This is something of a complete disaster of a film. I kind of hated it. If this doesn’t end up my least favorite Best Picture winner, I will be very surprised. There’s an amateurishness to just so much of the film’s craft that it boggles the mind that anyone would want to reward it for its production. Based on a small novel by Edna Ferber of the same name, this jumps through time, relying on deep relationships that are never filled out in any kind of detail, essentially becoming a series of loosely connected vignettes that jump from one genre to another, all while never nailing down any of the main characters or ideas present. Imagine The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance but terrible.
I bring up John Ford‘s later masterpiece because, from the beginning, I was thinking of Ford’s early work, especially The Iron Horse and 3 Bad Men, tales of the formation of the West through the daring and work of the men at the bottom of the social ladder, both movies that were made several years before Cimarron with significantly more style and ability than the director of Cimarron, Wesley Ruggles, could manage. This tries to tell a similar story, beginning with the Oklahoma Land Rush where Yancey Cravat (Richard Dix) meets an old friend for just a moment, The Kid (William Collier, Jr.), before lining up next to Dixie Lee (Estelle Taylor) who ends up, through trickery, beating Yancey to the one plot he had been aiming for, sending him back home east where he decides to go back to Oklahoma with his wife Sabra (Irene Dunne) and their young son. He sets up shop in the small boomtown of Osage as a lawyer and newspaperman where he’s set up at odds with the man, Lon Yountis (Stanley Fields), who killed the previous newspaperman.
This messy, over-complicated opening is evidence of just about everything wrong with the film. There’s a back and forth from Oklahoma, back east, and back to Oklahoma that a more intelligent adaptation would have cut down to one direction and movement. The bad guy, Lon, gets dispatched just a few minutes after his introduction, barely establishing anything like a character. Minutes of screentime later, The Kid tears through town to rob the bank, and Yancey has to kill him with a heavy heart even though I seriously forgot The Kid had been in the movie at all. The deep emotion that Dix is supposed to be displaying (he’s overperforming like he’s in a bad silent film through the whole movie) is thin, confusing, and completely misses the mark because we don’t know who any of these people are. When Yancey describes their background, literally after he’s shot the guy, to his wife, it’s the first time we’ve gotten any detail at all about their history. This movie is a disaster.
The story chugs along with the years as the town of Osage develops. Mainly, when the Cherokee Strip is opened up by President Cleveland, and Yancey disappears from the film for a little while. He runs to claim land and vanishes for five years. In the meanwhile, Sabra takes over the newspaper, turning it into something of a powerhouse in the territory, and she decides to target Dixie Lee. Now, even though this is a pre-Code film, no one will speak explicitly about the problem with Dixie Lee, and that creates a really odd situation where Yancey shows up again, learns about the Dixie Lee situation, and decides to take up her case as defense. The movie becomes a courtroom drama for about ten minutes where Yancey gesticulates to the jury in ways that never feel real while defending a woman of a crime we never hear what it actually is. It’s…odd.
Yancey decides to stay around for a while, we skip ahead about a decade, and the movie becomes an issue film where Yancey is fighting vigorously through his newspaper for the rights of the Native American tribes. There are small hints of this in the preceding hour and a half (Yancey giving some tribesmen a nod in the meeting where he kills Lon, for instance), but it really does come out of nowhere as THE ISSUE that must suddenly define the action. It also ends up defining the last half hour as Yancey prints his editorial vigorously calling for their rights while running for governor, supposedly losing, and then disappearing for twenty years.
The denouement, as Sabra takes the newspaper over the forty year line and gets elected to Congress while Yancey continues to just not be around, is what drove me from mere dislike to outright hatred. It’s trite, follows almost nothing that comes before it, overly sentimental while having done absolutely none of the work necessary to support it, and ending on a note that feels all false because we simply do not know our main character at all.
This film is a complete disaster.
But, I will say that the physical production, the sets, are quite nice.
