Cimarron (1931, Wesley Ruggles)



We probably don’t have a modern analogy for the Edna Ferber doorstop; please don’t inform your local Twilight-basher of their existence and shatter their illusion that people just in the last few years started reading things that, gasp, don’t have an immense level of artistic merit and are really just silly, escapist fun. Of course, for some of us, Ferber’s just insufferable because she’s not our idea of fun — we’d sooner read …And Ladies of the Club. Giant rubbed us the wrong way, so you can imagine we felt pretty much mauled and tortured by the interminable, deathly stupid and distressingly racist Cimarron. But what can you say, really, except It Is What It Is? Even if you do wonder deep down given that the Academy was smart enough to realize that All Quiet on the Western Front carried the emotional power of cinema to its outermost reaches, how they were possessed to reward this utterly shallow piffle.

Arguably, everyone already hated this western at the time (the Oscar is generally regarded as a bought-and-paid-for sympathy vote for RKO’s wild overspending on the film, which was a commercial disappointment), so of course it’s a slog today. Part of it is the aforementioned leering racism, which seriously is everywhere: a black servant boy who lazes around all the time, is crazy about watermelons, and dies in service of his master; a Jew who gets cornered by bullies against a veiled crucifix; and of course, the Injuns we must have in order to mount a proper western. But even going further than that, Ferber’s story is total pointless nonsense, the decades-spanning odyssey of a headstrong and wildly ambitious newspaper man (!?!?) striking out onto the frontier despite the protests of his long-suffering, nagging wife. It’s all nonsense, and just like in Giant, at the end you get to see how great this increasingly rich family is because they’re old and still important in 1929. At least there aren’t any hideous closeups of babies.

Where to begin, even? A serious debit to Cimarron, as in such an overwhelming majority of movies in the messy 1929-31 period, is the strain from the acquisition of sound; in every respect, it looks like a silent movie, albeit a low-tier and largely uncinematic one, and the two lead performers, in their aesthetic appearance as well as their performance style, seem to have been accidentally hauled in from the set of a mid-’20s Cecil B. DeMille project. In the context of populist, low-tier silent cinema, Irene Dunne’s performance as strong-willed but finally cardboard Sabra might be acceptable if hardly revelatory; with sound, she sounds confused and desperately stilted, very much akin to Bessie Love in The Broadway Melody except without that film’s music and charm to offset it. But on the other hand, Richard Dix as meaninglessly bold nutcase Yancey is a true horror — without a doubt one of the most awful performances by an actor in a major Hollywood picture. It doesn’t help that he inherits a character that makes absolutely no sense — a somehow rugged, heroic pioneer journalist and entrepreneur who fights prejudice while stealing land from the natives, and who barrels around with guns while hosting spiritual revivals — a typical feature of Ferber’s novels. So he’s a caricature, fine, but he didn’t have to be so fucking pretentious about it, fawning and cooing and growling through the film, all grand gestures and smug proto-Elvis sneering, almost entirely disconnected from any of the lines he’s supposed to be reading. We don’t end up paying much more attention to the dialogue than he is, which is in part because it’s terrible but in much larger part because his hamminess is such a complete and unwelcome distraction. Literally the only way to make this writer sympathize with Edna Ferber is to saddle her words with a doofus like this, like putting Mel Gibson in a Horatio Algar adaptation.

Of course, something got Cimarron decent reviews and an air of prestige at the time. What on earth was it? You can make the somewhat convincing argument that its cornball nature seemed quite serious and Oscar-baity middlebrow in its day, but the relative sophistication of Wings, All Quiet on the Western Front, and even Grand Hotel casts an unfavorable light on this theory; very simply, movies were never supposed to be this dumb. Beyond the oft-repeated idea that RKO secretly paid a considerable sum for the face-saving air of legitimacy brought in by the Oscar win, there is the theory that in much the same way that Holocaust stories and characters with ailments are a ticket to award-season heaven now, in the early 1930s the Academy’s big obsession was highly episodic films that eschewed ordinary plot structure. Of the first five Best Picture recipients, nary a one has a conventional beginning-middle-end narrative; they’re all a series of events strung together more by a central idea than an actual story. It’s extremely difficult to come up with anything that this movie has in common with All Quiet, but that’s actually a rather big and significant connection. And Ferber was, say this for her, a master at this sort of thing — the construction of individual situations to get a chapter-by-chapter cumulative effect of witnessing a sprawl and a sweep. (This sort of thing has come back into swing with portmanteau-like narratives Crash and The Hurt Locker and vaguely related Slumdog Millionaire taking home the award in the 2000s.) Whereas All Quiet devoted its self-contained story threads and overarching character change to forcing the audience to feel rather than simply hear its message, Cimarron‘s only aim seems to be to make you sense the years passing — and lord, how it succeeds.

As in Giant, though, there is admittedly a certain train-wreck and unintentionally comedic appeal to seeing all this nuttiness go off the rails, and there are a couple of redeemable scenes, in particular the opening land rush into Oklahoma, an exhaustively detailed scene with thousands of extras and an intensely complex camera setup that stands fully apart from the anonymous direction in the rest of the film. Wesley Ruggles, though he deserves credit for the surely arduous technical planning of that first sequence, was a studio hack in the silent period whose sole claim to fame this pricey folly would turn out to be, and even then only as a trivia footnote. If you can tolerate the horrendous acting for a few minutes, though, those first ten minutes function rather decently, much as they fail to justify the overblown two hours that follow (to say nothing of the wild and woolly movie poster that makes the film look rather outlandish and impressive, a case of blatant lawsuit-worthy false advertising).

This is, so far, the hardest time I’ve had making it through a film for the Best Picture project — admittedly, we’re not very far in! I nearly fell asleep for much of the back half, especially during a neverending courtroom sequence that deals with the town cathouse, this after a story strand that saw Yancey disappear for years and suddenly return and then that was discarded, only he leaves again later and epic this and that. For some time, there was some inexplicable holdover goodwill toward this film that resulted in a lot of slander directed at Anthony Mann’s 1960 remake — but in recent years, critical reevaluation has been much kinder to that movie than this one; though I’ve not seen Mann’s film, I have trouble imagining it could be any worse than this. Definitely the worst of the first five Best Picture winners, and probably one of the worst overall, though more terror lurks just around the corner…