“Terrific as all creation” – original poster pap
As adapted for the big screen, Edna Ferber's novel Cimarron seems to have been constructed as a statement on the continuing enlightenment of America, delivered within the artifice of an epic pioneer saga about a family who move from Wichita, Kansas, to Osage, Oklahoma, and help tame the wildness and unsavory rogues of their environs, thereby setting a moral standard for their community, and their nation.
In 1931, Cimarron was a feted Oscar-winning picture, but time hasn't been too kind to the characters, the racial and gender stereotypes, and an acting style with roots still firmly embedded in the more expressive silent cinema, and the physical posturing of stage grandstanding.
RKO's major star, Richard Dix, has a wonderful voice and powerful delivery – ideally suited for the still new sound film technology – but at times one can't help seeing the ghost of Elvis in his portrayal of Yancey Cravat; maybe it's Dix' delivery or his affected accent, or maybe it's the wave of black hair that rests atop the actor's somber eyes and pensive lips, but the spirit of the King sure resonates, and it kind of exaggerates Yancey's chief flaw: he's a reckless, selfish, opinionated wanker.
Let's back up a little.
Yancey is a man smitten with wanderlust, and it's that urge which pulls him into the land rush to stake a claim for his wife and infant son. He ultimately loses his plot to a scheming madam, Dixie Lee, with plans for a whorehouse, but he manages to take the family through dangerous terrain with his loyal, sorta clumsy black servant Isaiah, who shares his pioneering spirit when not happily shining boots, singing around the garden, and enthusiastically eying a great big pile of fresh watermelons – vintage comedy relief that is just so wrong on every level.
Even though he establishes a combination business - law practice and town paper (The Osage Wigwam) under one roof - Yancey disappears for long stretches, but he's welcomed back into open arms by his loyal wife, Sabra (Irene Dunne), who steps aside each time so he can take the reigns of the family business after she's managed to boost the paper's profit and influence during each of his absences all on her own.
Yancey just wants to sell the paper and go for broke on another land rush, but Sabra's refusal ensures the family has an income for their subsistence; each time Yancey returns, however, the effervescent pioneer injects a greater dose of enlightenment, and it's Yancey's unwavering moral views that broaden Sabra's thinking – like recognizing Indians as people and ultimately deserving full citizenship – and ultimately influences the nation when Sabra evolves into a liberal Senator in Congress.
She carries on with Yancey's moral crusade to bring freedom and justice to all races, creeds, and colours, and these progressive actions are shown as organic outgrowths from the massive industrialization that's made the nation a powerful economic, social, and moral icon.
But Yancey is still a wanker, because he repeatedly abandons Sabra and the kids at pivotal times in their lives; the film (and presumably the book's) justification is that he sticks around just long enough to do Something Important – which includes ordering Sabra to run a pro-Indian editorial (a virtual manifesto she carries into Congress at the end), and insisting his son is perfectly free to adore their hired Indian girl in spite of Sabra's racist tirades (which themselves reflect the backward views the town slowly sheds).
Sabra always stands by her man because he does Great Things in Misunderstood Times: he conducts the first all-faith sermon for Christians, Hebrews, and Indians; with great reluctance, he shoots the town's goon, thereby ridding Osage of scum; and he defends the town madam in court (remember, he's a lawyer!) because the morally fallen deserve a chance to return to the honorable fold.
According to the film, in spite of her business acumen and political savvy, Sabra could never have succeeded without her wanker husband, and their relationship is one of the strangest within a major studio production, but Cimarron is also a pre-Code movie. Dixie Lee's line of work is never uttered; it's just whispered from one ear to another when her bevy of gilded ladies attend Yancey's inaugural church sermon, but to adults in the audience there's no doubt about Dixie and her gals doodling dingles for income.
(In post-Code thirties, one would've seen a major change to Dixie 's vocation prior to a single frame of film being shot, and she probably would've gotten married or become a nun to ensure audiences understood Whoring is Bad.)
The drama in Cimarron is still sound, but with the exception of Yancey's sermon (a really great scene), the acting is hammy, the characters too stereotypical, and the Yancey-Sabra relationship grating because Sabra requires a moral punch in the nose in order for her life, that of the town, and ultimately the nation, to advance. All of these flaws, however, make Cimarron a fascinating snapshot of a liberal-themed, pre-Code production, plus the film's deserved status as an early sound epic about the pioneering spirit that shaped the country.
