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This gargantuan war-horse of a western epic won the Oscar as the Best
Film of 1930/31 proving from the earliest days of the Academy it was
quantity not quality that mattered and that big equalled best. Of
course there wasn't much in the way competition, ("East Lynne", "The
Front Page", "Skippy" and "Trader Horn"). Much better films like
"Morocco", "The Criminal Code" and "Little Caesar" failed to make the
short-list. But it is still surprisingly robust and enjoyable in the
way that these kind of movies sometimes are, (it's certainly a lot less
po-faced than the dire 1960 remake), and it has some really good things
in it; a great church meeting sequence and a very well staged hold-up
culminating in a great moment when a young black boy is killed and is
ignored in the general mêlée and is a brave scene for the period, and a
sequence probably deemed too contentious for the remake.
The acting, too, is a cut above the average for the time. A young, fresh-faced Irene Dunne is lovely and shows considerable promise here and Richard Dix has a kind of screen presence. It's ham and he plays to the gallery but he's very likable. Estelle Taylor is touching as the whore with the obligatory heart of gold and Edna May Oliver is very funny but in too small a role.
It runs out of steam before the end. It's top heavy in the plot department, (based, as it is, on an Edna Ferber door-stopper), and characters come and go without making much of an impression. Often listed in polls of the worst films to win the Best Picture Oscar it has vigour and a complete lack of pretension. I'll take it any day over "A Beautiful Mind".
A charismatic Kansas lawyer takes his bride to the Oklahoma
Territory's CIMARRON Country to start a newspaper in the
rawboned town of Osage.
Edna Ferber's sprawling novel of frontier life comes to the big screen in a film deemed fine enough to win a few Oscars, including Best Picture. It was one of the first great epics of the Sound Era and is still very entertaining to watch. Occasionally there is a bit of overacting, perhaps, and technical difficulties with the microphones can be discerned while trying to hear the stars' voices clearly during some crowd scenes, but this in no way detracts from the enjoyment of viewing the film.
The performance of Richard Dix as pioneer & dreamer Yancey Cravat has been criticized as being too florid and overripe, but this is unfair. The popular actor had his roots in silent films when acting techniques were somewhat different, but this robust style perfectly suits the energetic wanderlust of his character. Anything less than abundant enthusiasm would look silly in a fellow called upon to deliver a sermon and shoot an outlaw almost simultaneously, vigorously champion the rights of fallen women and racial minorities and yet still blithely abandon his family for long years as he follows his own star of destiny. Call it what you may, Dix's performance can certainly never be tagged as being dull.
Irene Dunne, as Yancey's wife Sabra - his Sugar' - provides the calm emotional center for the film. She is the one who holds the family and newspaper together while her husband is off bringing civilization to other frontiers. She is even able to achieve substantial business and political importance. What saves Dunne's performance from becoming too sweet is the story giving her a few personality wrinkles to deal with, most notably her determination to destroy the town's bawdy house madam (well played by Estelle Taylor) and her intense bigotry towards the local Indians. Her growth as a human being is juxtaposed with that of Oklahoma's expansion as a state.
Some fine character actors provide prime entertainment value: stuttering Roscoe Ates as the Cravats' faithful printer; George E. Stone as a gentle Jewish peddler who becomes a firm family friend; Stanley Fields as a town tough who tangles with the wrong hombre; William Collier Jr in a brief, vibrant outlaw role as The Kid; and Eugene Jackson as the young Black servant who gives the ultimate sacrifice of loyalty to the Cravats. Marvelous gossipy Edna May Oliver, replete with snooty sniffs & piercing glances, neatly tucks all her scenes as a society matron into her handbag and stalks off with them.
With production costs of 1.5 million dollars, RKO could give CIMARRON excellent production values, featuring crowds of extras and very realistic sets. A few of the scenes are classics and remain in the mind for a long time: the 1889 Land Rush sequence which opens the film; the church service in the saloon; the gun battle in the dusty street. It is very interesting to watch how the town of Osage changes during the movie, from a dangerous dirty settlement to an Oklahoma metropolis in 1930, all achieved most convincingly for the screen.
The Cimarron is a wild & unruly river that arises in New Mexico and runs for about 600 miles before becoming a tributary of the Arkansas River near Tulsa, Oklahoma. The word is Old Spanish and refers to the thickets along the River and the bighorn sheep which inhabited them
This is a very dated western but so much so it makes it interesting to
watch in spots. However, it's too long - 131 minutes - and I watched it
on a VHS tape in which the sound quality wasn't the best, which helped
make it too tough to watch in one sitting. Yet, for its uniqueness and
strange-looking characters and strange scenes, it made it worthwhile to
stick it through to the end. However, the first half of the film is a
lot better than the second half.
