Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Cimarron is one of the first of the multi-generational Edna Ferber stories to reach the screen and an early Best Picture Oscar winner. Parts of Cimarron still creak loudly -- mainly Richard Dix's primitive acting technique. But the lengthy epic demonstrated that movie audiences loved getting their history lessons in a dramatic form. Noble hero Yancey Cravat proclaims that everything his family is doing in Oklahoma is making history, and a meek (and Jewish) storekeeper later observes that Yancey makes history while everybody else just lives in it.
Cimarron is dedicated to the notion that the builders of the west were ennobled visionaries looking for a new Utopia on the plains, searching for solutions to "social conditions" like prejudice and intolerance. Yancey struggles to accomplish good in a frontier society that pulls up stakes and moves farther west every five years or so. If America went on for an extra ten or twenty thousand miles westward, by the time the nation reached water, it might have been 'reborn' enough times to be cured of its ills.
The best thing about Cimarron is that it doesn't look like just another Hollywood product. Yes, the growing town of Osage is augmented by mattes, but the production has a sense of detail that reaches from changing fashions (puffy sleeves in dresses) to a brief look at a curious old-fashioned cash register, to the fact that the town is forever being dug up for new water mains and sewers. And although it doesn't explain them very well, it's about complicated characters - Irene Dunne is no idealized frontier "ma'am."
Even though lawyer and newspaperman Yancey Cravat (Richard Dix) doesn't get to plant a flag in the Oklahoma Land Rush of 1889, his eager wife Sabra (Irene Dunne) accompanies him to the new wild west town of Osage, along with their tiny son Cim and a stowaway in their Conestoga, Isaiah (Eugene Jackson). Yancey becomes the soul and spirit of the new community, defending the weak peddler Sol Levy against hooligans like Lon Yountis (Stanley Fields), who murdered Osage's first newspaperman. Yancey is a combination lawman, preacher and editorializing promoter of progress, especially for Indian's rights. But he has a bad case of wanderlust, and leaves home for years at a time seeking fortunes in war and gold rushes. The less-enlightened but determined Sabra carries on Yancey's newspaper without him, as Osage grows into a 20th century metropolis.
Edna Ferber was lucky that Cimarron was such a blockbuster hit, for Hollywood returned time and again to her sprawling tales, epics that covered generations of American empire-builders: Come and Get It, Showboat, Giant, Ice Palace. When Anthony Mann remade
Cimarron in 1960, he filmed a sprawling epic of undetermined length, enlarging characters and adding Mercedes McCambridge in a Giant-like supporting role. MGM didn't go for Mann's cut and truncated its last act into near incoherence.
Both movie versions begin with the big Land Rush scene, which for action fans has always left the rest of the story as something of an anti-climax. For 1930 action filmmaking, this one is really impressive, if rather tame now. If either version were a big-draw title, it would have been pleasant to see them both on one disc. Or perhaps that's an unrealistic idea, because they come from different studio contracts, RKO and MGM.
Wesley Ruggles' Cimarron has a few narrative stumbles, perhaps caused by the loss of eight minutes of running time from its premiere length. Silent-style intertitles intrude to let us know that three, five and ten-year intervals have suddenly passed, without preparing us or the characters. Irene Dunne and her growing family are re-introduced at least three times. A general air of artlessness leaves the Yancey Cravat character as something of an annoyance: Without warning, he just up'n leaves for years at a time, only to return as if nothing out of the ordinary has happened. Running in the front door of his newspaper office, Yancey wisely plants a big kiss on Sabra before she has a chance to think how angry she must be, and proceeds to interfere with her life for a few days before moving on again. Ah, but he's the great man, the kind who can write an editorial and proclaim that it will become an important document in the future. Certain of the power of his own will, Yancey embraces Sabra as if honoring a saint: "WIFE ... and mother!"
Cimarron proffers a variety of confused liberal values. Yancey champions the Indian cause and respects those "of the Hebrew faith" like inoffensive little Sol Levy. But family servant Isaiah is a painfully stereotyped black kid who gets excited about his new home in Osage because he sees a cartload of watermelons. Yancey does his best to be 'white' with Isaiah, who earns a moment of silence after being gunned down while attempting to protect Yancey's boy Cim. Yancey's chivalry extends to offering protection to Dixie Lee (Estelle Taylor), a prostitute coming under frequent fire by the blue-noses. She's an old-timer from the open-range days, and even though she cheats Yancey out of his ranching homestead, he values her friendship. In a relationship curiously similar to that of Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, Yancey also remains loyal to his old buddy, an outlaw called "The Kid" -- even as he shoots him down in the street.
Sabra isn't quite as open-minded. We see her scolding young Cim to stay away from "those dirty filthy Indians", while she eagerly forms Women's clubs for the express purpose of persecuting less enlightened frontier females. In this she's aided by Edna May Oliver's amusing society woman (who sometimes resembles Carol Burnett, lampooning Edna May Oliver). Although Sabra shows she has both guts and style, she never takes on Yancey's mantel of legend: His every gesture seems poised halfway between glory and the Bible. When Sabra complains that their son Cim is stepping out with an Indian girl (Dolores Brown), Yancey just buries the subject with an offhand, "We can't lead our children's lives, dear." That's easy for him to say, as he hasn't been around to raise the kids.
It's equally telling that when the outlaw Lon Yountis shoots off Yancey's very white Stetson, the bullet hole in the hat is so low we'd have to think it went through Yancey's head. Yancey is one of those walk-on-water heroes who can open fire in a crowded church meeting, and hit only his intended target.
Cimarron never really accounts for Sabra's intolerance or Yancey's terminal wanderlust, and asks us to accept them as they are. We never accompany Yancey on his odysseys away from home, and have to assume that somewhere along the line he experienced a big enough failure to cause him to sneak home to find work in a muddy oil field. We barely recognize him when Sabra rushes to his side after a drilling accident - he's covered in blood and has just enough time to proclaim his love in words: "WIFE ... and mother!" I think Sabra would have preferred him to just come home, as a nation-builder or a bum.
Warners' DVD of Cimarron is a fine transfer that makes the most of ancient elements. The film is intact and looks good, although there are a few jump cuts and missing frames from old damage. Even better, the soundtrack has been cleaned up and optimized so we can hear the dialogue ... previous to this, watching the 1931 film anywhere but a theater would give one a headache trying to understand what people were saying. And don't forget: "WIFE ... and mother!"
In the absence of a trailer or other extras ( I guess the perfect commentator to analyze the Edna Ferber connection didn't materialize) Warners gives us two amusing 1931 short subjects. The Devil's Cabaret is a 2-color Technicolor musical oddity set in Hell. Satan is a featured player and writes with a pen that sparks. A comic tempter says some startlingly raw jokes: When a scantily-clad Hell-steno girl sits on his lap, he grins, "You take it well!" Another character comes right out and shouts "Hooray for Sin!" The Merrie Melodies animated short Red-Headed Baby is one of those Toon-Town-style headache-inducers wrapped around a pop tune, the kind of cartoon where characters and inanimate objects bop to the music as if they (or we) were on drugs.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Movie: Very Good
Video: Very Good
Sound: Very Good
Supplements: Musical short subject The Devil's Cabaret and Merrie Melodies animated short Red-Headed Baby
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: February 10, 2006
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson