Upon hearing a disagreeable melody, one might wonder whether one was hearing a good song sung poorly or a bad song sung well. I had a similar reaction in watching the 1931 movie Cimarron with regard to the character Yancey Cravat (Richard Dix), a man imbued with the pioneering spirit in the late nineteenth century. I kept wondering if he 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 admire, 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 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, Yancey’s wife, for whom we have 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 when it is clear that Sabra is right, and Yancey is wrong. For example, at one point 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 is can move freely among such men. The novel apologizes for outlaws such as these. 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.
Neither the novel nor the movie considers for a moment the possibility that Sabra should never have married Yancey, that she would have been much better off without him, either married to someone else, or simply remaining single.
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 English literature, so many are his allusions to mythology and quotations of verse, most of which are unrecognized by Sabra. 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. I read somewhere that this novel, written by Edna Ferber, was intended to be a criticism of American womanhood. That’s an understatement. She praises and admires men while despising and belittling women.
But we’re just getting started. Sabra is a racist who despises 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. As for Sabra, she is from the Venable family, first introduced to us in the novel with the adjective “inbred.” Also, Sabra is a heartless prude, who wants to run Dixie Lee out of town for being a public nuisance (i.e., a prostitute), while Yancey realizes that Dixie is more to be pitied than censured, and successfully defends her in court against the legal action brought against her by Sabra. And when Yancey deserts Sabra and the two children so that he can have some fun pioneering again, the movie wants us to think it is her fault for not being willing to go with him. Of course, we are eventually allowed to like her once she finally realizes that Yancey has always been right, and she has always been wrong.
Underscoring all this are their children. Their daughter is a shrew, while their son is such a nice guy 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. It is hard to believe this movie was based on a novel written by a woman.
When Yancey abandons Sabra again, the movie sees no need to belabor his 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 misogyny 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 right 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 an Indian. A male Indian, of course.
Though the 1931 version of Edna Ferber’s 1929 novel is not any good, while being no worse than the novel itself, yet we make allowances for it owing to the times in which the movie was made and the novel was written. The movie seems to be trying to say prejudice is bad, but makes its point with stereotypes of African Americans, Jews, and Native Americans, often set up to show how enlightened Yancey is and what a great guy he is for coming to their rescue. Yancey is also supposed to be enlightened when it comes to women, hence his defense of Dixie Lee, but this is done at the expense of women like Sabra, making her out to be narrow minded. And so, we handicap the movie for when it was made, making allowances for both the style and content.
But when watching the 1960 remake, we lose all patience. To take an extreme example for comparison, we are glad to have Birth of a Nation (1915) as a document revealing the racist attitudes of the times, and as such, we watch the movie with fascination. But that does not mean we want the movie remade today, even if we could do it better, so to speak, by making it with sound, in color, and in widescreen, directed by Quentin Tarantino and starring Samuel L. Jackson.
Perhaps the land rush for the Unassigned Lands in Oklahoma in 1889 begged to be filmed in color and in Cinemascope, being that it is a stronger visualization of Manifest Destiny than even the railroads or the covered wagons. But that could have been depicted in an entirely different story. Placed within a remake of Cimarron, however, it is simply wasted. When I read Yancey’s description of the Run, with all the danger it involved, be it from falling down and being trampled to death by the horde, or being shot by some Sooner trying to hold on to the land he snuck in early to get dibs on, and then watched these scenes of mad panic in the two movies, I thought to myself, “Why didn’t they just hold a lottery?” Well, apparently the government did eventually come around to that idea, but why it didn’t occur to them right off, I don’t know.
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). The African American stereotype is avoided by eliminating the boy who sneaked away with Yancey and Sabra early in the 1931 movie, whom Edna Ferber says has a simian appearance. However, Sol Levy (David Opatoshau) is still depicted as the stereotypical Jew, one who is a helpless victim, which allows Yancey to play the savior. And this is ironic, since Ferber was a Jew herself.
In the 1930s, Richard C. Kahn directed a lot of B Westerns with an all-black cast, but starting in the 1960s, perhaps as part of an effort on the part of Hollywood to make amends, African Americans began showing up in mainstream Westerns as men that are good with a gun. But have you ever seen a Western in which a Jew strapped on a gun, killed all the bad guys, and then got the girl? Of course, I’m speaking of the characters in a movie, not the actors. Eli Wallach was a Jew that often played Italians, as in Baby Doll (1956); and in Westerns, he played Mexicans, as in The Magnificent Seven (1960) and The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (1966). It’s lucky that these movies were made before it became politically incorrect to cast someone in a role with an ethnicity other than his own, for then Wallach would have been restricted to playing only Jewish characters, and we would have been deprived of some great performances. As for reality, there were a lot of Jews in the Old West, many of whom, I have no doubt, were good with a gun. But you would never know it from watching the movies. However, I digress.
I mentioned that in the 1931 version, Yancey Cravat is an irritating character played by a bad actor, Richard Dix. In this 1960 version, Yancey is played by a much better actor, Glenn Ford, but he is just as irritating as ever, if not more so. However, the 1960 version makes apologies for him by having Sabra (Maria Schell) tell him she never wants to see him again when he refuses to accept the appointment as governor, instead of simply having Yancey abandon her again the way he did in the 1931 version. So, by making it all be the woman’s fault, the misogyny finds another outlet in this movie.
The melodramatic death of Yancey in the oilfield is eliminated, with Yancey dying in the First World War instead. A more modestly sized statue of Yancey appears at the end of the 1960 version, though with Yancey still towering over the Indian he is helping up.