In 1930, Edna Ferber wrote Cimarron. The title comes from the Spanish word “cimarrón,” which has a variety of meanings, but principally that of “wild” and “untamed.” More specifically, it refers to the parts of Oklahoma that had belonged to the Indians; but upon reflection it was thought better to think of it as being land that had been given to the Indians, owing to the generosity of the white man; and then it was thought better still to rescind that act of generosity and give the land to white people.
And thus it was that in 1889, the Unassigned Lands, consisting of 2,000,000 acres in central Oklahoma, were to be opened up for settlement. In a rational world, there would have been a lottery, the winners of which would have been given title to the 160 acres that they had won, after which they could then make their way to that plot of land at a leisurely pace, thereby taking possession of it in a civilized manner. But such thinking on my part betrays a failure to understand the pioneer spirit that made this country great. Instead, there was a free-for-all, every-man-for-himself, pell-mell rush of 50,000 people, in wagons, on horseback, on bicycles, and on foot, unleashed on this territory precisely at noon on April 22. In the novel, reference is made to men being trampled on by horses or shot by Sooners. It is with this land run that the 1931 movie based on this novel begins. If you want to visually represent the idea of Manifest Destiny, you might show covered wagons or railroad trains moving from right to left on the screen, but nothing can compare with such a spectacle as this.
Among this horde is Yancey Cravat (Richard Dix), who embodies the pioneer spirit in a big way. In fact, some people call him “Cim,” indicating that he personifies this wild and untamed land. On horseback, he is the first to arrive at the plot of land he had already picked out, but Dixie Lee, who pretends to be a damsel in distress, manages to cheat him out of it. Thus thwarted, he returns to his wife Sabra (Irene Dunn) in Wichita, Kansas, to take her and their son, whom he officially named “Cim,” to Osage, Oklahoma, where he plans to start up a newspaper.
Throughout this movie, I kept wondering if Yancey was supposed to be an admirable character portrayed by a bad actor, or an irritating character excellently portrayed by a good actor. By the time the movie was over, I had concluded that it was the worst of both worlds. Richard Dix gives a hammy performance of a someone we are supposed to like, but who is in fact an insufferable jerk. And this notwithstanding the fact that the movie won the Oscar for Best Picture and Dix was nominated for Best Actor.
In other words, this movie would not be so bad if it wanted us to regard Yancey as obnoxious, and Richard Dix merely overacted the part as if he were performing on the stage, where a loud, resonating voice and sweeping gestures are needed for the benefit of those sitting in the back rows. But the movie goes to great lengths to get us to admire Yancey, and the dissonance between what the movie expects of us and what we are actually feeling as we behold this preposterous character is grating.
Irene Dunne, who was nominated for Best Actress, does a decent job of playing Sabra, for whom we have some sympathy, given all she has to put up with, even though the movie really does not want us to like her very much, because it is continually showing her as lacking the virtues that Yancey possesses. In reading the novel, too, it does not take long to get tired of how Yancey is always right, and Sabra is always wrong, which is especially exasperating on those occasions when it is clear that Sabra is right, and Yancey is wrong. At one point in the movie, when she tries to advise him on some matter regarding the newspaper, he tells her, “Don’t you be worrying your pretty head about that.”
In the novel, Yancey lies to some United States marshals. They are looking for some men that robbed a bank and killed the cashier. Yancey knows where they are, but pretends he hasn’t seen them. After they leave, Sabra says that the person that shields a criminal is just as bad as the criminal himself. The text continues as follows:
Yancey looked back at her…. His smile was mischievous, sparkling, irresistible. “Don’t be righteous, Sabra. It’s middle class—and a terrible trait in a woman.”
Apparently, this novel is in the thrall of some romantic notions about outlaws, and we are supposed to like the way Yancey can move freely among such men. The novel apologizes for outlaws such as these, saying it’s the government’s fault. It has taken the free range away from the cowboys and given it to the homesteaders, leaving them no option but a life of crime. If you’re thinking they could have gotten a homestead themselves, or a job in a store, you just aren’t in the spirit of this novel.
Yancey is a lawyer, but the novel is at pains to make us aware, again and again, that Yancey has all the cultural refinement of a professor of literature, so many are his allusions to mythology and quotations of verse, all of which are unrecognized by Sabra, who is portrayed as an ignoramus. In other words, Yancey excels in masculine virtues, swaggering around like a pirate or a cavalier, while at the same time showing off his brilliant intellect and sophisticated ways, in contrast to little, narrowminded Sabra who hasn’t a spark to her soul. Given this depiction of Sabra, it is hard to believe this movie was based on a novel written by a woman.
Sabra is a racist who dislikes the “dirty, filthy Indians,” while Yancey is respectful of Indians and regrets the way they have been treated by white men. In the novel, she thinks it absurd that Yancey regards them as human beings. There is the suggestion that Yancey is part Indian himself. In the movie, her mother believes that he is a half-breed. Speaking of her mother, Sabra is from the Venable family, first introduced to us in the novel with the adjective “inbred.”
