Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Not At All How The West Was Won: Cimarron Is Just Terrible!

The Good: Moments of progressive values, I suppose.
The Bad: Lousy acting, Terrible characters, Abysmal story, Horrible stereotypes, No DVD bonus features.
The Basics: An abysmal Western, Cimarron reinforces outdated stereotypes, plods along with no real character development and bores viewers who try to suffer through it.

Some bestsellers never need to be made into movies. This broad statement is all I wish I had to write about the 1931 film Cimarron, which was based upon a novel of some renown by author Edna Ferber. Apparently this was viewed as one of the seminal novels of the time and great expense was taken to bring it to the big screen at the outset of the Great Depression. I suppose it would be unfair for me to to blame this movie for the Great Depression, though one suspects the millions of dollars that went into making this could have been used in better ways at the time.

As always when I review films based upon novels, I think it is worthwhile to warn readers that this is a review of the film, not the novel upon which it is based. As one who proudly did not read the book (the film poisoned me from ever doing THAT!), all information in this review is on the film Cimarron and any problems caused by translating the long novel to screen are, alas, problems with the movie being considered exclusively for what they are.

When the Oklahoma Territory is opened up, young Yancey Cravat heads West to try to make a place for himself and his young wife and son, Cimarron. Cheated out of his original stake by a woman named Dixie Lee (who steals his horse), Yancey plants his flag in Osage where he sets up a local newspaper and begins to bring law and order to the town. Yancey, his wife, son and a local black boy (assumedly one of his parents' slaves' children) named Isiah move into Osage together and seek a new life on the frontier. Soon, though, the town is beset by thieves who know Yancey from his past in the heart of Africa. The Kid (a horse thief) and Lon, a local killer, both come after Yancey and Osage and he manages to put them down.

Yancey evolves into an upstanding man, but he retains his restless heart and after a few years of being tied to Sabra and Osage, he bugs out for points west on the frontier. For years, Sabra only hears rumors of Yancey and on the eve of the sentencing of Dixie Lee for immoral behavior, Yancey returns and defends her, bullying his way back into the paper. After another period of time with his wife, Yancey again abandons her and the children and Sabra takes over the press while her loyal assistants, Sol and Jesse help her make the newspaper into a daily.

Cimarron starts out as an apparent epic, but soon mortgages whatever value it might have as a historical document both by reinforcing ridiculous stereotypes and then simply being oppressively boring. Not only are moments utterly predictable and terribly absurd - the moment Isaiah enters the film as the ceiling fan (I wish I were joking), for example, it is instantly foreseeable that he will fall - but they are troubling for how they portray women and blacks. Isaiah spends most of his first scenes on his knees begging Yancey to take him to "Okie'homie" and it is difficult for modern audiences not to sit and cringe through the scenes.

But for such a long film, there is remarkably little character development. Yancey is portrayed as a rogue in the beginning, eager to rush out into the Territories and stake his claim. He never moves beyond that, so it is foreseeable and troubling that he would not remain tied to his wife in Osage and would run off for whatever the next frontier is. There are rumors that he fights in the Spanish-American War as a Rough Rider and that suits his initial characterization. Given that, there is no real development of Yancey.

Even more problematic is the lack of development for Sabra. Yancey's wife waits for him like Penelope and despite the way he continually abandons her and their two children, she never gives up on the marriage. This might be noble if the film only covered a span of a few years. However, Cimarron carries Sabra from the late 1800s up to the 1930s and the advent of the automobile. Sabra goes almost twenty years without seeing Yancey and leaving his name on the paper, like the dutiful wife she is supposed to be. This, though, seems far less noble now and it does not take a raging feminist to suggest Sabra ought to wake up and be her own woman! The principle is not lost in the context of the film, either. Sabra is professionally strong for decades and she advances to being a U.S. Congresswoman, so it is not like the film isn't advocating positions that were probably pretty radical for the day.

In addition to women who were strong and independent - to a point, as Dixie Lee is chastised for overstepping the social boundaries that were acceptable - the film portrays interethnic relations generally positively. There is an interethnic marriage and the rights of the Native American Indians are championed by Yancey throughout the film. Still, there are problematic stereotypes involving Sol (the local Jew) and Lon (his use of "sombrero" suggests he might be Mexican).

Largely, after the initial scenes of riders rushing West to take cheap land the government is offering, the movie is ridiculously slow and unbearable for the character moments which go nowhere. Isaiah spends a good minute making faces at a baby, which I suppose was probably a great moment for a young black actor at the time, but now it just seems silly and like a waste of time. Similarly, the facial expression Yancey's stuttering assistant makes to indicate Yancey should come into the back for some hooch is laughable at best.

But because so much of the film comes to rest on Sabra, Cimarron sinks easily because she is a boring, doting character with no real emotional resonance. She waits. She runs the paper. She waits. Sol comes onto her subtly, she politely declines his gentlemanly advance. She waits. This is not the most exciting use of the cinematic medium, watching a woman wait for the man who wronged her to come back . . . so he can wrong her again by leaving once more after defending the local hussy who she stands against.

Here as well, Cimarron is both boring an unclear. Sabra takes up causes, Yancey arrives to undermine her. In that way, the whole "submit to your husband" ideal is maintained in the movie. But while Yancey's logic and fight for justice in defending Dixie Lee is honorable, it comes at a time in the movie when viewers could care less about either Dixie or Yancey. The movie plods along as a frontier business film only to go into an abrupt legal drama into a woman waiting and aging and boring viewers.

Richard Dix, who plays Yancey, is frequently melodramatic and over-the-top in his performance and had Cimarron been made thirty or forty years later, one suspects Elvis Presley would have been cast as Yancey. Indeed, watching Cimarron one has the feeling they are watching a young Elvis or Johnny Cash act. Dix is largely unimpressive in the role of Yancey and he never effectively sells the audience on his character's abrupt need to leave everyone and everything behind.

Irene Dunne is not bad as Sabra, but because the character is so bland, she does not have much work she can do to shine in the role. Like Dix not selling the viewer on the return of Yancey's restless nature, Dunne never effectively sells the viewer on her character's ridiculous devotion to Yancey or the paper.

On DVD, there are no bonus features, though the transfer is decent and the contrasts of the blacks and whites look good. But anyone looking for a great Western epic can easily pass this one by. It's not what one might hope it to be.

As the 1931 winner of the Best Picture Oscar, this film is part of my Best Picture Project, available by clicking here!

For other films based upon novels, please check out my reviews of:
Charlie Wilson's War


For other film reviews, please visit my index page for an organized listing!

© 2010, 2009 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.

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