This was Irene Dunne's first starring role and, frankly, I didn't recognize her. She was anything but pretty and certainly looked different. Her role was that a steady person who keeps her marriage together but has a major flaws, including a real prejudice against the local Indians. In the end, sees the error of her ways. Richard Dix plays her husband. He overacts and looks cartoonish most of the time. This movie was in the beginning of "talkies" and Dix still looked like he belonged in silent movies. He marries Dunne and quickly leaves to go wandering. He comes home briefly and leaves again....and it's okay. Strange.
The story revolves around the two leads (Yancy and Sabra Cravat") and the their town which grows from nothing into a big city by the late 1920s. Seeing that city grow was interesting.
Included in this movie was the strangest "gospel meeting" I've ever seen. It begins well-intentioned, but becomes so spiritually weak and so secular that it makes a farce out of the whole proceedings. You have to see this to believe it. I just shook my head in amazement about how Hollywood has never had a clue when it came to topics like this.
I got rid of the VHS long ago but, if given the opportunity, now that it is out on DVD, would give it another look. It's almost a curiosity piece.
The outstanding but admittedly dated "Cimarron" dazzled audiences so much that it was a runaway Best Picture Oscar winner in 1931. The film is novelist Edna Ferber's epic tale of the early American settlements of Oklahoma from 1889 and goes to the economic unrest of the Stock Market crash of 1929. Richard Dix (Oscar-nominated) immediately moves his family out to the untamed land and starts a new life. Wife Irene Dunne (Oscar-nominated) has doubts not only about the new land, but also about her husband's adventurous nature. Dix is an individualist with itchy feet and thus he comes and goes as he pleases, but always seems to come through for his family and his adopted state when the chips are down. "Cimarron" is an abbreviated history of a land which was once wild and untamed that slowly became modern by the early-20th Century. The views upon African-Americans and Native Americans is given much air time here. Ferber's equally riveting "Giant" posed similar questions towards Texas' views of women and Hispanic Americans. She was a truly gifted writer and her novels were both adapted into stunning motion picture experiences. Wesley Ruggles' (Oscar-nominated) direction is a bit prodding and the film does stall a bit due to its length, but overall "Cimarron" is an important American movie that if nothing else created the legitimate Western genre. 4.5 out of 5 stars.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
(SPOILER re the fate of Isaiah)
Being a huge fan of Edna Ferber's novels and having watched the 1960 and 1931 film adaptations of "Cimarron" back to back, I detested the 1960 version for the liberties it took with my beloved book, and loved the 1931 version for staying true to Ferber.
What some have called "overacting" from Richard Dix I see as capturing perfectly the character of Yancey Cravat, a man of sweeping gestures and grand oratory -- a "drama king." His assigning Isaiah, the black servant boy, to guard the house instead of accompanying the family to church in "Yancey drag" is actually a compassionate gesture intended to spare the boy from ridicule by the town.
And Irene Dunne's Sabra is the quintessential Ferber heroine, who starts out as a starry-eyed innocent and learns the meaning, over the years, of "life is what happens while you're making other plans," emerging in the autumn of life as a strong, wise, magnificent woman. (See Barbara Stanwyck's Selina DeJong in "So Big" for another example of a Ferberella who translates well to the screen.) And she eventually gets over her prejudice against Indians and becomes their champion.
Isaiah does embody some unpleasant stereotypes, but this, too is from the book. He was originally a servant of Sabra's family, old-school Mississippians transplanted to Wichita for whom emancipation was a mere technicality. They didn't beat or sell their servants, but demanded total subservience and obedience, as they had in slave days.
**SPOILER** Isaiah's death is the one big glaring deviation from the book, which gives him a far more grisly ending. **END SPOILER**
Worthy of the best picture Oscar? No. But a faithful adaptation of the source material? For someone who loves her books and has seen her share of favorite books butchered on film, from "Heidi" to "Needful Things," a big yes.
"Sprawling" is the adjective most often associated with novels and
movies-from-novels by Edna Ferber. Her stories span geographical
locations, family generations and economic strata, usually with a
strong female at the center. In the case of CIMARRON it's the story of
how Oklahoma became a state seen through the life of Sabra Cravat
(Irene Dunne), demure wife of gun-totin' macho dude Yancey Cravat
(Richard Dix). It's a fascinating and not pleasant relationship: He
always hankering for another risky adventure and she wanting to settle
down and be respectable. He is also politically minded, a fighter for
the underdog, defender of the prostitute ("victim of the social order")
and the Indians (robbed of their land and cheated thereafter),
dispenser of frontier justice against the bad guys (but only when
provoked to the limit) and literate to boot (frequently quoting
Shakespeare, Milton and the Bible). The film is splendidly produced
with well staged action sequences (particularly the opening Oklahoma
land rush which puts even DeMille's exodus to the Red Sea to shame) and
realistic recreation of a filthy, crowded, violent and anarchic boom
town which gradually gentrifies as the decades pass. Interiors are
similarly authentic. Wesley Ruggles directs multiple crowd scenes with
great mastery. And the whole film is structured in fully realized
episodes beginning with a title card and a year (1889 to start, 1930 to
finish) and ending with a close up on the character at hand as the
screen slowly fades to black. The Dix character is heroic in the old
style and though many modern viewers find his acting preposterous, I
disagree. I think he is the perfect actor for the character he is
playing. Yes, such a person would definitely be out of place in today's
urban world, but so what? We aren't watching a contemporary story
anyway. The supporting cast, particularly George E. Stone as a Jewish
peddler who is defended against ruffians by Dix, Edna May Oliver as the
pushy, judgmental neighbor and Stanley Fields as a grizzled sociopath
are my favorites.
