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January 29, 2008
Today, my first full day back home after five days (more or less) in Brooklyn while my brother-in-law was recovering from an e-coli infection that nearly killed him, I watched the 140-minute “epic” 1931 Academy Award winner, Cimarron. (A web commentary notes that the only other two westerns that won have been Dances with Wolves and Unforgiven.) One critic comments that film releases that year were skimpy.
This is not a good movie. But as so often with bad and mediocre films, I still found it interesting for a number of reasons, including a kind of dialectical tension between the film’s (and presumably most of US society’s) blindness to ethnic and racial stereotypes towards blacks, Indians and Jews on the one hand and a relatively progressive (for 1931) script agenda on the other. At some level, albeit quite clumsily, the film also addresses women’s issues (it is based on an Edna Ferber novel I haven't read).
The film presents a series of theoretically archetypal moments, mostly occurring in a single day in 1889, 1890, 1893, 1898, 1907, 1929 and 1930. The audience, therefore, was looking at the history of recent decades, ending just months before the film’s release in February. Set in Oklahoma, the film begins with the 1889 land rush decreed by Benjamin Harrison and follows (I might say "exalts") the “hero’s” life (and to a lesser extent that of his wife) during these years. The best parts of the film are the opening Oklahoma land rush (a later film in the ‘30s that I can’t remember had a similar scene) which includes a penny-farthing bicycle amidst the horses, wagons and running claim-seekers, and the opening shots of each new episode, in which we see the same view of Osage and are invited to notice how it is changing. (We also usually see a posted front page of the hero’s newspaper, and with a DVR you can pause and study the image; it is interesting to see what articles other than the prominent one are supposedly current—articles which sometimes seem to be confused about what date is at the top of the paper.)
With something approximating a pompadour, Richard Dix, resolutely overacting (presumably a carry-over from silent film acting techniques), plays Yancey Cravat (I remain puzzled about why his surname is French for “tie,” unless we’re supposed to notice his neckwear as the film proceeds, though I paid no attention to it). His wife, Sabra (another interesting name, played by Irene Dunne in her first major role), is from somewhere “civilized” (we know because of her parents’ spiffy home) and reluctantly accompanies Yancey to live in the new Oklahoma territory, where they run a newspaper, the Oklahoma Wigwam, which is, of course, the source of Truth for the locality (the city of Osage, OK). Defying her parents (especially her shrewish mother—one of many examples of unpleasant, one-dimensional women in the film) she joins Yancey with their son (about three years old), though on the day they arrive in Osage she desperately wants to go “home.”
But she doesn’t. Within days (apparently) Yancey is getting his newspaper office built. One day as he and Sabra are walking in the street, a gang of toughs, whose leader (who Yancey, on no evidence other than the look and feel of the guy, knows has murdered the previous newspaper editor) taunts him, in part--what could be worse?--for wearing a white hat. After foreplay between Yancey and the thug (an exchange of circus shots that avoid wounding the antagonists), Sabra marches towards the bad guy and lectures him. Yancey chides her to stop such shenanigans lest the town think he hides behind a woman's skirts.
Later that day, Sol Levy (Yancey is chums with all ordinary folk everywhere) is wheeling his peddler’s cart and is harassed by the same gang of toughs. At one point Sol is shoved so that his legs are sprawled on the ground while his upper body leans against part of some metal device that forms a cross; Sol’s arms linger across the crossbar for a few seconds. Yancey rescues him and promises that the gang will never bother him again. To help guarantee this, the murderer incites Yancey into a gunfight (should I mention that we later learn that Yancey notches his gun with each person he—justifiably—kills?) and so disappears from the film, as does his gang.
How do we know Sol is a Jew? Certainly not because the script ever says so directly. (To this day I notice Christians often seem embarrassed to say “Jew” in front of Jews.) Mainly by his name. Perhaps he has a stereotypical manner; I can’t tell. He may have a slight Yiddish accent. He is also a worthy entrepreneur and in 1930 ends up owning a Macy’s-like multi-story building in Osage. And in the 1930 scene, when Edna Mae Oliver snootily explains that her ancestors include a signer of the Declaration of Independence, which is why she is on a committee to which Sol, despite his now-great wealth, was not invited, Sol replies (approximately), “My people include the signer of the Ten Commandments.”
