Today our elders may tell stories from WWII or The Great Depression; it’s rare to find anyone alive to tell us about the first World War. Children of the 1930’s could hear stories of the old west from their grandparents. Tales of covered wagons across the plains and the wild unsettled land of the west turned into towns. Does that sound amazing to anyone else?
Based off the novel by Edna Ferber, Cimarron tells the tale of one family as they help settle the fictional town of Osage and grow with time. In the Oklahoma Land Rush of 1889, Yancy (Richard Dix) and hundreds of others race out across the plains on horseback to claim a piece of land. Unfortunately, he’s tricked by cunning woman, Dixie (Estelle Taylor), and comes home with nothing. Despite the disapproval from his in-laws about going out into the wild west, where they fear their daughter will be scalped by Indians, Yancy, his wife, Sabra (Irene Dunne) and young son move to Osage and run the town’s newspaper.
When they first arrive, the town is packed and unruly. Very few buildings have been built and men stumble up and down the one street. Right across from the hotel is a large tent set up for gambling, and the chips can be traded for booze. It’s a great social hangout for Yancy to make some crucial business associates, but it’s nothing Sabra wants her son to be around. Even worse, there are gang members in Osage who do nothing but parade in the street drunk and terrorize hard the hard working people. Yancy takes it upon himself to drive them out of town, including an old friend, The Kid (William Collier Jr.).
As the town settles, and Yancy’s newspaper flourishes, he starts to become restless. He’s got too much of a cowboy mentality to stay in one place for too long. When the Cherokee land is up for grabs, Yancy wants to run off and do it all over again. But Sabra isn’t interested and realizes everything they have put into Osage to make it a place to raise their children. Throughout the film, she and Yancy portray different sides of the American dream.
One of my favorite scenes is the early church service set up for the town. No ministers or priests live in the town, so Yancy is asked to lead the service. The whole town attends, of all religions and creeds. Most people are white Christians, but there are also the Cherokees, the town gang, the group of prostitutes (though that is only inferred) and a young Jewish man who seems especially timid until Yancy reassures him that he is welcome. The service runs more like a town meeting and tries to reflect a respect for the diversity, even though it ends with bloodshed that runs the gang out of town.
Cimarron is a wonderful film that portrays a time in America that we no longer have witnesses to. Riding across the open west to settle new land is like a fantasy to us now, when just a few generations ago, they were living it. The film is a beautiful quality and is much more grand than I expected. From the beginning with men on horseback racing for land, it feels as exciting and real as the chariot race in Ben Hur. As time passes and we see Sabra age, her town and children grow, we understand more about this time in history. Sabra becomes the real hero, from braving the cowboy’s world of the old west, to helping the world move forward and becoming a woman of fortitude and strength for all to respect.
“We’re going into new things, a new empire and I want to help build it.”