Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Saddlebums Movie Review: Cimarron

(Saddlebums is glad to present the first of what we hope will be many contributions by Doug Bentin, redoubtable Western fan who hails from San Antonio, Texas and presently lives in Oklahoma. Doug writes film reviews for eFilmCritic! and book reviews (mostly Westerns) for the most indispensable website Bookgasm. His personal blog is The Long Saturday of the Soul.)

2007 is Oklahoma’s centennial year so I thought I’d take a look at a movie that explores what it took to carve a state out of some pretty wild country.

The movie is “Cimarron,” released in 1931 and based on the 1929 bestseller by Edna Ferber. Richard Dix stars as Yancy Cravat, based on the real life Temple Houston, son of Sam Houston. Temple was a lawyer in Woodward, OK, from 1894 to his death in 1905, and a couple of moments in the movie draw on Temple’s court room style. During his defense of soiled dove Dixie Lee — Minnie Stacey in real life — Yancy says of his trial opponent, “Your honor, the prosecutor is the first man that I've ever seen that can strut while sitting down.” His closing argument to the jury is also taken from Temple’s defense of Minnie Stacey in 1899.

It’s too bad “Cimarron” doesn’t depict my favorite Temple Houston anecdote, as retold in Glenn Shirley’s fine biography of the man. Once, Temple asked to use the judge’s chamber as a place he and his client could talk in private. The request was granted but, after lawyer and client failed to reappear in court in a reasonable amount of time, Temple was discovered sitting alone in the room with the window wide open. “I gave him the best advice I could,” Houston quipped.

Okay, all this is fun but it only comments on the movie by pointing out that much of the characterization, plot, and background are drawn from times that had passed only 40 years before the film was made. The filming of “Cimarron” is much closer in time to the great Oklahoma Land Run of 1889 than it is to us today and most of the pleasure the movie delivers is due to its authenticity.

The Internet Movie Database reports that the land rush scene took a week to film, using 5,000 extras, 28 cameramen, 6 still photographers and 27 camera assistants. It holds up beautifully today and if young people watching the movie think they’re seeing newsreel footage of the actual event, it’s almost understandable.

The picture follows footloose Yancy and his bride Sabra (the always luminous Irene Dunne) as they travel west so Yancy can set up a newspaper and practice law. They arrive first in the bustling frontier city of Osage, one of those Insta-Cities that popped up out of the prairie after the first land run.

These early scenes in Osage are fascinating in their depiction of the noise, confusion and crowded conditions. We meet many of the human types who made the run—good guys and bad guys—but most prominently for dramatic purposes a Jewish peddler, a stammering printer’s devil, and a young African-American boy who the Cravats discover stowed away with them.

The movie lets us know that yonderin’ fellas like Yancy, who took their brains and skills from one frontier outpost to the next, were what the west needed if it ever hoped to settle down. The tragedy for civilizers like Yancy was that they couldn’t feel at home when civilization did grow roots, and they were doomed from the start to run out of room and out of time. The new state they created didn’t need roughnecks and pioneers.

“Cimarron” was the first western to win the Academy Award for Best Picture. Dix and Dunne were both nominated for Oscars, but neither took one home. About a lot of older movies you say metaphorically, “Well, that one is just an historical document,” but “Cimarron” is special because it actually is an historical document.

Oh, and one more note about something that is neither here nor there. Sabra Cravat’s mother, featured in one early scene in the movie, is played by a stage actress named Nance O’Neil. If you’ve ever heard of her, it probably isn’t in connection with her career as an actress but for the fact that during the early 20th Century she was the best friend of the infamous Lizzie Borden. Were they really, as some folks claim, lovers? Don’t axe, don’t tell.
— Doug Bentin.


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