On to the Black Person in the film. 1890. Sabra is happy and has just given birth to a daughter. When they first came to Oklahoma, Yancey and his family discovered a stowaway, Isaiah, a young (teenage?) black servant of Sabra’s parents’ household. At the parents’ house, we see him, coiffed with presumably laughable extended and out-of-control hair (early stab at an afro?), clinging to a chandelier and waving a giant leaf to fan the diners below before hilariously (yes, the term is ironic) losing his grip and landing on the table; he rises with food all over his pants, and his scolding mother (ok, two black people are in the film) hurries him off to be cleaned. This boy-man who (of course) speaks like Stepin Fetchit stays with them (we see no other black person in Osage, but we are not invited to speculate on the lad’s feeling any lack of sexual or other companionship) until one day in 1890 when an old buddy of Yancey's, “the Kid” (we’ve met him earlier and he promised to stay out of Osage, but never mind) rides into town with bandit cohorts to rob the local bank. A somewhat confusing gunfight ensues in which, of course, Yancey (did I mention that he’s also a sharpshooter?) is the hero and kills the Kid despite their old friendship. Along the way, several townspeople are killed. But so is Isaiah, shot as he runs to help Yancey's son and a little girl who are cowering in a nook near the shooting. Isaiah has one of those repetetive-dying scenes so ridiculed in Shakespeare only stretched out much more here. When he’s first shot, the camera lingers as he struggles to live but seems to die. Soon we see him struggling again. Then, the gunfight over and the Kid’s remains being handled by other townspeople, Yancey walks within inches of Isaiah, not hidden, without noticing him. As Yancey moves on, Isaiah crawls forward, gasping to the unhearing gunfighter (in fact, in spite of the schmaltz this is a frustrating and moving moment), “Mr. Yancey, Mr. Yancey,” and, finally, dies. The silly story-telling here is also profoundly symbolic, though probably without awareness by the filmmakers (Wesley Ruggles directed). Only after Yancey—did I mention that the cowardly Kid sneakily winged him?—has reunited with his family does one of the ancillary characters carry in Isaiah’s corpse and hand it to Yancey. I suspect that of all the "minority" characters, Isaiah is the one who could be killed off precisely because he has no real future in Osage.
1893. All talk is about the imminent opening (by Grover Cleveland in his second term) of Oklahoma’s Cherokee territory. We now learn that Yancey has a wandering urge and has never stayed in one place more than five years. Assuring her that he will soon return, he announces over Sabra’s protests that he is going to leave to stake a claim in the new territory. Outside, he is joined by other excited claim seekers.
In fact, Yancey disappears for five years, during which time he apparently fights in the Spanish-American War and returns to Osage in 1898 in a uniform (I don’t know what rank his stripes represent). In the meantime, Sabra has taken over the Wigwam, never removing Yancey's name from the masthead. (In Sabra we see a curious combination of a highly independent woman when on her own but dutiful to her husband when he is around.) When he marches into the house on his return, he undermines any indignation from Sabra by quickly taking the moral high ground, a position we are set up to expect by the happy and uncritical welcome local men give him as, smiling, he trots his horse down the town's main street. Yancey promises their son, who must now be about 12, a pony. Their daughter, now eight, doesn’t seem to matter yet. The son casually but with some delight takes his father’s return for granted.
Sabra only really gets upset when Yancey learns that a fallen woman, Dixie Lee, is on trial for some amorphous crime against good morals. Sabra and other respectable ladies of the town are righteously looking forward to Dixie’s conviction. But since Dixie has no defense attorney (and, Yancey comments, everyone is entitled to an attorney), he rushes to the courthouse to take up that role. (Did I mention that he’s also a lawyer?) It turns out that knowledge of the exact case is irrelevant.
OK, quick background: in the 1889 rush, Dixie and Yancey want to claim the same land, and Dixie tricks him out of it. After a few years, she is driven away by neighboring women who disapprove of her, though we don’t yet know (we can guess) exactly why, and comes to Osage, where proper women scorn her. She and Yancey meet in the street, and he comforts her for a moment by holding her hand, much to the distress of his wife. Got the picture?