Pre-CGI effects means those extras, horses, sets, and oil rigs are real, if not built to scale up front, and Cimarron has its share of grand, invigorating sequences: the opening land rush is massive in scale, as is the town of Osage that rises from dust, 24-7; when Yancey and his family trot into town during the night, he points out the chaos and urgency to plant roots: homes are built under lamp light, and town streets are filled with unbridled riff-raff.
Newcomers survive by their wits and whatever skills they possess, and the free market system flourishes via exploitive lawyers, combo businesses (furniture-undertaker-coffins), multi-purpose and rentable tents, and a local haberdasher (the token immigrant, Sol Levy) who goes from selling wares on a donkey to a horse drawn carriage and finally a storefront.
Osage's growth and its gradually ordered chaos are vividly interwoven throughout the Yancey-Sabra scenes. What's ironic is how director Wesley Ruggles managed to convey so much when contemporary directors like Michael Cimino and Ron Howard felt longer and more indulgent works like Heaven's Gate (1980) and Far and Away (1992) said it better.
Cimarron is in dire need of a restoration, because this early DVD release uses a beat-up print with a muddy soundtrack whose surface noise fuzzes up dialogue in the early scenes. There's also some strange artifacts – slow-mo shots - that may be efforts by the transfer technicians to extend splintered footage for frames damaged and lost; they usually happen on a cut, and one suspects this was the best source print available when the disc was produced.
A nice bonus, however, and an early sign of what Warner Bros. has done for many of their recent classic titles, is the inclusion of some vintage shorts.
“The Devil's Cabaret” (1930) is an early pre-Code, 2-strip Technicolor (“A Colortone Novelty”) comedy-musical that starred Edward Buzzell as Howie Burns, Satan's eager-beaver assistant who's sent up to Earth to fetch some of the souls God keeps stealing (including Scarface!). Up top, Burns finds a lanky, bearded preacher bellowing to a flock of mostly Quaker women, but he turns the tide by offering nattily attired guys and girls gifts: rigged dice to a stuttering blonde babe, crooked cards to a slick Joe, and a loaded gun to an angry wife so she can bump off an annoying hubbie. Burns then sings a jazz tune which gets the Quakers stripteasing down to their lace frillies, and the excited group head for the elevator to Hades.
Reminiscent of the entrance to the cocktail club in Topper (1937), one by one the group glide down a slide from a giant Satan head, and sit down at tables, where more fun and dancing await, including a Busby Berkley routine of horned chorus girls strutting around a circular pedestal over which a giant inflatable Satan head hovers.
Surreal and sometimes quite funny (Burns to God: “I will personally throw banana skins over your golden stairs!”), Burns fire off numerous puns, teases his mini-skirted secretary (ingénue Mary Carlisle), and rudely insults a heavy lady to her face, and the imagery is sometimes cheap or grandly bizarre. Crimson is the dominant colour, and Satan's offices at Satan & Co. are lit with flickering background fires. Smoke shoots out of the phone mouthpieces, and sparks fly when Satan scribbles notes in his DayMinder.
It's cute, short, and notable for Buzzell's rare acting gig prior to directing some major MGM comedies, including the Marx Brothers' At the Circus (1939) and Go West (1940), and the Esther Williams musical Neptune's Daughter (1949). Veteran character actor Charles Middleton (Ming the Merciless from the Flash Gordon serials) played Satan, and the music score was by a young Dimitri Tiomkin (High Noon).
The second short on the DVD is a vintage black & white Harman-Ising Vitaphone cartoon, “Red Headed Baby” (1931) that has toys singing after hours, and a romance between the titular ‘baby' doll and Napoleonic soldier threatened by a giant fuzzy spider. The primitive animation is kind of cute, and Napoleon's impassioned odes and hip-grinding are deliciously melodramatic.
Unlike the cartoon, “The Devil's Cabaret” is more shopworn with some bad splices (plus one glaring jump cut), but the colours are pretty stable, allowing us to see an early sampling of 2-strip Technicolor, with plenty of blazing crimson.
One could argue Cimarron, being an RKO production, should've been accompanied by some shorts from the same studio (the Van Beuren cartoons come to mind), but the included extras are unique, and contextualize this early adaptation of Edna Ferber's novel, which was remade by MGM and director Anthony Mann in 1960 to cash in on the success of UA's The Big Country (1958).
© 2008 Mark R. Hasan