Thursday, January 21, 2010

Cimarron: The Good, the Bad, and the (very) Ugly

Cimarron (1931)

Director: Wesley Ruggles

Starring: Richard Dix, Irene Dunne, Estelle Taylor

Studio: RKO

First things first: Cimarron was the first western to win the Best Picture Oscar. (Fifty-nine years would pass before Dances With Wolves—Kevin Costner’s 1990 western—would be similarly honored with the Best Picture Oscar.) One of the weaknesses of the Academy Awards is that is tends to overlook genre specific films. Big time dramas, musicals, biopics, epic adventures, any film that will make Academy members feel good to vote for it (usually message pictures) and any film which is strongly sentimental or looks like it has its entire budget up on the screen usually stand excellent chances of winning Best Picture. Very rarely—if it all, in some cases—do films with a specific genre (the comedies, the fantasy films, science-fiction, animation, and yes, the western) even capture a nomination. Cimarron is in exclusive company.

So, with Cimarron being a western and seeing as how I had some complicated reactions to the film, I will use the title of the Sergio Leone directed/Clint Eastwood starring 1966 masterpiece to break this film down for you.

The Good: The best part about Cimarron is the first ten minutes, and I have a sneaking suspicion that the opening of the film is what clinched the Oscar. The film opens on April 22nd, 1889, and it depicts the first Oklahoma Land Rush, where homesteaders raced out on horses and carriages to stake their claim to acreage. Director Wesley Ruggles assembled over 5,000 extras using hundreds of horses and carriages, used twenty-eight cameras to capture the action, and created an awesome spectacle. I immediately thought of the scene in The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King when the Roan army charges into the Battle of Pell nor Fields. Although the quality of the print captured on the DVD for Cimarron is not great, I still felt the rumble of humanity racing across the plains, and was immediately drawn into the picture.

The main character, Yancey Cravat (Richard Dix), is tricked out of his favored claim by a headstrong prostitute, Dixie Lee (Estelle Taylor). Dejected but not beaten, he returns to his home in Kansas, collecting up his wife Sabra (Irene Dunne), his son Cim (short for Cimarron), and an black boy named Isaiah who is in servitude to the Cravat family. Despite Sabra being terrified of the new community, Yancey uproots them all to the town of Osage, Oklahoma, where Yancey establishes a newspaper.

Osage, in fact, is the central character of the film, and the film follows the town for nearly forty years. The production design of the film is excellent in showing how Osage transforms from a town where storefronts are in tents to a city with multi-story buildings. Although the film speeds through the decades, I was left with an urge to learn more about this period in American history. I think anytime a film can make its viewers wishing to do their own follow-up research, it has presented a compelling story.

The Bad: I think that the characters make several developments that are ill defined in the screenplay. Being an adaptation of Edna Ferber’s large novel, it isn’t surprising that there are gaps in the histories of the characters. The most frustrating depiction is that of Yancey. The script presents him as a true renaissance man. When he arrives in Osage, he is not only the proprietor of the newspaper, but he also becomes the chief lawman, the head of the town church, and, later in the film, a lawyer then an oil worker. Yancey is also presented as a consummate adventurer afflicted with a serious case of wanderlust. About halfway through the film, Yancey leaves his family and adopted town—attracted by the pull of another (and even larger) land rush. The script provides a motivation for his leaving, but it builds Yancey up as such a crucial figure in Osage that it was hard for me to buy that he would leave his family and business on a whim.

The changes Sabra Cravat makes are more believable—after Yancey leaves she is forced to become less of a nag and more responsible for the welfare of her family and her business. By the end of the film, she is elected to Congress. What was hard for me to buy though (and this will become a crucial problem for me in “The Ugly” section of this review), was the change in her racist attitudes. In particular, Sabra has an extreme fear of the Native Americans that populate Osage. On more than one occasion, she calls them “savages” and in one nasty scene, will not let her son accept a gift of a feather from a chief. As Cim grows older, he marries a Native woman, whom Sabra disapproves of. But in the scene where there is a party thrown in her honor for being elected to congress, Sabra is accepting of her daughter-in-law. The script never shows us just what made Sabra change her attitudes; it is just assumed that she reverses her feelings.

The script also short shifts certain characters and is extremely cliché addled. The script never really capitalizes on the relationship between Yancey and Dixie Lee despite the sizzling confrontation they have in the opening scene. Instead, Dixie Lee’s profession serves to stir the ire of Sabra, who tries every means at her disposal to run her out of Osage. Eventually, she is put on trial, and it is Yancey who rides in like a white knight, coming to her defense in a courtroom scene that is very out of place. Speaking of white knights, Yancey is almost always dressed in a white ten-gallon cowboy hat, and in the first act of the film, he tussles with a gang of menacing cowboys—each wearing black hats. The film spells out the lines of good and evil to its audience, when we are perfectly capable of determining that ourselves.

