Tuesday, April 6, 2010


"I'll show them first crack that the Oklahoma Wigwam prints all the news all the time - knowing no law except the law of God and the government of the United States. Say, that's a pretty good slogan! Top of the page - just ahead of the editorial column!" -Yancey Cravat in Cimarron (1931)
I'll admit it, I was definitely putting this one off.  This was the first movie I had seen before, and also the first movie to make me want to abandon the project all those years ago.  But when I finally did force myself to sit down and watch it, it was not nearly as bad as I thought.  Don't get me wrong--it was bad.  It was also probably one of the most bizarrely racist films I have ever seen.  However it is much easier to stomach this film in the context of the films I've already watched.  It fits into the category of uncomfortable early films by directors still trying to find their feet.

The Plot
It's 1889, and President Harrison has opened Oklahoma territory for settlement.  Yancey Cravat, played by Richard Dix, leaves his wife, Sabra, and young son, Cimarron, at home with her high society family in Wichita, Kansas, in order to secure a homestead in the new territory.  He is tricked by hussie Dixie Lee, played by Estelle Taylor, who then takes his land instead.  Returning home empty handed, his wife still decides to defy her family and join him in his quest to settle in the new town of Osage, Oklahoma.

They finally reach the town, filled with dreams of a new frontier.  Instead, Sabra Cravat, played by Irene Dunne, enters into a lawless town that is still in the first stages of being built.  She wants to go home right away, but Yancey hugs her, calls her sugar, and tells her it is an adventure.  They set up their home and business, a combination newspaper/law office, as Yancey is both an attorney and a newspaper man.  Yancey starts a crusade against the local gunslinger gang, eventually calling out the man who had killed the last newspaper editor and shooting him while he is supposed to be running the town's first "church" meeting. Dixie Lee has also come to town with a group of loose women. Over the next year, however, Sabra comes to love the little town.  She has a daughter, Donna, starts a women's club, and leads the way in fashion.  Right when Donna is born, however, Yancey ends up in a shoot out with a former friend, now a wanted felon.  Isaiah, the young black servant boy who stowed away with them when they left Wichita, (and who is mostly shown whistling and shining shoes) runs out after Cimarron, only to get shot in an attempt to rescue him.  Sabra fusses over Yancey, who nicked his arm a little bit.  Yancey claims he will not accept any of the reward money for shooting a friend.  Neither of them expresses any concern over Isaiah until finally their printer brings back his body.  One day, Yancey discovers that new territory is opening up in Oklaholma, and tells Sabra that they should head out together to claim it.  Sabra is finally starting to like her life in Osage, and tells him she doesn't want to go out into the wilderness with two small children.  Yancey doesn't seem too concerned with this, kisses his wife, and tell her that he'll be back soon.

Five years later, Sabra still hasn't heard from Yancey.  She runs the newspaper, is involved with local organizations, and is raising her children.  She's replaced Isaiah with a young Native American girl, Ruby.  She remains fiercely racist against "dirty Indians" but is accepting of her friend Sol Levy, the Jewish man who owns the local store.  Sabra is getting ready to go to the trial of Dixie Lee for public indecency.  As they sit down to dinner, Yancey arrives home.  He hugs his kids, kisses his wife, and Sabra falls into his arms without asking too many questions.  But upon hearing of Dixie Lee's trial, he goes out to defend her.  At first Sabra is furious that he would embarrass her like this, but upon hearing Dixie's sad story, Sabra's heart goes out to her and she learns to be more tolerant.

It's ten years later, the world's focus has shifted from gold to oil, and Osage is now a booming city.  Both Cravat children have grown.  Donna has been going to a boarding school for girls in New York, and is upset at having to wear unfashionable clothes and live in Oklahoma, which is now a state.  She storms out of the house and declares she will find the richest man in town and marry him.  Cimarron declares he is going onto the Reservation to be an engineer, and he is going to marry their old servant, Ruby.  When she protests, Cimarron reminds his mother than Ruby is the daughter of an Indian chief, and then informs her that Yancey approves.  Yancey ignores Sabra's concerns (he usually does), and then lets her know that he is going to publish an inflammatory piece in the newspaper on Native American rights, the language of which will destroy his campaign for governor.  Sabra cares about his campaign much more than Yancey, who is more concerned with human rights than politics.

It is 1929, twenty-two years later.  The title cards tell us that Yancey has gone off again, and Sabra yet again has no idea where he is.  She has built the newspaper into a thriving business, but has still kept Yancey's name at the top.  Rather than think him dead, she knows he is still out there somewhere, and waits for him to return to her.  In her old age, Sabra is elected congresswoman to Oklahoma, and at a banquet in her honor acknowledges both children, finally accepting Ruby in front of everyone as "a chief's daughter."  Donna has married the richest (and possibly oldest) man in town.  And though Sabra is happy about her new office, she wishes that her husband were not "out of the city" as she knows he would be proud.  She leaves, only to be stopped by a young man in search of an ambulance.  A drifter, "Old Yance," has thrown himself in front of an oil torpedo, saving everyone in the nearby area.  Sabra, hearing his name, runs to him and holds him in her arms as he dies.  His final words are "wife and mother, stainless woman, hide me, hide me in your love."  The movie ends on a shot of a new statue, a pioneer similar to Yancey in all his glory.

