Thursday, January 27, 2011
The Best Picture Countdown #4: Cimarron (1931)
Director: Wesley Ruggles
Starring: Richard Dix, Irene Dunne
Gone with the Wind gets a lot of flak for being racist but, man, it has got nothing on Cimarron, RKO’s loving tribute to Manifest Destiny and the men in whom it was manifest. This is such a weird movie, one in which Richard Dix plays a character who can, in the same breath, acknowledge the plight of Native Americans regarding the loss of land and then happily pledge his intention to go ahead and grab up some of that land for himself; while Irene Dunne plays a character who is admirable for her can-do, get things done attitude and deplorable for her very pronounced racism. Outside of that it’s a decent film but there are definitely a few things in it that make a modern audience member start and wonder how that was ever okay.
Based on a novel by Edna Ferber, Cimarron is an epic tale that spans decades, starting in 1893 when its hero, Yancy Cravat (Dix), participates in the Oklahoma land rush. His desire for a particular plot of land is thwarted by Dixie Lee (Estelle Taylor), whom he will encounter again later, and he returns empty handed to Wichita, where his wife Sabra (Dunne) is waiting for him. However, he remains determined to make a go of it in the exciting new landscape and he and Sabra pack up their belongings and their son, Cimarron, and head off. Along the way they discover that they’ve got a stowaway in the form of Isaiah (Eugene Jackson), a black servant.
The Cravats settle in the booming town of Osage and start their newspaper, the Oklahoma Wigwam. In the town’s early years, before joining the Union, it’s a lawless, dog-eat-dog territory beset by outlaws, many of whom end up being flushed out by Yancy, the town’s one man army. Once the area starts to become more settled, a curious thing happens within the story. Yancy, the center of the story for its first half, is supplanted by Sabra, a shift which is perhaps symbolically indicative of the fact that the land was settled by adventurous people like Yancy but that communities grew as a result of stable people like Sabra. Hereafter, Yancy becomes an absent presence in the story, first leaving to fight in the Spanish American War and later leaving to wander throughout the country while Sabra stays behind, raises their children and runs the newspaper. There’s an unintentionally funny exchange during one of Yancy’s returns home when Sabra tries to stop him from running what she believes to be an inflammatory editorial and he tells her that until the day comes when she removes him as publisher and editor, she doesn’t get to dictate to him. Never mind that he’s already essentially abdicated the post and that she’s the one who has been running the paper, by herself, for years.
On a technical level there are a number of things about Cimarron worth admiring. It opens with the absolutely fantastic land rush scene in which Yancy and thousands of others, some on horseback, others in covered wagons or makeshift carriages, and an unlucky few on foot, race to stake a claim for prime pieces of land. It’s a truly thrilling scene, the thundering excitement reminiscent of the stampede scene in John Ford’s Red River. Similarly, the big shoot out scene towards the middle of the story is also quite well-done, as long as you’re willing to suspend disbelief long enough to buy that Yancy, all on his own, can take out an entire gang of outlaws.
Thematically, the film is problematic in a lot of ways, particularly when it comes to its treatment of race. On the one hand, Yancy expresses sympathetic attitudes towards Native Americans and there is a sense in which the film is critical of both Sabra and society’s racism. One example of that is Sabra’s horror at the thought of a now grown Cimarron marrying a Native American woman, an idea that she comes to accept much later (and off-screen); another example has to do with Isaiah, who dies during the shoot out mentioned above. Isaiah leaves the safety of the Cravat house to go looking for Cimarron, who was out playing before the violence began, and is shot. He dies a slow, sad death which quite literally goes ignored as Yancy walks right by him without even noticing and Sabra fails to give him so much as a thought once Cimarron comes running home. It’s difficult to imagine that the film isn’t making a statement about white indifference to the suffering of minorities and yet, at the same time, the minority characters - from Isaiah and the Native Americans to Sol (George E. Stone), a Jewish friend of the Cravats - are portrayed in such negative, stereotypical ways that it’s difficult to see these efforts at balance as truly sincere.
Another somewhat problematic element of the film is Dix, who has a very... pronounced acting style which is particularly jarring when placed side-by-side with Dunne’s more naturalistic approach. I can see how his style of acting would work very well in silent films, where he got his start, but it doesn’t work that well in sound. Dunne, however, is quite good and since she carries the bulk of the film’s second half, the film ends on a fairly strong note. It has some fairly deep flaws, but there’s a lot of cinematic value in it as well.