Plot Development: 3 stars
Character Development: 3 stars
Cinematography: 3 stars
Costuming: 3 stars
Overall Rating: 3 stars
"Cimarron means wild, unruly." So says one of the characters in this 1931 film. In 1889, Cimarron Territory was the unofficial name for the unsettled West and Midwest portions of the United States. Yancey Cravat (Richard Dix) is a larger-than-life man who sees this rugged terrain as one big adventure. Based on Edna Ferber's book by the same name, this movie follows Yancey as he takes part in the Oklahoma land rush and then moves his wife Sabra (Irene Dunne) and young son out to start a new life and a newspaper in the newly formed town of Osage, Oklahoma. But life in Oklahoma is not always easy. As they try to start their new life, the Cravats face many challenges including the rebel outlaws and crooked townspeople. But perhaps the most dangerous threat to their marriage is Yancey's wanderlust. As his desires lead him further away from home, Sabra shows her true grit in keeping her household and their newspaper running all by herself.
Spanning over 30 years of frontier life, the film was quite an epic production and exciting to watch. The shots of the Oklahoma land rush in particular, were spectacular. In fact they were so well done, that the only real difference I saw between these shots and the land rush scenes in 1992's Far and Away was that the latter was shot in color. Likewise, the town of Osage changes during the movie, from a dangerous dirty settlement in 1889 to an Oklahoma metropolis in 1930. This is all done convincingly for the screen.
That being said, I felt that this movie suffered in the way many epic films do -- it was big on production but lacking an emotional core (okay and it also really lacked sound quality, but hey, movie companies were just figuring out how to use sound and you can get the basic idea if not every word). The characters were fleshed out, but it sometimes felt like they were the backdrop for the awesome crowd scenes and ahead-of-their-time sets.
About ten, maybe fifteen minutes into the movie, I realized I had a problem. Yancey and Sabra were already moving in opposite directions (as they did for the whole movie), and I just couldn't quite figure out who to root for. The movie was obviously 'pushing' the viewer to like Yancey Cravat, the main character. But I had a problem with that. There were many aspects of his character that truly turned me off. I wanted to love his wife simply for putting up with him and loving him despite his arrogance, but her blatant racism made her hard to warm up to. What was I to do? Root for Sabra? Root for Yancey? Hmmmmmmmm...
We'll start this discussion by dissecting Yancey. First off, there was the matter of his haircut. Atrocious. Secondly, he was the cause of the most traumatic moment in the picture (for me at least). This is when he nays -- that's right, neighs -- the weirdest, loudest, longest horse-like neigh that I have ever heard a human being produce. At first I thought there was a problem with the sound and there was going to be a horse in the next scene. But alas, no. Yancey makes this noise right in the face of the town bully as a threat. That 10 second long moment, although terrifying and strange, is worth the cost to rent the film.
Most importantly, I had a problem with the way he treated Sabra. He never really listens to her, but patronizes her like a child. When he hears that the Cherokee land has been opened up to settlers, he runs off and leaves his wife and children for over five years. The day he returns, he heads off to court to defend the bawdy house madam Dixie Lee (Estelle Taylor), a fallen woman whom his own wife is trying to run out of town (okay so I agree with him that there is no found evidence for kicking Dixie Lee out of town, but the point is that his wife begs him not to do it and he doesn't even sit down and discuss it with her, he just ignores her pleas and rushes off to do what he wants to do). Not long after this incident, he leaves again.
On the positive side, he is an over-the-top sort of man who usually stands up for what's right. He is loved by all (except the corrupt). When he talks, people listen. When he shoots, people die. When asked to give the town's first sermon, he ends up shooting the town bully right in the middle of the service. He displays awesome courage in defending the town from rugged outlaws. He writes editorials about the Indians' rights and as I said above, defends Dixie Lee when she is wrongly accused. He also dies heroically. That being said, he leaves his wife for years at a time and he's a jerk to her when he comes back. Oh. Did I already say that? Sorry. Richard Dix also overacts this part to the point of comedy at times (see horse-naying anecdote above).
On to Sabra. She's a wimp. She's also a bigot who is overly condescending to the young slave Isaiah and repeatedly tells her husband and her son to stay away from the "dirty, filthy Indians."
But, other than that I felt really sorry for her. She is sweet and yet she is strong enough to survive when Yancey keeps running off. By the end of the film, she has changed her bigoted ways and embraces her son's Indian bride, Ruby. Also, at the end of the film, she is elected as a Congresswoman.
I guess it's pretty clear that I just liked Sabra more than Yancey. Sorry folks, Critic Fix will always been against cocky heroes.
Most likely it is because of it's blatant racism that this Best Picture is not a favorite with today's audiences. And although it was good enough to draw me in and make me feel conflicted, it is the horse-like nay alone that makes it worthwhile for anyone else to pick it up.
- Even though it was shot during the depression, RKO Pictures spent over $1.5 million to produce this picture. However, because American audiences were actually suffering through the depression, the movie's success wasn't enough to recover from the cost of this film and RKO ended up folding.
- More than 5,000 extras, twenty-eight cameraman, and numerous camera assistants and photographers were used to capture scenes of wagons racing across grassy hills and prairie.
- A special award for make-up was given to Ern Westmore for his work on the film. (I felt that this was very justly deserved, the characters 'aged' in a very realistic way)
Perhaps I am just a glutton for punishment, but I have high hopes for Grand Hotel! -- Critic Fix