CIMARRON (1931)

Cimarron_(1931_film)_posterWe let this one sit for a while, truth be told. Sometimes the older Best Picture winners are harder for me to muster excitement over. Cimarron won the Oscar in 1931, and was also one of only a few Westerns to ever win an Academy Award. It focuses on the story of Yancey Cravat, an adventure-seeking man with a past who participates in the Oklahoma Land Rush of 1889. When he fails to grab the piece of land he wants and is outsmarted by a young woman Dixie Lee, he regroups and takes his young bride Sabra and their son Cim (nickname for Cimarron, a word which is also used to refer to the Wild) to Osage. They realize on the way that a black servant from their former home in Kansas has stowed away with them – Isaiah – but they allow him to stay.

Osage terrifies Sabra at first. The town is newly forming, and there is a lot of violence and gambling. She worries about raising their child there, but the family soldiers on. Yancey takes it upon himself to rid the town of its bad element and ends up shooting the outlaw Lon Yountis. He sets up shop with The Osage Wigwam, a town paper, helping the burgeoning area to progress. Yancey is bold and masculine and extroverted, and quickly becomes a local hero. In the midst of this, he and Sabra, who has begun to like Osage, have a second child – a daughter Donna.

The interesting thing about Cimarron is that, central to the story, is not so much a conflict between protagonist and antagonist, but rather the dichotomous tension between the two main characters. The story follows the fictionalized town of Osage as it changes through the passing of time, first as a lawless frontier settlement, then a growing town taking it’s place in the newly founded state of Oklahoma, and finally a modern city. Yancey is a true larger than life personality. He saunters into town literally as it is being built, he founds the church and newspaper and he shoots from the hip to protect the weak from town villains. Not only that, but he is a man of great principle. When propositioned with a scheme to cheat Indian groups, he sacrifices a potential political career by publishing editorials demanding Indians’ rights. Later he defies popular opinion by defending a maligned prostitute. But he also bores easily, disappearing from his family for years at a stretch. If Yancey is the spirit of adventure embodied, Sabra is the spirit of stability, acting as editor of the paper while raising the family during Yancey’s absences. Yancey is ahead of the curve; Sabra gets to the right place- eventually. Together they constitute the Yin and Yang of a society’s progress, the sail and the anchor, so to speak. By the film’s final sequence, in 1929, Sabra has become a pillar of the community, newly elected to the House of Representatives. Yancey has long since drifted on, but she never would have gotten there without him.

There are some other things I like about Cimarron. The opening credits are done tableau style wherein rather than a printed list, each actor poses alone and in character, outside the narrative, with the actor and character name shown. I’ve seen this done in earlier silents, but I can’t place it in any talkies (Wes Anderson excepted). I like that we’re watching something early enough that conventions of showing acting credits aren’t firmly established. I have an affinity for deviations that break classical form and draw attention to the unreality of the film.

The story took place at intervals across four decades and I will say that if nothing else, the characters aged convincingly in front of the camera.

It’s really difficult to not be distracted by racial representation in this film. There is a number of bizarre scenes with Isaiah, as the most prominent character of color – in one he is hanging from the ceiling in order to fan the white folks in attendance. He is made into a caricature a lot of the time. Even Yancey, supposedly a progressive person who sticks up for the rights of the Native Americans, does not invite Isaiah to participate in the church service he presides over for the town. He instead tasks Isaiah with going home and guarding the house, even though Isaiah asked to attend. Isaiah is relegated time and again to a position of second-class citizen.

Race comes up later in the film when Cim falls in love with a young Native American woman he has known most of his life. At first, Sabra cannot handle the relationship, but later on acknowledges and praises her while making a speech as a Congresswoman. It is powerful to see the characters have some measure of growth throughout the film. This is particularly true for Sabra, who gains the independence and drive to take over the editing of the paper in her husband’s many absences. While the very different drives of the two characters drives them apart, it is clear they both have abiding respect for the spirit and determination of the other. It’s people like Yancey who trailblaze to find new places to live and set up towns and cities – but it’s the Sabras of the world who then put down the roots necessary to see those communities thrive.

