It can be an interesting exercise to go back and watch classic films to see their interpretations of different groups and races of people. These questionable portrayals of African Americans, Asians, Jews, etc. could range from hilarious ideas of how different races and cultures act to downright offensive, villains that gave the entire race a bad name. I don’t want to give the impression that all old films were ignorant of other cultures and peoples. There are plenty of silent and early sound films that had honest and truthful representations of different races. What a lot of people tend to remember, however, are those many films that didn’t show certain groups in the best light. Westerns are particularly criticized for their depiction of Native Americans, often understandably. Imagine my surprise when I sat down to watch a 1930s film with not only an extremely pro-Native American stance but also a strong message of tolerance.
Cimarron was the first Western to win Best Picture and the last until Dances with Wolves (1990) (so enjoy it, you Western fans, because it’ll be a while before I talk about this genre again). It was also the first to get seven nominations and to win multiple awards.
Cimarron is based on the 1929 book of the same name by Edna Ferber. She was a pulitzer prize winning novelist, playwright and short story writer, who wrote, among other things, the book “Show Boat” (which inspired the classic musical) and the novel “Giant” (the basis for the famous 1956 James Dean film).
Our story tells of Yancy Cravat (played by Richard Dix), his wife (played by Irene Dunne), and their family trying to make a life for themselves in Oklahoma, which has just been opened for settlement by the government. Cravat is a reporter who opens a newspaper in the town of Osage. Along with running his paper, he fights against outlaws and social injustices.
Cravat is an open-minded guy, welcoming almost everyone with open arms. He befriends and saves the life of a Jewish man, he’s kind to the Native Americans in town, he gives the first sermon at a church that he deems as a church for all religions, and all of these people are portrayed respectfully and true to life.
Well, there is one person who could’ve been done with more grace. Isaiah – the young, black servant boy to the Cravats – is an uneducated black character with not much screen time and whose only real purpose is to serve as comic relief, a common sight in movies of the time. One notable moment, memorable for how poor in taste it is, is when the movie actually, and I’m not kidding, makes a “black men love watermelon” joke. I know how much of a stereotype that is, but I had never actually seen something with the nerve to make a serious joke about it. The character is nothing short of racist. Isaiah and the watermelon joke are the lowest points of the film. I probably wouldn’t have as much of a problem with it if the movie was like others of its era regarding stereotyping of races. Isiah’s scenes are embarrassing and so painful to watch as it is, but knowing how progressive the rest of the film is makes them even worse.
Thankfully, the rest of the movie fares much better in the comedy department. Many of the characters, main and side, are given good lines and funny situations that keep the film’s energy up and give the audience a good laugh.
For its first half or three-quarters Cimarron is a pretty good story, with great social messages, and well-written humor. It really falls apart, though, after Yancy, who’s constantly restless and possessed with a need to be a part of history, leaves Osage to settle another part of Oklahoma. His wife doesn’t approve, and so Yancy leaves her and the family behind. He comes back about five years later.
What irks me about this story development is Yancy never gets properly called out for leaving his family. Sure, his wife gets mad and yells at him for it, but it’s never really addressed and resolved in a satisfactory way. Although this does highlight how strong of a woman Dunne’s character is and further informs the audience about an aspect of Dix’s character, for me it serves to distract from the greater messages of the film. Once that story thread was introduced, I lost a lot of sympathy for Yancy and the beliefs he was fighting for. This gets further compounded when he leaves again at the end of the film for a much longer period of time. I’m not totally against showing this aspect of the character. Actually I’m all for it, because it makes him more fallible and human. I just wish it didn’t steal so much attention away from more important facets of the movie.
The pacing is also all over the place in this section. Cimarron takes place in multiple time periods between 1889 and 1929. The movie spends a sufficient amount of time in each period up until the last quarter of the film, where it jumps around way too much and doesn’t spend a lot of time in any one period, which makes the film come off like it’s rushing to get through the remainder of its material.
Despite story hiccups, the portrayal of Isaiah, and its pacing issues, Cimarron holds up for the most part. On Wikipedia, it says the film often falls on lists of the movies most undeserving of the Academy Award, and I can’t really agree with that. It’s certainly not for everyone, and I can see why some wouldn’t like it. It has a corny, bad vibe in its writing and acting that could turn a lot of people off. That being said, it deserves praise and a watch if you’re itching for a unique 1930s film that isn’t afraid to stand up for the little guy.