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Film Review: Cimarron (Wesley Ruggles, 1931)

February 2, 2022

I had been wanting to see Show Boat (James Whale, 1936) ever since seeing Gods and Monsters (Bill Condon, 1998), in which James Whale, as portrayed by Ian McKellen, has that recurring line, “I made Show Boat!” but for the longest time I had been unable to find it. All that seemed to be available was George Sidney’s 1951 version starring Kathryn Grayson, Ava Gardner, and Howard Keel. In 2020, The Criterion Collection released a two-disc DVD edition of Whale’s film, which I viewed in September. In addition to being the first time I saw a performance by the legendary Paul Robeson (I had seen Ossie Davis’s play, Paul Robeson: All American, at Indiana Repertory Theatre and created the Wikipedia article on Lawrence Benjamin Brown, Robeson’s usual accompanist, at an Edit-a-thon at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture), the supplements are pretty extensive. The only parts I didn’t get to before I returned it to the library were the radio play versions, and that was because those portions of the disc were damaged, shutting off near the beginning of each. The supplements approach the film from multiple angles, including issues of race and racism, adapting musicals to the language of cinema, and the novelist Edna Ferber, who made her acting debut in one of the radio versions in the role of Parthenia “Parthy” Hawks, mother of central character Magnolia Hawks.

That brings me to Cimarron, also based on a novel by Edna Ferber. I had been looking through Phil Hardy‘s The Overlook Film Encyclopedia: The Western and had consciously decided to watch more Westerns, a genre that has never been a particular favorite of mine, and thought that this Oscar-winner and Ferber adaptation ought to be one of the first I take a look at (although I got to Ambush at Cimarron Pass (no relation to this film), Across the Wide Missouri, and Pursued before it). Partly due to starting up too late in the evening to start a film over two hours, I was at maximum renewals on the copy I got from the public library before I watched it. Cimarron and Cavalcade are the lowest rated Best Picture winners in the Internet Movie Database. I saw Cavalcade (Frank Lloyd, 1933) a number of years ago and was pleasantly surprised by it. I remember in the 1990s at a mall bookstore seeing a book where a critic was arguing films that should have won Best Picture. He thought that King Kong should have won for 1933 (it wasn’t nominated), but he had no disagreement with the previous two years’ winners, All Quiet on the Western Front and Cimarron.

Cimarron definitely deserved to win Best Picture, although I think the film’s brilliance becomes clearer in the last third. Whereas the male lead in Show Boat, which is similarly a family saga set over more than forty years, was a lout, Yancey Cravat (Richard Dix) is a progressive anti-racist hero who converts his wife, Sabra Venable Cravat (Irene Dunne, who would go on to play Magnolia Hawks in Whale’s version of Show Boat) to his point of view such that she becomes the first woman to represent Oklahoma as a member of Congress. The one Academy Award of the eight that existed at the time for which it was eligible but not nominated (it was ineligible for original screenplay) was sound recording, which wasn’t good. It sounded like it was raining all the time. Usually films of this period that are this high profile have noise reduction and restoration work done. This film deserves to be better known than just for being on the list of Best Picture winners. It also won Best Writing, Adaptation (Howard Estabrook) and Best Art Direction (Max Rée). Ruggles, Dix, Dunne, and cinematographer Edward Cronjager also received nominations,

According to Wikipedia, more recent critics have declared Cimarron a racist film. The second scene in the house of the Venables, a prominent Wichita family to whom Yancey is son-in-law) is quite off-putting because it has a black kid, Isaiah (Eugene Jackson, whose career lasted until 1993, when he appeared in the television series Picket Fences), in a hammock above the table fanning the family as they eat dinner, and that his mother is an obese “mammy” type. I mean, my reaction to that was pretty negative, too, but the Venables are a foil for Yancey Cravat, who speaks up for the rights of the indigenous in the very same scene, to the ire of everyone else, including his wife, and later tells her that the Venables are exactly the kind of people he doesn’t want to be, derisively comparing them to vegetables in a simple play on words. Yancey’s treatment of Isaiah is very different from how others treat him, much more like the child of a family friend than a servant. It appears we’ve become so used to casual racism in 1930s media that we write off any depiction of racism in this period as the point of view of the filmmakers. You’ll recall in the previous paragraph that I described Yancey as a progressive anti-racist. The Criterion edition of Show Boat contained a documentary produced by Abby Lustgarden, Recognizing Race in Show Boat, interviewing professor and author Shana L. Redmond on that film’s complicated relationship to race. The audio commentary, recorded in 1989 by Miles Kreuger, a historian of American musical theatre, stated that Show Boat was the only film in the 1930s to even mention “miscegenation,” let alone make it a major plot point–Krueger notes that the 1929 version, twenty minutes of excerpts from which are included as a supplement, had eliminated it entirely and replaced it with Parthy being jealous of Julie’s materteral relationship Magnolia.

