Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Overlooked Films: Cimarron (1931)

Looking at the first hour and fifteen minutes of Cimarron, it's easy to see why it won the Academy Award for Best Picture of 1931. But members of the Academy must have either left the theater early or put their blinders on, because the last 45 minutes are worthy of a Golden Turkey Award.

Based on what I assume was a popular novel by Edna Ferber, Cimarron is the story of Yancey Cravat (yes, he almost always wears a tie), an attorney and newspaper editor with a wild and woolly past. The film opens with the great land grab of 1889, when President Harrison opens up a patch of Oklahoma Indian land called the Cimarron Strip to white settlement. This makes for a spectacular opening scene (see lobby card below), in which a cast of hundreds go tearing across the prairie to stake their claims.

Yancey Cravat (Richard Dix) gets snookered out of the land he wants, but that doesn't stop him from gathering up his wife and son (along with a stowaway slave for comic relief) and moving to the brand new boomtown of Osage Township. Osage is a tent city of 10,000 souls, with only a few buildings. Mrs. Cravat (Irene Dunne) quite naturally hates the place.

Over the rest of the first hour and fifteen minutes, Yancey plays a big part in helping repress the criminal element and civilize the town. And there are some fine scenes. In one, because the town is without a preacher, he's asked to deliver the sermon at the first Sunday service. He does so, but in mid-sermon he lays down his Bible and announces that one of the attendees is guilty of murder. When the murderer takes a shot at him, Yancey pulls two sixguns and blasts away over the heads of the worshippers. End of problem.

Richard Dix making like Ben Hur.

Richard Dix makes an odd hero. He looks the part, but like almost everyone else in the film, he was a veteran of silent movies and had learned to do most of his acting with his eyes, face and body language. Though most of the other actors seem to have their silent habits under control, Dix can't resist bouncing around and mugging for the camera - and combined with his outrageous Southern accent, he comes off like a cartoon character. Amazingly, this performance still managed to garner him a nomination for Best Actor. 1931 must have been a slow year. 

By the time four years have passed, the Cravats have a baby daughter, Yancey is publishing the town newspaper, Osage is relatively civilized, and his wife is finally content. And that's where the movie goes sideways. 

President Cleveland announces another land grab, this time in the Cherokee Strip, and Yancey can't resist the call. He vanishes from the scene for five years, not even bothering to write, and returns after the end of the Spanish American War to announce he's been Rough Riding in Cuba with Teddy Roosevelt. There follows an overdramatic courtroom scene, in which Yancey defends a Madame, and he hangs around town for another fourteen years, but his story is effectively over. 

From the moment Yancey heads for the Cherokee Strip, the focus of the film shifts to his wife Sabra. She takes over the paper, raises the family and is eventually elected to the U.S. Congress, while her hubby just fades from the picture. The moral of the story seems to be that Yancey was the explorer/adventurer type who helped America expand, while Sabra was the stable sort necessary to nurture the country and make it grow. Ho hum. The role of Sabra earned Irene Dunne a Best Actress nomination. Again, it must have been a slow year.

The direction throughout is top-notch, reminding me of the later work of John Ford. But the job was done by Wesley Ruggles (another Award nominee). The cast is loaded with talented character actors who add wit and charm to almost every scene. As far as I'm concerned, Ruggles and the supporting cast were the real stars of the film.

Poster Notes: Both the window card (above) and the 1-sheet poster (at bottom) are false advertising. There is no scene in which Dix and Dunne engage in a wild wagon ride. And there's no scene where Dix gets his shirt ripped open. Heck, he almost never even removes his cravat.

Dix doing his Doc Savage impression.

Overlooked Films is a SWEET FREEDOM thang.


Todd Mason said...

Well, how to put this...Ferber not one of the great writers of her or anyone's time. But she sold like crazy. So, any film faithful to her work...you get the gist. Not that I've read nor seen CIMARRON yet...

Cap'n Bob said...

For all its faults (and wasn't there a later one?) the land rush scene is one of the best in cinema history.

Evan Lewis said...

Yep, there was a 1960 remake with Glenn Ford as Yancey. Ain't seen it. Not sure I want to.

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