Thursday, March 14, 2013

CIMARRON - 1930/1931

Years ago I remember reading a list of the worst films that had won Best Picture, and “Cimarron” came in near the top. I had never heard of this film before, but when I read the title I thought it said “Cinnamon.” Even when I had corrected my mistake, I couldn’t quite detach myself from the notion that somehow “Cimarron” had something to do with cinnamon. I think my affinity for candy pursuaded me to believe that the plot of “Cimarron” revolved around cinnamon gummy bears and other cinnamon-based candies.

Even though that has been years ago, I have to admit that as I put the DVD in the player, this part of me still hoped that cinnamon would play a key role in “Cimarron.” Much to my disappointment, I learned that “Cimarron” has absolutely nothing to do with cinnamon in any way, shape or form. In fact, there isn’t even one reference to cinnamon or gummy bears. And if other people experienced this same let-down, then it’s no wonder that “Cimarron” occupies a place on the list of the worst films to win the Oscar for Best Picture.

Instead of cinnamon, the word cimarron is a Spanish word that supposedly can be roughly translated to mean rowdy place. This is what I found out through the internet, so who knows how reliable that information is. But if this definition is true, it would fit within the context of the film, which takes place on the untamed plains of the Oklahoma territory. Apart from that, it’s also the name of a street in Las Vegas.

Directed by Wesley Ruggles, and starring Richard Dix and Irene Dunne, “Cimarron” charts a 40-year chunk of Oklahoma’s history through the exploits of Yancey Cravat and his wife Sabra (which also happens to be the name of my favorite brand of hummus). Yancey is a lantern-jawed adventurer, always sporting a Kentucky tie, with his thumbs hooked squarely in his gun holster. Saddled with a severe case of wanderlust, Yancey can’t ignore the siren’s song of the west, dragging his wife Sabra to the rough-and-tumble town of Osage in the early 1890s.

Over the next 40 years, Yancey spends his time chasing every new horizon, leaving and returning to Osage without any warning to his wife. Sabra, meanwhile, remains steadfast in Yancey’s absence, raising their two children, running a newspaper they founded and eventually becoming elected a member of Congress. As a newly elected Congresswoman, Sabra is touring the oil fields of Oklahoma, where she discovers a frail and aged Yancey, right before his death from a work-related accident. The final shot of the film is of a giant statue erected in Yancey’s honor to commemorate all that he contributed and sacrificed in building up Oklahoma.

Irene Dunne and Richard Dix in "Cimarron."

“Cimarron” nabbed seven Academy Award nominations for 1930/1931, the most of any film up until that time. The fact that it managed to receive such acclaim illustrates the irresistible nature that a sprawling epic can possess for the Academy because it isn’t a strong film in many regards. The story is presented in disjointed chapters of time, spreading the narrative too thin and forcing it to take too many corners, which prevents it from being able to gather any real momentum.

It’s frustrating what moments and events the film decides to show and what it decides to skip over entirely. For example, at one point Yancey rides off to Cuba to fight in the Spanish-American war, an event only dealt with through a few passing lines of dialogue. However, during a Sunday scene at church, there is an extraordinary amount of screen time given to different members of the congregation as they completely butcher a hymn.  

But for all of its faults, I found that I enjoyed a variety of isolated aspects of “Cimarron,” which seems fitting given the film’s disjointed nature. From a historical standpoint, “Cimarron” offers up an interesting, truncated look at Oklahoma’s history. The opening sequence is an ambitious recreation of the great land rush on April 22nd, 1889, when President Benjamin Harrison opened up the Territory for settlement. This scene involved over 5,000 extras and 28 cameramen to achieve, which is most likely something no modern film production would attempt to coordinate. And by today’s standards, it still holds up as a stirring spectacle to see all of those extras galloping off at full speed in mass orchestration. I think this version of the Oklahoma land rush is more impressive and striking than the land rush scene presented in the film “Far and Away,” which was released 60 years later. 

Irene Dunne and Richard Dix in "Cimarron."
Apart from the abbreviated history lesson of the Sooner State, I thought the film’s contradictory treatment of minorities and socially progressive ideas proved interesting to mull over. Throughout its running time, minorities are interlaced into the plot, leading to some cringe-worthy moments. However, the story also simultaneously advocates on behalf of those same minority groups that five minutes earlier it had presented in unflattering light.

Additionally, the film also examines socially progressive topics, such as inter-racial marriage, Native-American rights and women holding elected office. But it also maintains a grasp on socially antiquated notions, such as husbands not respecting their wives and men expecting women to solely run the household under every circumstance.

The fact that “Cimarron” seemingly goes out of its way to highlight and advocate progressive ideas, while failing to avoid propagating other negative ideas and racial stereotypes through its own characters is an interesting reflection of the slow pace at which progressive ideals flourish and become accepted. My impression is that the social ideals promoted in “Cimarron” were most likely done in good faith. However, the film seems to simultaneously sabotage its own efforts on this front because it sort of becomes hampered by its own hypocrisy. 

It is human nature to not take sound advice from a hypocritical source, no matter how accurate that advice is. In a sense, “Cimarron” comes across as an insincere voice because, for example, on the one hand it supports women’s rights and their involvement in the political arena. But on the other hand, it shows that a man like Yancey can be selfish and disrespectful toward his wife and in the end he’ll still have a statue erected in his honor surrounded by cheering throngs. I think this type of a mixed messaging trips up the pace at which progressive ideas move through the mainstream because while they very well may be recognized as inherently right, the fact that the old way of thinking is still rewarded doesn’t demonstrate any reason to really change. 

Irene Dunne and Richard Dix in "Cimarron."
Over the years, “Cimarron” has taken it on the chin by critics who deplore its portrayal of minorities. Some of it is deserved criticism. But I think it is unfair to harshly judge an 80-year-old film’s depiction of society and its treatment of socially progressive ideas with a modern mindset. In a way, that would sort of be like labeling the original “King Kong” movie as being technologically backward because it didn’t utilize CGI. “Cimarron” is a product of its time. And I do think it was well intentioned, doing the best it could within the time it existed. I can appreciate that it at least tried to spark conversations about equality and how we treat our fellow beings. For that, I think the film should be defended for what it tried to achieve and not criticized for its faults. The critics who throw back their heads and howl at this film should ease up a little bit. Because the truth of the matter is that films with racially and culturally insensitive content are still being produced and acclaimed. 

Favorite Line: Richard Dix has a large, athletic presence, accompanied by a deep and booming voice. I’ve never seen him in anything else, but my guess is that he wouldn’t be effective in a part that required subtly. If he ever had attempted an understated role, I think the result would be similar to casting Arnold Schwarzenegger in a Sofia Coppola movie.

Anyway, as Yancey, Dix definitely delivers some moments of true ham-and-eggs acting. Perhaps my favorite line comes after Yancey has returned home to Sabra after a prolonged absence, where he declares, “Ah, Sugar, Sugar, I love yah. Hell and high water all the way there’s never been anybody but you and you know it!”

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