Yancey runs for governor with the Progressive Party in 1909, several years before the party was actually formed historically. This is a notable part of his character. He’s quite vocal about the theft of indigenous land. When called upon as a learned lawyer to give a Sunday sermon because the fictional boomtown of Osage, Oklahoma (there is a real town by that name but its population is under 200), where most of the film is set, he tells the indigenous people in the back not to participate in the collection because the land has been stolen from them. In the film’s climax, he is approached to screw over the oil rights of the indigenous in a racket, which he not only opposes but exposes in an editorial despite Sabra’s insistence that he not do so believing it will get him killed and that she will lose her place among the society women because of such an unpopular position–I certainly wouldn’t expect a film of this era, a Western in particular to lionize crushing an attempt to paternalistically steal oil from indigenous people couched as “bookkeeping” matter. The first newspaper man to come to Osage was murdered by Lon Yountis (Stanley Fields), who takes his chance to kill Yancey during the Sunday sermon, but Yancey is a quicker draw, and a skilled enough shooter that no innocents are hurt. Yountis and his gang frequently brutalized notions seller Sol Levy (George E. Stone), a small Jewish man. Yancey comes to his defense and makes Sol his lifelong friend, even choosing an Old Testament scripture for the sermon after allowing Sol to sit in the front row. Perhaps this is somewhat paternalistic and part of the reaction to the film as racist, although I think the point was to show that Yancey rejects anti-Semitism, a theme particularly important for the 1930s. Yancey tells Sabra that until it’s her name on the masthead (she was acting publisher while he was away during the war with Spain) she is not going to stop him from publishing anything she thinks is too inflammatory and that in the future his editorial will someday be the proudest moment of the paper, and at the end of the film, she, again as acting editor when Yancey has left for the oil fields, wants it reprinted for the newspaper’s 40th anniversary issue. Their printer, Jesse Rickey (Rosco Ates), already has the article bookmarked in the paper’s bound archive copies expecting this moment.

Probably done with rear projection, but still effective.

In the film’s impressive night scene of the Cravats’ arrival in Osage felt to me as palpable as night scenes of 1970s New York City often are. A particularly effective shot has a distraught Sabra waking in the middle of the night to find Yancey not in bed with her, and seeing the gambling den of Grat Gotch (uncredited William Orlamond), which is still just a tent, as are many of the main street businesses at this point) through the window (without a cut) and wanting to return to Wichita. Earlier Sabra had been upset that a furniture store was also an undertaker’s, and Yancey notes that in a new town many businesses will be doubled-up out of necessity. While Yancey’s career as a newspaper editor is emphasized through the early part of the film, in a number of shots, another sign on the building saying “Yancey Cravat, Attorney-at-Law,” is clearly visible, setting up a much later scene in the film.

The film’s much-lauded opening scene shows the Oklahoma land run (which was used as stock footage for many other Westerns), in which the Oklahoma Territory (formerly called Indian Territory), is opened up for white settlers as noon on April 22, 1889. Thousands of people are ready to stake their claims on land in the new territory. It includes people on foot, people on covered wagons, people with the framework for cover wagons but no cover, and even a guy on a penny farthing bicycle. In this scene, Yancey meets Dixie Lee (Estelle Taylor), who, like him, is prepared to enter the territory on horseback and alone. There is a lot of noise during their opening conversation, not jut from the film’s noisy sound recording, but from the crowd noises. Their conversation is intelligible, but you do have to concentrate a bit in the manner of a Robert Altman film, which gives it a more naturalistic feel. Yancey accepts her on her own terms and avoids the sexism one might expect of the period, even if others don’t think it’s an appropriate place for an unaccompanied woman. They do end up rather near each other as they charge into the territory, but in their haste, in which the camera appears to be undercranked in a holdover of silent tradition, her horse breaks his legs. She asks Yancey to shoot her horse. She walks out of the shot, and we expect it’s because she doesn’t want to witness the mercy killing, but she quickly mounts Yancey’s horse and speeds off, but she is soon off the horse. I thought it had started to rain at this point, but given the sound later in the film, I wasn’t sure. Anyway, in the scene immediately following, the Venables are deriding him for allowing a woman to take his claim. He says that had she been a man he would have shot her, but he wasn’t willing to shoot a woman. They think he should have. When the Cravats arrive in Osage, Yancey is surprised to find her living there, and though their conversation is merely cordial, Sabra immediately dislikes her. When he returns after being gone several years, he finds that Dixie is to be jailed for being a public nuisance (presumably this means prostitution, but there is nothing in this “pre-code” film to suggest it to an untrained eye). Sabra raised the charge, and he sees Rickey ready to print the article stating that she is going to go to jail. When Sabra tells Yancey that no one is going to defend her, he comes out of unofficial retirement to defend her, which Sabra finds outrageous.

