Reeling Backward: Cimarron (1931)
Thought certain aspects of the Best Picture winner are archaic remnants of their time, it's still a sprawling and ambitious pioneer story with a proto-feminist tilt.
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“Cimarron” was a big-budget effort by RKO Radio Pictures, which was known for producing down-market fare, taking their big swing at prestige filmmaking. It worked, becoming the first Western to win the Academy Award for Best Picture. The next would not come until nearly 60 years later with “Dances with Wolves,” followed by “Unforgiven” a couple of years after that.
It’s a sprawling story that takes place over the course of more than 40 years, following in the footsteps of pioneer/lawyer/newspaper publisher Yancey Cravat, played by Richard Dix. It’s an ostentatious, showy performance, the sort of thing you saw a lot of in early sound pictures — before actors learned they could have a bigger impact by playing small.
Irene Dunne plays his wife, Sabra, who’s less adventurous and is very much put upon by Yancey’s tirades and fits of wanderlust, which often take him away from home for months or even years at a time. She takes care of the kids and newspaper in Osage, Oklahoma, growing increasingly resentful of Yancey.
I’ll confess that in the first half of the film, I was put off by Yancey’s blustering persona and feckless ways. But the movie gets a lot better in the second half when Sabra takes over the spotlight and even becomes something of a proto-feminist parable, with a strong-willed turn by Dunne.
Interestingly, the last shot of the movie depicts the unveiling of a statue dedicated to the Oklahoma pioneers, which is shown to be a dandyish figure like Yancey. The real statue is of a woman much like Sabra.
The movie, directed by Wesley Ruggles from a script by Howard Estabrook and Louis Sarecky, based on the novel by Edna Ferber, starts off with a real bang depicting the 1889 Oklahoma Land Rush, in which 2 million acres of land were given out by the federal government on a single day.
It’s a madcap race of horse riders, wagons, footmen and even bicycles to, quite literally, stake their claim to a piece of land to call their own. Ruggles shoots it with great kinetic energy and visceral appeal. The same event was depicted, without much improvement, in 1990’s “Far and Away,” a very underrated film imho.
Yancey has his eye on a prime piece of land out by Little Bear Creek, but is foiled by a conniving young woman named Dixie Lee (Estelle Taylor), who steals his horse after stopping to help when her own becomes lame.
Returning to his wife’s wealthy, snooty family in Kansas City, Yancey determines to make a go of it again to start a newspaper in the “boomer” town of Osage, this time bringing Sabra and their 4-year-old son, Cim, with him. That’s short for Cimarron, which the movie gives as Spanish for wild and unruly, though my Google translator says it means “bighorn.”
Either way, the name is probably better suited to Yancey himself. A former cowboy with a reputation for pulling some jobs with bad company in his youth, Yancey is a braggart with a big ego, but has the gumption and six-shooter skills to back it up. He struts around in shiny boots embroidered with stars and a bright white hat.
His first challenge upon arriving in Osage in 1890 is to take on Lon Yountis (Stanley Fields), the resident bully and surly outlaw. He shot the territory’s first publisher in the back, and Yancey realizes he can’t establish himself as the local top man while Lon is around. Lon shoots his hat off to scare him, but Yancey returns the favor by shooting off the tip of Lon’s ear — his signature shot, supposedly.
They eventually have their fatal encounter in an ad-hoc church service inside Grat Gotch's Hall of Chance (love that name), the town’s first tent saloon.
Fast-forward three years and Yancey and Sabra have now had a daughter, Donna, and are well-established as leaders of the community, with Yancey as editor and publisher of the Oklahoma Wigwam. Sabra helped create a women’s club along with Tracy Wyatt, a snooty ex-schoolteacher played by Edna May Oliver, who specialized in playing upturned-nose types.
George E. Stone plays Sol Leavy, the only Jew in town who initially pulls around a cart selling goods and sundries. Defended by Yancey from Lon’s torments, he grows gradually more prosperous as the years go on. There’s even a hint of longing between him and Sabra, especially when Yancey ups and disappears for five years to pursue another land rush in the Cherokee Strip. Sabra never even so much as receives a telegram telling her he’s still alive.
In 1898 he returns, just in time to serve as Dixie Lee’s defense lawyer in her trial for being a public nuisance. “Cimarron” was made before the Hays Production Code, but the references to Dixie being a prostitute and madam are still kept somewhat oblique.
Sabra had already instructed their longtime, stuttering chief printer, Rickey (Roscoe Ates), to prepare the next day’s newspaper headlines: “Dixie Lee Sentenced to Jail: Vice Gets Death Blow,” having led the charge against her. She is incensed that Yancey would associate with someone of low society like Dixie, and is beset with jealousy and humiliation when his defense of her is successful. But Yancey insists that Dixie has simply had a bad life and deserves no more punishment.
Yancey and Sabra also have strong disagreements over the treatment of Native Americans. He is known for his long advocacy for Indian rights, and when giving the sermon at the town’s first church service in 1889, even refers to the white man stealing their birthright. She repeatedly refers to Indians as “filthy.”
Later in 1907 when the discovery of oil on Cherokee lands has all the greedy politicians and skulkers coming out to steal it away, Yancey stands up for them in a series of progressive editorials — even advocating for American citizenship for all Indians. Sabra opposes him, but he insists upon this course, even knowing it will cost him in his bid to be elected governor. Their split is finally irrevocable, and Yancey leaves Osage for good.
In the last section taking place in 1930, Sabra, having adopted Yancey’s attitude toward the Indians — even blessing the marriage of Cim to Ruby, a Cherokee chief’s daughter — is elected to Congress. She has a brief reuniting with Yancey in his final moments after heroically saving some other men during an oil drilling accident. His wanderlust never sated, he apparently spent the previous two decades tooling around under various pseudonyms.
In its day, “Cimarron” was seen as a story of strivers and pioneers, people who speak their minds and stand up for the rights of the downtrodden.
Like any piece of art, it was also a product of its time — 91 years ago, to be exact — and contains a few painful relics of the past. The worst is the figure of Isaiah (Eugene Jackson), a Black servant boy who runs away from Kansas City to follow the Cravats out West. He’s a typical Stepin Fetchit-type caricature, speaking in a hound-dog drawl and flaunting a servile disposition — even calling Yancey “master.”
Isaiah gets murdered about halfway through the movie trying to save Cim from a band of robbers led by The Kid (William Collier Jr.) who ride into Osage. Yancey kills him, despite having run with him years earlier. He refuses tens of thousands of dollars in reward money, saying he only took a life to protect his family, and others.
The racism in “Cimarron” is emblematic of popular attitudes of its time, where even those who advocated on behalf of Black people did so in a condescending, paternalistic way.
Of course, the specter of presentism demands that the film, which also won the Oscars for adapted screenplay and art direction, be shunned as ‘problematic.’ It is, but so will whatever movie wins Best Picture for this year… someday.
Its competition for Best Picture that year was “Skippy,” “Trader Horn,” “East Lynne” and “The Front Page” — not exactly a banner year, with only the latter carrying some sort of reputation to the modern day.
“Cimarron” starts off as a fairly generic pioneer Western story and winds up as a powerful tale of a man and wife who each had to go their own way to find their full expression of themselves. To me, that’s daring stuff for 1931.