Saturday, February 10, 2007

Cimarron (1931)


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


Robert said...

Racism in older movies is an interesting thing to watch, and see how our culture keeps changing its views about how to portray race relations. Jess and I just recently watched "The Jewel of the Nile", and the anti-Arab race humor that Danny Devito uses didn't bother me at all as a child... but it sounds foul and stupid in my ears a mere 20 years later. Representations are what film is all about, but when people are represented not by their individuality but rather by their nationality or race then generalizations are necessairly used and in my mind weaken and endanger the whole process of representation. Anyway, cheers Rachel!

Robert said...

Oh... and am I right about this...? Was it your birthday yesterday? If so, happy birthday! If not, let me know so I can change it on my calendar.
....but I'm pretty sure I'm right, so cheers!!!

Sam Snead said...

So it appears this Robert fella is trying to monopolize the comments section. All I'll say is, racism is a subjective term defined by temporality and geography, amongst other factors. Today, we on the coasts watch older films with the highly trained eyes of politically correct, racially sensitive, soft-tongued 21st Centurians. Hysterics, in other words, bounded, no more or less so than in the past, by an overpowering fear of the other. That we are now shocked by any joke or caricature that suggests a distaste for cultural diffences does not mean that the nature of that fear has changed, only that we cope with it differently. But as any child knows, there's not much point to living if you can't make fun of each other.

Robert said...

Well, it's good to have some company Sam Snead. And your summation of the subjectivity of racisim is elegant and to the point. However, the rest of your post is silly and childish, as you yourself indirectly imply. "Making fun of each other" should only be amongst equals and individuals, and in the proper contexts. Otherwise it is a power struggle of misrepresentation. In particular, your suggestion that my opinion comes from my being a "politically correct, racially sensitive, soft-tongued 21st Cneturian", though somewhat sociologically sound as a concept for certain discussions, is a rude and broad generalization to level at an individual in an dialogue about films. And don't you agree that generalizations about whole cultures when in discussion of particulars provide no positive traction for further discussion?

Robert said...

Oh yeah... and say hi to Christe..I mean, Bianca.

Sam Snead said...

Are we discussing particulars? Or broad trends in film over the course of the past century? Perhaps I misunderstood the basis of this conversation. I understood it to be about "racism in older movies". That wording suggests a discussion of a broad topic in the context of a wide spectrum of films. So my generalization, which was not levelled at you personally but was created to describe an entire segement of the population that includes myself, seems appropriate not only to certain discussions, but to this discussion in particular.

As human beings, we are incapable of observing other societal groupings without drawing broad conclusions about their differences from ourselves. Malcolm Gladwell describes a white man's difficulty discerning one black man's face from another, and vice versa, as the simple byproduct of our natural inability to see past the difference in color itself. We categorize the world through simplistic generalizations about race and culture and geography, and our recent decision that making light of the broad differences we observe is somehow harmful or dangerous does not make us more sensitive or progressive culturally, it simply makes us more fearful.

Finally, who determines what is the proper context for generating humor out of cultural diffences, and which individuals are deemed 'equals'? Haven't we as Americans abolished any form of codified inequality, rendering us all equals regardless of race, sex, age, etc.?

Sam Snead (no connection or relation to Christe, Bianca, etc.)

Nelson said...

It seems that the question at issue here for Robert is whether we ought to give priority to unity or diversity, the one unifying characteristic or the various distinctives one finds when considering a multiplicity of people.

Yet this is a false dichotomy. Granted, we can always find differences when comparing things like people, but grouping people by common characteristics is both necessary and useful, and does not require that these grouped entities be used merely for the sake of "power struggle and misrepresentation." The ability to identify groupings and subgroupings is an important cognitive development in early childhood, and is necessary in order to deal with the vast amount of data being gathered by the human senses at any moment. Thus, while every stove may have unique dents and scratches, etc. they all are intended to heat food, so if they are operational and turned on, they will burn you when you touch them. Or, as another example, Baby Boomers may all be unique in some (unidentifiable) ways, but they all tend to be self-centered, in-denial-about-inherent-and-ironic-contradictions-with-which-they-live, cheesy, and with strong tendencies toward a modernist mindset.

The problem comes when you elevate either unity or diversity at the expense of the other. Such is the case both with Plato's "gods," which were the unifying forms that existed outside of experiential reality, and Postmodernity's assertion that what is most essential to a person is that which makes hem unique.

So, as the above argues, Baby Boomers are the cause of most societal problems we face today, including the racism of 1930's America.

Robert said...

Whatever... I look forward to the next review Rachel. :)

Sam Snead said...

As do I. Bring on 'Grand Hotel'!

MGB said...

I love when people act like horses.