lands and Making History.

Oh look, a little Negro boy

Cimarron is notably the first Oscar Best Picture to feature a black character, the adolescent servant boy Isaiah.  Eugene ‘Pineapple’ Jackson had already found fame as one of the Little Rascals (a series of films that actually did break racial ground), and it is easy to see why: with an adorable face, trademark hair (hence the nickname) and knockout charisma, he’s a little ball of energy that deserves far better than the treatment Isaiah gets in the film.

Eugene Pineapple Jackson Cimarron

Isaiah is meant to be loveable, and his story arc begins promisingly as the servant boy of Sabra’s family in Wichita who is transfixed by Yancey’s tales of adventure and begs to be allowed to go with him.  When Isaiah is discovered to have smuggled himself onto the Cravats’ wagon halfway to Osage, he is also revealed to have pluck and spirit, and with his hair style and tendency towards the madcap, could have been a beautifully conceived comic character.

Sadly, despite these seeds of hope, the egregiously racist comic relief blossoms at his expense.  His skin colour alone affords hilarity: “Ise-Ise-Ise-Coloured boy!” stutters one character, and everyone laughs.  Use of African American Vernacular English is also likely to cause controversy among certain quarters (did black people really pronounce it ‘Okeyhomey?’).

When Yancey takes the church service – the one where Cherokees are invited but not expected to contribute and where the town’s lone Jew is even welcome – he opens with:

“Fellow citizens, I have been called upon to conduct this first meeting of the Osage First Methodist, Episcopalian, Lutheran, Presbyterian, Congregational, Baptist, Catholic, Unitarian – Hebrew – church.”

But only moments earlier, some ‘comedy gold’ has been created by Isaiah dressing up smart and marching his way to the service, much to the mirth of passersby and then of Yancey and Sabra.  So kind is Yancey to his employee that rather than explicitly ban Isaiah from attending church, he explains he needs him to stay at home and guard the house, on ‘patrol duty’.  “Patrol duty?  Yessir!” is the response of Isaiah, who is basically credited with none of a human being’s logical faculties.

“You can’t buy loyalty like that” says Yancey to Sabra of Isaiah, and depressingly, he means it as a compliment.  As this and the prohibition on attending church shows, Isaiah is depicted as ‘loveable’ in the sense of loving a family pet rather than a real person.  When Isaiah is killed in genuinely tragic circumstances (demonstrating that the trope of the black guy being first to be bumped off started even earlier than you thought), the child Cim says ‘What’s happened to Isaiah?’ and no-one says anything – Yancey just carries him in and then turns away with the body, as if holding a dead dog.  Yancey evinces more sadness at the death of Isaiah’s killer, The Kid, because he used to know him.

Despite his obvious star quality, Eugene Jackson never achieved any greater success.  He went on to forge a career of sorts playing bit-parts in Hollywood films over the next 60 years (his last performance was as ‘One Armed Bass Player’ in 1991’s The Addams Family).  Hollywood is famously fickle and there’s many a talented young actor who never delivers on young promise, especially when that promise is as a child star.  But casting an eye down Jackson’s filmography, six decades playing stereotyped roles like ‘Shoe Shine Boy’; ‘Piccaninny’; ‘Bartender’; ‘Cab Driver’; ‘Saxophonist’; ‘Office Janitor’ perhaps offers a clue as to why his talent was never borne out.  Maybe if he’d come of age in a different era he could have fulfilled his Will Smith-like potential.

There is surprisingly little about on the history of black people in early Hollywood, but these sites are worth a look for anyone interested: Blackflix, Midnight Ramble, FilmSlateMagazine.  I wonder how long we’ll have to wait until the next non-white face in a Best Picture winner?

You’re doing fine Oklahoma, Oklahoma, OK!

Cimarron tries excruciatingly hard to convey Big Themes – gender politics, the role of Native Americans, societal prejudices, to name a few – but the parts of the film that are most gripping relate to the human interest elements: the individual characters and how they cope with events.  These elements are as wheels lost on the bumpy road that is this film’s terrible script.

Nominated in the same year as Cimarron was Lewis Milestone’s screwball classic The Front Page, and in hindsight it is clearly a travesty that the latter was kept off the top spot.  Looking at the Best Picture winners that came before Cimarron, two out of three are war films, and it seems likely that the Academy is swayed by theme: a film whose subject-matter is suitably lofty blinds them to a comedy, even when the latter is technically and artistically superior.  It will be interesting to see how this trend continues.

Right, I’m off to watch Oklahoma! (why are there so many films about Oklahoma?  It looks like a really boring place).

Next up: 5.  Grand Hotel. Where there is Garbo, there is glamour.  Can’t wait!

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