The History
Cimarron is based on a novel by the same name written by Edna Ferber in 1929.  She was a well-known author at time, and many of her novels have been made into musicals, most notably Show Boat. When the now defunct RKO decided decided to produce this picture, movie studios were desperately trying to dig themselves out of the worst of the great depression.  Cimarron had a massive budget, but despite rave critical reviews and three Academy Awards, the film managed to lose $5.5 million by the end of 1931.  Cimarron was nominated for more than six awards and won for "Best Picture," "Best Art Direction," and "Best Adapted Screenplay."  The director, Wesley Ruggles, felt he had been shortchanged, claiming, "I wonder where I was when the picture was made as it was given the award for set, production, and adaptation, which possibly I had something to do with."  The film has now largely faded into obscurity, particularly because of its dated racial views.  Most notably, this film helped to kick off the career of famed actress, Irene Dunne.  A western would not win an Academy Award again for "Best Picture" until Dances with Wolves in 1990.  It currently has the lowest IMDb rating of all the "Best Picture" winners.

interestingly, these Academy Award ceremonies were notable for how extremely boring they were.  They were poorly planned, overly ambitious, and far too long.  Louis B. Mayer had been put in charge of the guest list, which included the unpopular Republican Vice President, Charles Curtis.  His speech was so boring that the guests filtered into the lobby to watch comedian Roscoe Ates perform his routine.  These guests had to be begged to return to the ballroom in order to applaud the end of the Vice President's speech.  They did not even begin to give out the awards until midnight, at which point 10-year-old "Best Actor" nominee Jackie Cooper had already fallen asleep on "Best Actress" winner Marie Dressler.  The Daily Variety called the affair "a long winded, verbose, political and dull evening of a nature which will repel many a Hollywoodian next year (unless memories dim and time makes 'em forget)."  Clearly, Mayer should not have been put in charge of the guest list.

The Verdict?
My first impression of this movie has still stuck with me today.  This is that if my husband had ditched me without even a letter with two small children in the middle of nowhere for five years I would have hit him over the head with a skillet and locked him out of the house.  And then filed for divorce.  Are you kidding me, Sabra?  She bugs me in a big way.  Almost as much as the holier-than-thou pontificating that Yancey gets up to in this film.  I'll blame his rise from silent movies for the way he consistently over-dramatizes his part.  Or maybe it's the way he completely ignores pretty much anything she says and always responds with something along the lines of "don't worry your pretty little head about it, sugar."

This film's values are bizarre.  On the one hand, Sabra becomes a leader in her community.  She shows that a woman can single-handedly run a newspaper, raise her children, and become a congresswoman.  She is a progressive pioneer woman, a beacon for women's rights.  On the other hand, she lets her idiot husband leave her again and again, call her sugar and ignore her concerns, and basically treat her like she doesn't matter.  He calls her Penelope, and like Odysseus's wife she waits patiently, never judging, for him to come home.

Like its attitude toward women, this film is also extremely confused by its attitude toward minorities.  Sabra treats Native Americans with disdain, calling them "dirty, filthy Indians," and refusing to allow her son to marry Ruby, the daughter of a local Indian chief.  Yancey, however, is a strong advocate for their rights, defending Native Americans both physically and in his paper.  In the end, Sabra realizes the error of her ways and accepts Ruby, although it is unclear whether should would have done this if Ruby hadn't been, in some way, royalty.  Sol Levy is knocked around by the townsfolk for being a Jew, but both Sabra and Yancey defend him.  His character, however, is an extreme Jewish stereotype for the entire film.  Isaiah's portrayal is probably the worst.  From beginning to end he is a glaring example of Hollywood's worst racial stereotypes.  He whistles, shines shoes, and calls Yancey "Massa."  About half-way through the film Isaiah is shot in an attempt to rescue Cimarron.  No one seems to notice or care and in fact Yancey walks right past him as Isaiah writhes in pain and call out to him.  A scant minute or so is reserved for his death, before the film moves on.

I believe that this film attempts to be progressive and show that all people are created equal.  But because of the existing racial stereotypes of 1931, they are not quite able to do so.  It is the conflict between the ideals of the film and the stereotypes of the day that cause the disjointed feel.  The one thing I will say is that the costume, set design, and most importantly make-up, were very well done.  This film shows an age progression of 40 years, both of the characters and the town of Osage.  For 1931, the make-up is incredible.

In this film, it is said that Cimarron is the name of the new territory they are attempting to settle and means "wild and unruly."  Yancey names his son this, and the movie concentrates on looking forward toward taming this new land and claiming a spot in history.  Ironically, I believe this movie is better left in the past.  Despite some attempt at progressive thinking, the blatant racism and sexism is just too jarring for the modern viewer.  This film is dated, and belongs as a piece of history rather than as a film still relevant to today.
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