Release Date: February 9th, 1931 MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Director: Wesley Ruggles Actors: Richard Dix, Irene Dunne, Estelle Taylor, Nance O’Neil, William Collier Jr., Rosco Ates, George E. Stone, Stanley Fields, Edna May Oliver, Nancy Dover
nation rising to greatness through the work of men and women … ” begins “Cimarron,” based on the novel by Edna Ferber. “Territories becoming rich states … ” it proceeds, setting up the time period. It’s 1889 when President Harrison opens the vast Indian Oklahoma territories for white settlement, arranging a land grab of two million acres, free for the taking by rich or poor – or anyone swarming the border for the starting gun to go off at noon on April 22nd.
Lawyer and newspaper editor Yancey Cravat (Richard Dix) is one of these opportunists, strolling in with a flowing black coat, shiny leather boots, and a glowing white hat, fixed on claiming a patch of land near Little Bear Creek, where a dip in the gulley and a lot of scrub oaks should be a fine area to care for his wife, Sabra (Irene Dunne), and his four-year-old son. Renowned prostitute Dixie Lee (Estelle Taylor) is a fellow competitor, hoping to snag a spot in the exact same region. During this initial sequence, wagons are torn apart by the speed of travel and the roughness of the terrain, while thousands of extras holler and screech in the commotion. And, since “Cimarron” was released in 1931, there weren’t special effects available to fake such populated, sweeping shots – save for matte paintings in the backgrounds. Like Griffith’s “The Birth of a Nation” before it, “Cimarron’s” technical and logistical elements are wondrous.
Although Cravat loses his ideal lot to Dixie’s trickery, he convinces Sabra to head for the “boomer” townsite of Osage to start fresh, where he can create a new paper to replace his much prized Wichita Wigwam. But the rapidly growing community is full of antagonistic characters – such as outlaw “The Kid” (William Collier Jr.) – which is too unbecoming for the proper Sabra and the peacefulness of her home. Yancey, however, seems to fit right in, knowledgeable about the old Cimarron country (a name meaning wild and unruly, and also the name of his son) and its rowdy inhabitants, as well as being a man with a reputation that precedes him.
Filled with racism and sexism and all the politically incorrect notions that tend to frequent early historical epics, “Cimarron” nevertheless has the goodheartedness to mostly condemn the bullying and the mockery of the meek and the minorities, and to offer viewpoints for broad-mindedness. Yancey becomes the mouthpiece for reiterating the atrocities of robbing the Cherokee of their land, and for championing the efforts and equality of the prostitutes who wish to move on to a more agreeable profession (or who want to simply be treated humanely, like everyone else). He’s uncommonly just, decent, chivalrous, and fast on the draw. He’s a knight in shining armor (and an impromptu lawman) and an advocate for progressive social righteousness, despite existing in an Old West environment – perhaps unbelievably so, as he returns home a war hero and immediately swoops into court to defend Lee, a woman no attorney will touch. Here, there’s also time for sermons (which he gives), for singing (which he conducts), for defending the oppressed (which he leads), for gunfights (which he wins), and for courtroom battling (which he dominates). He even commiserates with bank robbers, with whom he shares a more carefree, innocent past. Here, his interactions with so many supporting players lends to brief moments of comedy relief, provided predominantly by a stuttering printer (Rosco Ates) and a judgmental elderly woman (Edna May Oliver).
As the years tick past and further Indian territories are opened up for the taking, the Cravat family expands (and ages), their business prospers, fashions change, and headlines flash onscreen. As an ambitious adventurer, dissatisfied with staying put to bask in material possessions, Yancey moves through major moments in history (including the Cherokee Strip Land Run, the Spanish-American War, Oklahoma’s statehood, the turn of the century, oil strikes, the coming of the automobile, and Indian citizenship), as if in a biography of a famous nation-shaping political figure – paving the way for future adaptations of Ferber’s sprawling dynasty sagas, such as “Giant” and “Ice Palace.” Toward the end, when Yancey’s aspirations for governorship place him amidst intolerance and governmental corruption, he again abandons his wife to satisfy his wanderlust, leaving Osage to transition into modern civility on its own, and his image to be marred a touch by his largely unforgivable familial negligence. Despite Yancey’s admirable causes (which are the purpose of the tale, and which find him away from home), the pacing is slow and the narrative uninspired, resulting in an important yet ponderous extravaganza.
– Mike Massie