Monday, July 13, 2015

Cimarron (1931)

Director: Wesley Ruggles                              Writers: Howard Estabrook
Film Score: Max Steiner                                Cinematography: Edward Cronjager
Starring: Richard Dix, Irene Dunne, Estelle Taylor and Roscoe Ates

I have to say that the first time I watched Cimarron, I didn’t like it very much. This was due primarily to the character that Richard Dix played, seemingly abandoning his family at every turn. But with repeated viewings it does become possible to simply see him for what he is, and especially for what the author of the original novel, Edna Ferber, was attempting to do with the character. RKO purchased Ferber’s novel specifically for its star, Richard Dix, as he was a popular leading man at the time and would assure a healthy box office upon release. Irene Dunne, however, was not a sure thing. She lobbied hard for the part of Dix’s wife, even going so far as to have the makeup men at the studio work with her one day to age her through the forty years the film spans. It also didn’t hurt that Dix wanted her in the picture as well. While it is generally considered today as an inferior Oscar winner for best picture, it was up against a very weak field that year. And while it doesn’t hold up as well as the previous year’s winner, All Quiet on the Western Front, it is light-years better than the dreadful Cavalcade, the winner from two years later. It’s not a western in the traditional sense, but more of a film about westward expansion, and understanding that in 1931 the frontier days were still within human memory, makes it understandable why the film was such a critical and popular success.

After the opening credits the actors are shown in character one by one with Max Steiner’s march-like theme underneath. The story begins with the Oklahoma land rush, thousands of people clamoring for free land offered to anyone willing to settle it. Richard Dix is one of the crowd on horseback, as is Estelle Taylor, and they both want the same piece of land. The rush itself is fairly breathtaking, with horse-drawn wagons, buggies, and carts being driven across the prairie at breakneck speed, and Taylor winds up tricking Dix in order to get the land he wanted. His plans as a rancher taken away, Dix moves his family to Osage Township, a frontier town, to try his hand at running a newspaper. While his wife, Irene Dunne, finds the place more wild and lawless than she expected, Dix is in his element. He knows most of the people in town and comes in conflict with a shady character, Stanley Fields, over the death of the previous editor. Dix’s first employee is the stuttering Roscoe Ates, and he helps get the newspaper office running. While Dix is intent on proving that Fields is the one who killed the former editor, Dunne fears for his life. But Dix is invincible, taking on every leadership role in town, from protecting those who are weak from bullies like Fields, to defending prostitutes like Estelle Taylor, and even delivering the first sermon at the ad hoc church the town erects in the gambling hall.

But Dix can’t stand to be in one place for long, and when the Cherokee Strip opens up for settlement, he leaves his wife and kids and isn’t heard from again for five years, just the first of his extended absences for the rest of the film. Dix’s character sees the building of the town, the civilization springing forth from nothing, in a Biblical sense, equating man’s creation of civilization with the almighty’s creation of the Earth. In fact, the tag line on the posters reads, “Terrific as All Creation.” And Dix can be seen as something of a Christ figure in the film, helping the weak, working to build a community where not had existed before, and especially his sacrifice in the final scene. That’s probably the part of the film that resonated with audiences and earned it the fourth ever Academy Award for best picture. The production certainly must have seemed Christ-like for RKO, when it became almost single-handedly responsible for saving the company from bankruptcy. The film didn’t make back its production costs right away, but receipts from the picture definitely kept the studio alive until they could come up with an even bigger hit in King Kong two years later.

The direction is good for the time. The opening sequence of the land rush is one of the iconic images of early cinema. Wesley Ruggles set up over two dozen cameras in various places, shooting from overhead towers, and from below in trenches, as well as from cars to get tracking shots, the signature moment being when the large-wheeled bicyclist is seen among the horses. But the moving camera is also used to good effect in other contexts, as when Irene Dunne marches across the street toward Stanley Fields and the camera follows her the whole way, or in the courtroom scene when it’s pulled back on a crane. Of course there’s also a tremendous amount of racism in the film, in keeping with the prejudices of the day. Eugene Jackson is forced into stereotypical black slave behavior, which Dix refers to as “loyalty,” while Dunne tells her son to stay away from the “dirty, filthy Indians.” An as if that weren’t bad enough, the local Jewish peddler, George E. Stone, gets roped by one of Stanley Fields’ gang and shot at, forced to drink alcohol and humiliated in the middle of the street. But to be fair, it does serve a function in the film, as a way show Dix’s compassion as well as the change in Dunne’s character over time. Finally, the film sports one of the first films scored by the great Max Steiner, though his music is used minimally throughout. Cimarron is one of only three westerns to ever win best picture, and while it is definitely dated it is still worth watching.

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