The unsavory depiction of African-Americans in classical Hollywood is a subject that has been extensively discussed, including on this blog, and so to avoid beating a dead horse, I almost want to overlook this. Here we have a movie really trying to get some things right. Sabra’s growth beyond her initial racism is a major theme in the movie. When I think of how Indians were portrayed in 1931, I think of stunt men in half-assed costumes serving as stock baddies for the heroes to shoot at. By the end of Cimarron, aside from a sympathetic depiction of an interracial marriage, we are introduced to a bespectacled man in a business suit who is identified as a representative of the Cherokee Nation. And this follows a scene in which a Jewish character ribs a snobbish blueblood that he can trace his roots further than her’s- to the writing of the Ten Commandments. In light of all this, the buffoonery of the Isaiah character just sticks out, and not least of all because he’s pretty much superfluous to the story. I could see them trying; I just wish they had tried a little harder.

Cimarron does show its age in some other ways. Richard Dix has his moments as Yancey, but sometimes I want to tell him to tone it down just a little, especially when he starts to sound like a bad Elvis impersonation. The includes some Western genre cliches, like Yancey’s near-superhuman marksmanship and the hokey costumes don’t let you forget you’re watching a movie from 1931. Also confusing to me is the movie poster, which depicts Yancey brandishing a pistol, with his shirt falling off like some proto-Fabio. A search on the internet reveals an alternate poster in which it is the lady (I honestly can’t tell which one) who is losing her garments. Perhaps there were separate ads aimed at men and women? Either way, they make the movie look a lot sexier than I remember it.

I laughed reading Chris’ description of Yancey as Elvis-like, because it is pretty apt. In many ways, throughout the film Sabra is a foil to Yancey. He is bold and brazen and daring – but he is made more so because she is terrified, timid and safe. He benefits from her assuming this role. As the film progresses, we see Sabra come into her own. She has the confidence to run the paper, but the deference to continue publishing it under Yancey’s name as editor despite the fact that she is doing all of the work. Heartbreakingly, she realizes that the things she loves him for – his passion, his daring, his thrill-seeking – are all things that will cause him to abandon her again and again. Yancey simply wasn’t meant to be a family man, but it is clear that he does love those who are close to him as much as he can.

It’s powerful to see Sabra assume a position of Congresswoman by the end of the story. In many ways, she is stepping out and forging new territory just as boldly as he is – if at a slower pace. When the two reconnect at the end of Yancey’s life, it is clear how much they both loved and needed each other to become the bold people they did. There is a good lesson in this film about love existing even when you are not able to walk side by side with someone for all your days.

The Academy was obviously rewarding RKO for going big with Cimarron. It was a huge production that involved staging the Oklahoma land rush and building a virtual town to film in. The movie ran in the red during its initial release, something that wasn’t helped by its release during the hard times of the Great Depression. Well received at the time, today it seems best remembered for having won one of the first Oscars. The runners-up are probably at least as obscure to modern audiences. There was a film that year that, despite getting no nominations, has remained a deeply influential part of modern culture. Tod Browning’s Dracula cemented the modern vampire mythos and all but invented the horror film genre. It isn’t difficult to imagine why The Academy chose the way it did, but it is interesting which movie has become truly iconic and which has become a bit of film trivia.

Not directly related to Cimarron, our DVD included “The Devil’s Cabaret”, a comedy short about an executive assistant to Satan trying to drum up business for Hell. I have no idea if it was part of the Cimarron theatrical release or if they just threw it on the disc, but we enjoyed it at least as much as the feature. Imagine an Art Deco afterlife, with dance numbers and Pre-Code naughtiness. Plus it was filmed in two strip technicolor, so think about that the next time some doof tries to tell you that The Wizard of Oz was the first color movie. Check it out.

Also nominated in 1931:
East Lynn
The Front Page
Skippy
Trader Horn

Next film: THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES (1946)

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