Of course the prosecuting attorney is a loud-mouthed, pompous and (we later learn) corrupt fool (“the only man who can strut sitting down,” Yancey joshes to the of course all-male jury). Under Yancey’s guidance, the jury learns that Dixie Lee is the unfortunate victim of parents who died (and who, crucially, were of good stock, which in Yancey’s eyes pardons Dixie from numerous crimes) and left her penniless at 15. Immediately afterwards, she is deceived by a cad who, already married, weds her and (we don’t know whether before or after) gets her with a child (who conveniently dies soon after) before abandoning her. By current (1890s’, not 1931) standards she is no better than any other fallen woman. But, Yancey preaches (did I mention that he’s also a preacher? and that at one point in the film he gives an extemporaneous sermon--in the local gambling hall--extolling ecumenicalisn? and that Sol, attending this meeting, deferentially asks Yancey if he may stay to listen? and that Yancey reassures Sol it's fine?) that society and the cad are really to blame, and within minutes the jury returns a not-guilty verdict.
To round out this afternoon in 1898, before much longer Sabra and Yancey are in each other’s arms and all (?) is forgiven.
So much for the Jew, the black guy and the fallen woman, and Yancey's gracious (the frontier has its own version of noblesse oblige) treatment of them. Now to Indians. It’s 1907. Yancey, now running for governor, insists on printing an editorial supporting Indian rights, including citizenship, even though (we are encouraged to believe) it will ruin his candidacy. Sabra is once again furious with him. (Did I mention that she hates “dirty” Indians but Yancey has always been their “friend”?) He assures her that one day, when he is not around (spoiler alert: did I mention that he is prescient?), she will read this editorial and know he was right.
While Yancey was gone in the 1890s, Sabra hired the daughter of an Indian chief to help out in the household, because, as she justifies on the day Yancey returns, she couldn't run the paper and take care of the household without help. (Early plea for day care?) Lo and behold, by 1907 Sabra’s son and the servant have fallen in love and will be married (of course we experience this through the son’s eyes, not his fiancée’s). Sabra has another fit. When we see Yancey a few minutes later, he is like totally mellow about the whole thing.
Fast forward to 1929 (June, so we in the audience all know the Crash is just over the horizon). A title card informs us that Yancey has once again been gone for many years. The Wigwam is celebrating its 40th anniversary, and Sabra, now showing considerable age via white hair, celebrates by putting Yancey’s 1907 pro-Indian plea in the editorial column.
On to 1930. Yancey is still away. (Why he doesn’t even write is never explained, though Irene Dunne at one point mentions that he just doesn’t believe in writing--this of a newspaper editor....) Sabra has been elected to Congress (!) and is about to take up her position (though it’s June, so Osage's congressional district must have been without a representative for some months), and we are at a dinner honoring her. Among other things, she introduces her son, his wife (who speaks a pithy Indian maxim followed by a gesture resembling benediction), and their two children. She also introduces her daughter and much older husband. (Did I mention that in 1907 the bratty daughter wanted the good life and promised her mother that she would marry a man with money—a promise uttered just before a street scene in which a considerably older man in his dandy, chauffeured motorcar is jawing with admiring townfolk?)
OK. Speeches end. Everyone leaves the dinner hall. For unexplained reasons, they go to an oil field where a terrible accident has just occurred. As if by divine intervention, everyone was saved because some wanderer did something to smother an explosion. (I couldn't quite follow: it sounded as though this savior had used his body to absorb a "nitroglycerine torpedo," but was still expiring—an intriguing understaning about the power of nitroglycerine, though I suppose it is no more bizarre than some of the film’s other improbabilities.) “Who was he?” “Dunno. Some old drifter named…Yance?” (Coincidence that my last name starts with the same three letters, and here I am in 2008 writing about this film? I think not!) Irene Dunne’s face slowly changes expression. Could it be?? No? Yes? Run, run, run across railroad tracks and other oil paraphernalia. Yes, it is! One last loving embrace as the eyes of a hardly recognizable Yancey with white beard and hair momentarily flicker in recognition at his loving wife before closing forever. Sigh.
Fade-out and then -in to the unveiling of a statue that represents the spirit of Oklahoma. It is a statue of Yancey. Sigh.