13 June 2003 | Ron Oliver
Epic Frontier Film
A charismatic Kansas lawyer takes his bride to the Oklahoma Territory's CIMARRON Country to start a newspaper in the violent, rawboned town of Osage.
Edna Ferber's sprawling novel of frontier life comes to the big screen in a film deemed fine enough to win a few Oscars, including Best Picture. It was one of the first great epics of the Sound Era and is still very entertaining to watch. Occasionally there is a bit of overacting, perhaps, and technical difficulties with the microphones can be discerned while trying to hear the stars' voices clearly during some crowd scenes, but this in no way detracts from the enjoyment of viewing the film.
The performance of Richard Dix as pioneer & dreamer Yancey Cravat has been criticized as being too florid and overripe, but this is unfair. The popular actor had his roots in silent films when acting techniques were somewhat different, but this robust style perfectly suits the energetic wanderlust of his character. Anything less than abundant enthusiasm would look silly in a fellow called upon to deliver a sermon and shoot an outlaw almost simultaneously, vigorously champion the rights of fallen women and racial minorities and yet still blithely abandon his family for long years as he follows his own star of destiny. Call it what you may, Dix's performance can certainly never be tagged as being dull.
Irene Dunne, as Yancey's wife Sabra - his Sugar' - provides the calm emotional center for the film. She is the one who holds the family and newspaper together while her husband is off bringing civilization to other frontiers. She is even able to achieve substantial business and political importance. What saves Dunne's performance from becoming too sweet is the story giving her a few personality wrinkles to deal with, most notably her determination to destroy the town's bawdy house madam (well played by Estelle Taylor) and her intense bigotry towards the local Indians. Her growth as a human being is juxtaposed with that of Oklahoma's expansion as a state.
Some fine character actors provide prime entertainment value: stuttering Roscoe Ates as the Cravats' faithful printer; George E. Stone as a gentle Jewish peddler who becomes a firm family friend; Stanley Fields as a town tough who tangles with the wrong hombre; William Collier Jr in a brief, vibrant outlaw role as The Kid; and Eugene Jackson as the young Black servant who gives the ultimate sacrifice of loyalty to the Cravats. Marvelous gossipy Edna May Oliver, replete with snooty sniffs & piercing glances, neatly tucks all her scenes as a society matron into her handbag and stalks off with them.
With production costs of 1.5 million dollars, RKO could give CIMARRON excellent production values, featuring crowds of extras and very realistic sets. A few of the scenes are classics and remain in the mind for a long time: the 1889 Land Rush sequence which opens the film; the church service in the saloon; the gun battle in the dusty street. It is very interesting to watch how the town of Osage changes during the movie, from a dangerous dirty settlement to an Oklahoma metropolis in 1930, all achieved most convincingly for the screen.
The Cimarron is a wild & unruly river that arises in New Mexico and runs for about 600 miles before becoming a tributary of the Arkansas River near Tulsa, Oklahoma. The word is Old Spanish and refers to the thickets along the River and the bighorn sheep which inhabited them