Ferber's feelings about intolerance always informed her stories and make us think. Seeing a film like this 78 years after it was made also reminds us that although the US has come a long way, the consciousness that all was not well was firmly operating even back then and available for wide public consumption. CIMARRON works as pure entertainment as well as history; in fact the film and novel themselves are now history and have been folded into the larger history of this country.
The only problem technically is the soundtrack which has become fuzzy. Maybe a pristine print is lurking around somewhere. And the supporting character of a black house servant played by Eugene Jackson will raise PC hackles from the early scene in which he is perched on a platform above the family dinner table fanning the white employers with bird feathers through one degrading interaction after another with whites. But this film was made in the age when most black actors (and black people) played servile or childlike roles, so it is not a surprise to see the practice here.
Seeing Cimarron is comparable to looking at old pictures, with the difference that they move and speak. It makes you go back in time to 1931, and also it shows you how people at that time would look at the end of the 19th century. Even though it is a `talkie' you have the feeling you are seeing a silent film. After all they were closer in years to the days of the wild west, than we are from the year the film was made. Richard Dix gives a `silent movie' performance as Yancey, the guy who had `ants in his pants' and could not stay anywhere for a long time, but would show up at crucial moments. Edna May Oliver as Mrs. Wyatt gives an incredibly actual performance, but just the opposite happens with William Collier Jr. as `The Kid', who seems to have only one expression on his face. Cimarron, nowadays, is not a film for anyone, only for those who have curiosity about old movies and what they show us about the past.
This is a comment following up to a previous post. Richard Dix was a big silent film star before Cimarron. He was one of the few silent actors who successfully made the transition to talking pictures. I hardly recognized Irene Dunne at first, this was only her second film. This film is fun to watch as the talent of the actors is evident. People must keep in mind that the sound quality, sets, etc. were all still relatively new in 1931. Actors and directors were accustomed to silent movies. The costumes, performances, and sets are quite good, in my opinion. Once gets a feel for how the home life, new life in the southwest, and the timeless snobbery of the town "ladies." The courtroom scenes are intense. The writing was realistic for the time period. Scathing accusatory and judgmental remarks to browbeat and break the woman's spirit. A very moving picture.
Big budget, sweeping epic and actually a decent film to boot. Cimarron covers forty years of frontier life in Oklahoma. A large part of the film rests on the shoulders of the flamboyant character Yancey Cravat (Richard Dix). Yancey embodies the spirit of the kind of men who build cities. He is a newspaper man, a politician, a lawyer, a preacher, a family man and a gunfighter. When he talks, people listen, when he decides to do something, he does it, and when he draws his guns, men die. Richard Dix may not have been the most natural actor in the world, but his broad build, booming voice and intense energy lent itself to the strong, forceful character of Yancey Cravat. Cimarron is also quite an impressive production. The opening Oklahoma land race is captured every bit as well as it was sixty years later in Ron Howard's Far and Away. The costumes, sets and decor show us the passage of time as a small shanty town develops over the years into a major city. Like most films high on production value, though, Cimarron is low on substance. The storyline is too broad to be engaging and there is no real emotional core to the film. Nonetheless, it is entertaining and that is enough to make it worth watching.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Yes, there is a ridiculously obsequious black character. And a tacked-on
ending. But I think the characters in this film, including the white ones,
are intentional stereotypes intended to suggest the character of the
westward-expanding American people. In that light, the tragic (and almost
unnoticed) demise of the black character is a criticism both of his
obsequiousness and the white characters who take his loyalty for granted.
And in the same light, the hero's sudden appearance at the end (which also
takes place in 1930, the year the movie was made) suggests a hope that the
unruly American energy that claimed the West is now being channeled,
or not, into the betterment of modern civilization.
That being said, this movie is slow by modern standards, and much of the dialog either wasn't recorded well, or didn't completely survive the transfer to video. Still, there are some memorable scenes: the Oklahoma land rush (literally a race with a starting line) and Yancey the frontiersman/preacher/reporter giving a sermon in a saloon, two guns drawn, leveled at the crowd (at hip level) as he intones "God bless this community."
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