Sunday, October 24, 2010

CIMARRON (1931)

CIMARRON (Dir: Wesley Ruggles) (Screenplay: Howard Eastbrook, based on the novel by Edna Ferber)

Although there were a handful of westerns made in the silent era (John Ford, the most famous western director ever, was already making them), it wasn't until the 1930's that the genre took hold, and hundreds of what were often known as "oaters" were cranked out by the studios.   CIMARRON is the first western to win best picture, something that wouldn't happen again until DANCES WITH WOLVES in 1990.   Clearly, the academy often saw such films as "kiddie" fare (which many of them were)and not worthy of awards.  Despite not getting a lot of respect, westerns remained popular for decades, indeed it's hard to believe now that there was once a time where westerns dominated American movies (and later, TV) with millions of kids buying Davy Crocket raccoon skin caps or cowboy hats.  Fewer and fewer westerns are made these days, as kids seem to have gravitated more towards super heroes; still, the genre will probably never completely die, since the era of the old west has become so romanticized in American culture.
CIMARRON is based on a book by Edna Ferber, which was based loosely on the real life exploits of Temple Houston, a gunfighter and lawyer.  Like many westerns, it is intended to be a tribute to the bold, brave men of America's wild frontier days who first formed towns and then fought to keep order in them, but, as I will get to, it does not allows follow the usual plotlines of the "classic" western.  The RKO studio spent over a million and half dollars on the film, with director Wesley Ruggles using literally thousands of extras (and 28 cameramen!) to shoot the film's opening scene, a recreation of the Oklahoma land rush of 1889.  It is a very impressive scene, as horses and wagons literally flood over the landscape, the only problem with it is that, after this big opening, the film's scope shrinks considerably, and the rest of the movie is never as exciting.
As I previously stated, in many ways, this is an unusual western; for one thing, it spans forty years, meaning the days of the old west are long gone by its end!  Also, its hero, Yancey Cravet,(Richard Dix) may be a former gunslinger who does indeed wear white, but he is also well read (he quotes the bible and poetry constantly), is married with a small child, and along with printing a newspaper, he is also capable of being a minister or a defense lawyer.  He is hardly the solitary stoic western hero of so many other films.   There is  a word for the way Dix plays him: broad.  His style of speech is booming and stentorian, he will often yell for no reason, and he swaggers and struts all the time.  Personally, I rather liked this performance; obviously this is supposed to be a larger than life character, and that's just how Dix portrays him.  As one character says of him, "He's gonna be part of the history of the great Southwest. It's men like him that build the world. The rest of them, like me... why, we just come along and live in it."

 A truly big performance

In the opening land rush scene, Yancey finds himself without land (he is tricked by a woman who steals his horse),  and then he returns home to his wife, Sabra (Irene Dunne) and child, and announces that he is still taking them to the Oklahoma town of Osage, where he will publish a newspaper.  Although Osage is a lawless town when they get there, they are determined to stay, and through a mixture of his willingness to act as a sort of sheriff and preacher along with printing the paper, the town eventually becomes livable.
You can't have a western without gun play, and so this film does, but it is relatively mild compared to most.  There is, in fact, only one extended shoot out, and that comes quite early in the film.  It is fairly well done, especially since it is mainly between Yancey and "The Kid" (William Collier Jr.)a former friend of his from his gunfighting days; it even has a surprising ending, when Yancey nobly allows the wounded Kid to ride out on his horse,  Kid grabs a spare gun and shoots Yancey straight through the arm.  I saw this film at a revival house a few years ago, and even jaded modern audiences gasped at this moment.
Perhaps because this is a movie based on a novel written by a woman, CIMARRON is, that rarity of rarities, a western with a strong role for a woman; in fact, this story is as much Sabra's as it Yancey's.  As Sabra, Dunne, mostly known today for the romantic comedies she made with Cary Grant, is really very good.  She believably ages in the film, and transforms from frightened young woman to someone who is determined to do what she has to protect herself and her family.  When Yancey leaves his family to go on another land rush, she takes over printing the paper with great success.  By the end of the film, she has become such a pillar of the community that she has been elected to congress!  But she isn't perfect; early in the film she refers to Native Americans as "filthy savages", but, when Yancey explains to her(more than once) how horribly the Native Americans have been treated, she slowly comes to see things his way, and at the end of the film she is proud of the fact that her son has married a Native American woman.

 Irene Dunne

It is on this last point that CIMARRON is a truly unusual western; with so many films in this genre portraying Native Americans as subhuman, it is truly surprising to see a western hero who uses his paper to crusade for their rights, and, when given the chance to get rich from exploiting their land rights, refuses.  Yes, this is a western released in 1931 that is more progressive towards women and Native Americans than most westerns made twenty or thirty years later.  On that level, it is a nice surprise.

SO DID THE ACADEMY GET IT RIGHT?
In researching this film, I have found that a lot of critics dislike it.  I myself, enjoyed it much more than I thought I would, perhaps because of how different it is from later westerns, most of which I'm not a big fan of.  If one can handle the broad nature of Dix's performance (and the at time insufferable nobility of his character), than I think you will enjoy it.  But was it worthy of the Oscar?  In a word: no.  Especially since that same year Charlie Chaplin released his classic film CITY LIGHTS, still one of the best(and most romantic) comedies ever made.