Sabra does not, however, express quite as much animosity toward the black race, because, as she puts it in the novel, “Niggers are different. They know their place.” As for the movie, it embraces the stereotypes common to when it was made. Unbeknownst to Yancey or Sabra, Isaiah, a black servant, stows away on one of the covered wagons they use on their trip to Osage. He is a young boy, part coon and part Tom, who loves watermelon. Yancey does not express the same sympathy for Negroes that he does for Indians, or talk about how they were mistreated by white people. Edna Ferber says Isaiah has a simian appearance.
In the movie, when some outlaws begin shooting up the town, Isaiah runs out into the street to get little Cim, who is in danger. He saves Cim’s life, but ends up getting shot and killed in doing so. In the novel, however, Isaiah is not vouchsafed a hero’s death. Quite the contrary. When he is a few years older, Isaiah gets an Osage Indian maiden pregnant. When she has the baby, it is clearly a “negro child.” The Osage Indians don’t allow this form of miscegenation, so the girl, her baby, and Isaiah are put to death by slow torture, which lasts several days. That’s right, the baby is tortured for several days right along with his mother and Isaiah. It’s easy to see why that never made it into the movie.
To round out the prejudices considered here, we now turn to antisemitism. Sol Levy is the “town Jew.” He walks down the street leading a mule that carries the merchandise he is selling. The town’s riffraff start bothering him, finally shooting near his feet to frighten him. He falls back against a cross-shaped structure, with his hands extended so that they rest on each of the arms of that cross. He is the stereotypical Jew, one who is a helpless victim, which allows Yancey to play the savior, protecting him from the bad guys.
And this is ironic, since Ferber was a Jew herself. In describing the incident where the ruffians are shooting at Sol’s feet and other parts of his body, often missing him by only a fraction of an inch, she says:
He had no weapon. He would not have known how to use it if he had possessed one. He was not of a race of fighters.
Come again? Did she never read the Tanakh, more commonly known as the Old Testament, about the massacres of the Amalekites, the Amorites, and the Midianites, culminating in Joshua’s genocidal slaughter of the Canaanites, followed by years of warfare where the Hebrews vanquished the Philistines, the Moabites, the Aramaeans, the Edomites, and any other tribe that happened to be in their vicinity?
Anyway, Yancey comes to Sol’s rescue:
At that first instant of seeing him as he rushed out of his office, Yancey thought, subconsciously, “He looks like—like—“ But the resemblance eluded him then. It was only later, after the sickening incident had ended, that he realized of Whom it was that the Jew had reminded him as he stood there, crucified against the scale.
This image of Sol and the cross, establishing a connection between him and Jesus, puzzled me. Later in the movie, when Yancey is giving an ecumenical sermon inclusive of all varieties of Christianity, Sol asks, with a pitiful look in his eyes, if it is all right for him to be there. Yancey assures him that it is. Further on in the movie, Yancey defends Dixie Lee at her trial. At the moment where Yancey is quoting Jesus, the camera focuses on Sol.
My guess is that this all this is a way of apologizing for Jews, saying that deep down they are really Christians. They just don’t realize it yet. So, we should forgive them. Perhaps this is what Ferber had in mind when she said Sol was not of a race of fighters: she was not thinking of a Jew like Joshua or David, but rather a Jew like Jesus.
In the 1930s, Richard C. Kahn directed a lot of B Westerns with an all-black cast, but other than that, African Americans were not featured in Westerns as gun-toting cowboys. Starting in the 1960s, however, perhaps as an effort on the part of Hollywood to make amends, African Americans began showing up in mainstream Westerns as men that were good with a gun. But have you ever seen a Western in which a Jew strapped on a gun, killed the bad guy, and then got the girl? There were a lot of Jews in the Old West, many of whom, I have no doubt, were good with a gun and fully capable of defending themselves. But you would never know it from watching the movies.
There was one movie, The Frisco Kid (1979), a silly comedy, where Gene Wilder plays a dimwitted Polish rabbi in the Old West. He does manage at one point to shoot and kill a bad guy, after which he does get married. But he mostly has to be protected by Harrison Ford, the real Western hero, while the movie makes Wilder’s character the butt of its dumb jokes.
Getting back to the movie Cimarron, in 1893 the Cherokee Strip was to be opened up, which would be even bigger than the land run of 1889. In the novel, Yancey argues that if they participate in the run for the Cherokee Strip, they can get 160 acres and start a ranch. Sabra points out that if it’s a ranch he wants, he can just buy a plot of land right near Osage. Leave it to a woman to take all the fun out of something. But we know what his real problem is: Yancey is bored with the newspaper he started, and he is bored with Sabra. Early in the novel, Ferber mentions that there were not only rumors that Yancey had Indian blood in him, but also that he had a squaw and lots of papooses somewhere that he had abandoned. That being the case, it should come as no surprise that he is willing to abandon Sabra and their two children as well, just so he can have some fun pioneering again. The movie, however, wants us to think it is Sabra’s fault for not being willing to go with him.