However, beyond that, there’s really nothing to recommend. Acting is nothing to write home about. The editing is a joke, to be completely honest, with sequences cut together with so much room between lines that it feels like a bad student film, while telling a disjointed, unremarkable story badly.
I have a theory that these early Best Picture (really Best Production) awards were given solely on the basis of a combination of money spent and money earned at the box office, and this sort of fits. It was expensive (about $1.5 million to make) while being the number 8 film at the box office for 1930 (still not enough to make its money back, though). It was rapturously received by critics, though. Honestly, if this hadn’t won Best Picture, no one would care about it today. No one would revisit it. No one would defend it.
3 thoughts on “Cimarron”
Thanks to Ok.Ru, managed to watch this.
I regret it. I dislike parts of this movie, but not for the reasons left wing German internet movie critics dislike it. (note I said ‘German’….not talking about you, man)
I think this movie took Best Picture because of the spectacle of the early land rush at the start of the film. That could build up good will. Maybe. The sets and cinematography are good (the rear projection horseback riding irritated me, though), this movie does create a lived-in world that lesser Westerns didn’t bother with, even up to and including the excratable Magnificent Seven remake.
This is also very a MESSAGE film with all the subtlety of an axe handle. It’s almost funny to see Wilsonian leftists try to move on from the racism of Wilson. Almost funny.
No, my problem with the movie is the characters. Gentlemen, I despise them all. Yancy is a twit who lets himself get tricked out of his dream land claim and does jack shit about it. Despite being alone. And armed. And a man. (I’m reminded of similar scenes in the very Hollywood ‘Far and Away’ where we see claim disputes settled quickly and efficiently with a Colt. I dreamed about that little scene-let, lusted after it as this movie went on). Then, after being cucked by a whore, for the first time, he limps home to his shrill hag of a wife and continues trying to blunder into making a new life, this time in Cinamarron, but as a renter not a landowner. And he because a newspaper man, cementing my hate as there’s nothing lower than a member of the Press in my mind. On and he’s frequently running away from home, to be ‘heroic’ mostly off camera.
That contempt spills over to his shrill hag of a wife. The overt racism from here is almost fine, almost real. But it’s discarded so she can make her dramatic speechifying near the end.
The whore, yeah, I hate her too. She’s a thief and not even good at her chosen profession. Yancy storming into defend her makes zero sense except to try to show how saintly Yancy is, but all it does is make him look more and more like a subscriber to Cuck Shed Weekly.
I liked the black kid, he had dignity and ambition. Yeah he’s the butt of some cringe jokes but they actually cast a black actor and gave him screen time and something of a character arc. Plus he’s way, way less annoying than Butterfly McQueen.
The frustrating thing is that effort and attention went into this movie, but the script, editing, director and performances let it down. There’s the core of a good story here, about the evolution of Oklahoma, which was an unjust land grab of treaty-reserved Indian land, into a state where you have people fighting for the rights of the Indians in public and the courts and even some Indians getting rich when oil is discovered and exploited.
Meh. I’d rather watch There Will Be Blood or an episode of F-Troop for that matter.
I’ve seen most of the Best Picture winners over the years, and I have active memories of most of them. None of them come to the massive problems that plague Cimarron. I have to admit that I haven’t seen any of the other nominees from the year (though I do own The Front Page in the Criterion release of His Girl Friday), but it’s hard to believe that there isn’t a better choice among the bunch, even with the idea that its a reward for money and the physical production more than artistic quality.
Yeah. Everyone is worthy of disgust. I think the original author’s intent was to create a story that revolved around a character who was barely around. Maybe it works better in the book because it’s terrible here.
I would chalk this up to the mad dash for sound films, but this is more than something like Juno and the Paycock, Hitchcock’s second sound film that was just a filmed stage play. This is a production with sets, locations, and set pieces. This is early Hollywood formula. It’s just done terribly while also finding the need to be “important”.
Louis B. Mayer isn’t my favorite figure from the early days of Hollywood, but he had something when he said, “If you want to send a message, use Western Union.”
Hmm…Western Union…that was a good movie…