The Ugly: Cimarron is racist. The black character in the film, a young boy named Isaiah, has many uncomfortable scenes when viewed in a modern context. He is introduced fanning Sabra’s wealthy family from a chandelier during dinner, with shoe shining his next act. His mother is the typical “Mammy” figure (My wife asked me why are all Mammies big fat black women? I said I had no clue and also wondered why Mammies even needed to be in a film like Cimarron). Isaiah is always shown as subservient to the Cravats (though to be fair, Yancey never outright mistreats him or smacks him). Worst of all is a scene when the Cravats first arrive in Osage and Yancey points out a fruit stand and tells the boy, “Look, Isaiah, a bunch of watermelons.” I almost stopped watching the film right then.

The Native Americans fare no better. The girl Cim eventually marries is first employed by Sabra as a housekeeper when Yancey leaves on a sojourn. Sabra is blithely ignorant to the fact that the girl is the daughter of the chief, and is considered royalty amongst her tribe. Even after Cim takes her as his wife, Sabra continues to refer to the Native Americans in the picture as savages, further reinforcing the long-held stereotype of the native as a wild, stupid race incapable of civilization (when in fact the tribes of the Oklahoma plains were likely more civilized than the white men who settled on their stolen land). As a cherry on top, the native roles look to be played by white actors.

I had an awfully difficult time reconciling the message of equality Cimarron tries to pass of when the film is filled with racist stereotypes. To be fair, not every minority character in the film is stereotyped, and even Isaiah is allowed a hero’s death. Nor is every white character ignorant. Yancey is always shown as being accepting of all people, his son is absolutely color blind (though the daughter, born in Osage, is worse than her mother), and even Sabra comes around at the end of the film (but again, the script fails to show us exactly how or why she changed).

It is often shocking to modern audiences to find such startling racism in a film that was named Best Picture. Something like a Mammy—while of course awful—doesn’t shock me as much as the watermelon scene, which the filmmakers intended to be humorous. I know that attitudes seventy years ago were far less progressive than they are today, and of course, the film can never change (nor do I feel it is right to censor such material, offensive though it may be). So how then, can we approach Cimarron, which also has much to appreciate (the opening sequence, the story is fascinating, and Richard Dix makes Yancey a character that we want to know more about)?

In college, I once wrote a paper on William Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, which is unapologetically anti-Semitic (Ever hear the word shylock? He’s the Jewish villain of the play.) My thesis stated that the only responsible thing for a modern reader to do would be to not consider The Merchant of Venice canonical. I think perhaps, I overreacted. The play cannot be erased. Cimarron cannot be unfilmed. Maybe though, it is important to look at these works for exactly what they are—pieces of art that while containing brilliance, also contain unforgivably racist attitudes. They are diamonds with a flaw that cannot be hidden, covered up, or looked around.

Cimarron has also paid a price. Many critics consider it to be one of the weakest Best Picture winners, citing the many stereotypes and the script with holes. And when you look at a film like Clint Eastwood’s 1992 Best Picture-winning Unforgiven, one can easily see the potential for greatness in the Western genre. I certainly think the story of Cimarron, at its core, is worthy of film, and perhaps would work excellently if it were remade reflecting modern attitudes toward its minority characters. I think in 1931, the filmmakers wanted to do justice to Edna Ferber’s novel, but there is a reason why when books are turned into a movie, it is called an adaptation. Ultimately though, I think Cimarron is best seen as a window into the attitudes of filmmakers in 1931, rather than a classic that will endure for all time.


  1. this is great jon--i'm always thinking about how to approach the open racism depicted in historical writings and film--and really pop culture. i haven't seen the film but the discussion of the juxtaposition of the main characters with the minority characters is really interesting--and other points you made seem consistent with depression era film/lit. i'll be interested to see how racism continues as a theme through your reviews of later films, and whether or not the racism continues on or just becomes more politically correct. =)

  2. Noell--

    Gone With the Wind is coming up within a couple of weeks--I'm actually going to approach it from a couple of different perspectives. One of them will be the fact that GWTW is far, far and away the most popular film ever made in America (when you look at box office receipts). But yet, the GWTW is far from progressive and unlike Cimarron, the film continues to endure and its popularity shows no signs of abating. What does that say about America?

  3. Oh, I see that other folks have been following my facebook links here--that is awesome, please continue to do so, but would it be too much to ask if they become an official follower of the blog and leave some comments? :)

  4. You really think Isaiah had a hero's death? I thought his death was incredibly sad and lonely. No one even noticed it until well after the fact, like he was an afterthought.

  5. Dont forget the scenes with that poor Jewish guy, the hero tried his very best to show his generous and kindness by protecting the jewish merchant, yet the attitude was too arrogant 'you jews are always so weak'