Five years later, he shows back up, wearing a Rough Rider uniform. In the novel, he is on his way to fight in the Spanish American War; in the movie, he just got back from the fighting. The reason for the difference is simplification, often necessary when bringing a book to the big screen. In this way, Yancey abandons Sabra only twice in the movie, whereas he deserted her three times in the novel. In any event, his interest in getting some land in the Cherokee Strip so he could start a ranch must have quickly lost its appeal, for we never hear another thing about it. In the novel, Sabra falls into his arms, unable to resist the charms of the man she so dearly loves. When Yancey has a look as his son, who essentially has feminine features, he is disappointed. “’Gods! How the son degenerates from the sire!’’’ Yancey says to him in exasperation, while no doubt pleased at being able to cite that line from The Iliad, once more showing off his impossible erudition.
But he’s not through doing that. When Sabra recovers from her thrill at seeing Yancey again, she remembers that he had deserted her. When she expresses her anger at the thought of this, he responds by referring to her as Penelope.
“Who?” she asks.
He then quotes from The Odyssey:
“Strange lady, surely to thee above all womankind the Olympians have given a heart that cannot be softened. No other woman in the world would harden her heart to stand thus aloof from her husband, who after travail and sore had come to her … to his own country.”
“You and your miserable Milton,” she replies.
You see, once while they were walking down the street, he started reciting the poem “Delilah,” which sounded to her like a bunch of nonsense, and then heard him refer to Milton, it’s author. So, she figured this must be another quotation from that same guy.
A few pages later, Ferber refers to Yancey as Odysseus. The comparison is not only absurdly romantic, but completely inappropriate. Yancy can’t wait to go fight in the Spanish American War, but Odysseus was the world’s first draft dodger. When Palamedes came to get him to fight in the Trojan War, Odysseus pretended to be crazy, hoping to get out of it. The ruse didn’t work, but the point is that unlike Yancey, Odysseus did not want to leave his wife and son to go fight in some pointless war.
Shortly after his reunion with Sabra, Yancey finds out that Dixie Lee is about to go on trial for being a public nuisance (i.e., a prostitute). Sabra, it seems, is a heartless prude, who wants to run her out of town. Yancey realizes that Dixie Lee is more to be pitied than censured, and successfully defends her in court against the legal action brought against her by Sabra, thereby humiliating his own wife.
The misogyny in this movie is recapitulated in their children. Their daughter Donna is a shrew. She is fed up with the way everyone else is oil rich, while her family is just getting by on what comes in from the newspaper. She declares she is going to find a rich man and marry him. Apparently, she does, since we later see her with a man old enough to be her grandfather. Their son Cim, on the other hand, is such a nice guy that he even intends to marry an Indian. But why stop there? The whole town is like that. With the exception of a few scoundrels, the men are genuine and likable, while the decent women of the community are snobs and prudes.
When Yancey abandons Sabra again, the movie sees no need to belabor this second desertion of her, but merely mentions it in an intertitle. Many years go by, during which time Sabra becomes a United States Representative, her reward, presumably, for finally realizing how enlightened her husband had been all along. At a political banquet in her honor, she gives credit to the contribution women have made in civilizing Oklahoma. Given all the sexism we have seen up to this point, this belated tribute to women sounds like an apologetic afterthought.
Sabra barely manages to fight back the tears as she tries to tell herself that Yancey is still alive somewhere. But then it turns out that some old roughneck working on an oil rig nearby has been severely injured because he used his body to shield the rest of the crew from some exploding nitroglycerin; and Sabra, hearing that the man’s name is Yancey, rushes to him, where he dies in her arms while blathering about what a loving wife and mother she is. Of course, we cannot help but think that even though he was working right there in the local oil fields, he apparently did not want to have anything to do with her, because he never even let her know he was in town.
And then the cover is removed from an obscenely huge statue of Yancey in honor of the pioneers who made Oklahoma what it is. There is another figure, somewhat smaller in stature, standing behind him, but it is not Sabra. It is a generic Indian.
The run for the Unassigned Lands in 1889 is just the sort of spectacle that begged to be filmed in a big way, in Cinemascope and in color, and with more carnage. But that is about the only justification for the 1960 remake. Characters in this movie have different relationships with one another, and events that take place are changed around a bit, but none of it seems to matter one way or the other. Glenn Ford, who plays Yancey in this version, is a better actor, but the character he plays is just as irritating as ever, if not more so.
Some of the misogyny is expunged by simply eliminating Yancey’s bigoted daughter and by eliminating the persecution and trial of Dixie Lee (Anne Baxter) by the women of Osage, although we are still expected to think Sabra (Maria Schell) is to blame whenever Yancey deserts her. The African American stereotype is avoided by eliminating Isaiah. However, Sol Levy is still depicted as the helpless victim, placed in a crucified posture. In that way, Yancey can once again be seen coming to the rescue of this Jesus avatar.