The prosecutor, Pat Leary (uncredited Robert McKenzie), is so overacted that one is almost taken out of the film until Yancey describes him as the only man who can strut sitting down. (Pursued also had a courtroom scene, something I wouldn’t think would be all that common in Westerns given the typical use of gunplay to solve problems.) That Yancey’s approach to the case is progressive and not at all about an inappropriate interest in Dixie Lee is clear when he has her take the witness stand and explain how she was orphaned at 15, took up a job as a a librarian and was tricked into a bigamist, unlawful marriage. Numerous attempts to set up in new towns had failed once people learned of her past. Leary objects, and the judge sustained it. Even so, Yancey manages to convince the jury that she should be set free. More importantly, at home he is able to convince his wife that she doesn’t really have anything against Dixie Lee, that her complaint is really against “the social order” that doesn’t give someone like Dixie Lee a chance to have success in life. While the Venables are disgusted with Yancey’s attitude toward the rights of minorities, which they consider low class, he obviously has enough wealth to build a shopfront home soon after his arrival in Tulsa, and to pay others to do much of the physical labor, as Rickey is the one shown putting up the sign.

The title of the film is explained as meaning “wild.” Dictioanry.com says that it means bighorn sheep. It is also the name of a county in the Oklahoma panhandle, an area that was once part of the Republic of Texas that it had to give up in order to maintain slavery on becoming a state, although there is no indication that this film is set in the panhandle. That the Oklahoma Wigwam‘s offices are in a skyscraper at the end of the film (which in 1929, a year before the film was shot) is suggests that Osage is a stand-in for Tulsa or Oklahoma City, not the panhandle. (Are we going to say that the film is racist for not showing the attack on Black Wall Street?) Cimarron (shortened to Cim–Kreuger tells us Ferber invented the similar name “Kim” for Magnolia’s daughter in Show Boat) is also the name of Yancey’s son (played by at various ages by Douglas Scott, Junior Johnston, and Douglas Dillaway, all uncredited). His role in the film is not large, but it’s crucial. Sabra hires a house girl, Ruby Big Elk (Gloria Vonic and Dolores Brown, neither credited and both in their only known screen appearance) the daughter of an Osage chief. It’s clear in their childhood how much Cim likes her just from the few interactions we see between them. Sabra is trained to be a racist, distraught at any contact between Cim and the indigenous population. An elder gives him a set of feathers as they are moving into their new home in Osage, and Sabra takes them away. When Cim tells Sabra that he is going to marry Ruby, she is angered and tells him his father won’t approve, but he tells her that he already has. By the time of her luncheon celebrating her election to U.S. Congress, Sabra is clearly enamored of her daughter-in-law and grandchildren, while her daughter, Donna (Helen Parrish (uncredited) and Nancy Dover, later known as Judith Barrett) showed little growth–petulant and her father’s failure to strike oil, she refuses to continue attending school in New York City and married a wealthy, much older man, Louis Hefner (Robert McWade). Cimarron seems to symbolize growth, change, and acceptance, while Donna seems to be carrying on in the tradition of the Venables. She may love them both, but she seems more proud of her son and his family, who are given more screen time in this scene. While Redmond criticizes Magnolia’s cultural appropriation of African-American culture in Show Boat, suggesting that her dances with Joe and Queenie (Paul Robeson and Hattie McDaniel) are parodying the way African-Americans dance, she and Kreuger do find it more complicated than that, as Joe and Queenie are pleased that a white person appreciates their culture, and that over the course of the film she abandons blackface performance to find her own style that nevertheless takes the African-American styles as an influence, this film has an approach to race that is just as complicated, and is certainly well-meaning in a time when overt racism like that of the Venables was rarely treated as an issue. and it’s nonsense to write it off as racist the way one can so easily with a film like D.W. Griffith’s massively overrated, bloated, and dull The Birth of a Nation.

I don’t think it’s racism that compels critics to dissuade people from viewing the film. I think it’s because it invites us to embrace Yancey’s left-politics against establishment figures like the Venables and Mrs. Wyatt (Edna May Oliver). The film portrays Yancey as a hero to the very end, even though he does, as one might expect in a Western, kill a few bad guys along the way, softened by the fact that they are usually people he would rather not have had to kill. And yet, Yancey is not a sheriff nor anyone attempting to preserve social order on authoritarian grounds. His concern is always for justice, never for expediency. It may be expedient to denounce the film as racist, but it is neither just nor honest.

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