"Each man has a song and this is my song." (Leonard Cohen)

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Canadian Pacific (Fox, 1949)












Surveyor with sixguns




 
 
Canadian Pacific is certainly not one of Randolph Scott’s better Westerns. In fact it is one of his weakest. In his very good book The Films of Randolph Scott (McFarland & Company, 2004) Robert Nott is particularly down on it and goes so far as to call it “abysmal”. Nott says, “It may not be Scott’s overall worst film, but I rate it as his overall worst Western.” He adds, “Randolph Scott or no Randolph Scott, it stinks.” I think that’s going a bit far. It does have action, color, and Victor Jory as villain, after all. But I do admit, it’s pretty weak generally.
 


Not very good
 

It’s one of those Union Pacificky nation-building railroad pictures. Scott did something similar in Santa Fe (review coming soon) and Carson City. It starts with politicians in Ottowa afraid that if no railroad is built over the Canadian Rockies, British Columbia might secede, obviously a fate worse than death. But never fear, Canadian Pacific boss Cornelius Van Horne (Robert Barrat, rather good) assures the parliamentary committee that his man Tom Andrews (Scott) is on the job, and if anyone can find a pass over the mountain range, he can. And, then, as expected, the film goes all fuzzy and we morph to the (Canadian) Western frontier and there’s surveyor Randy, duly gazing at majestic peaks and mapping a route.

Of course, movies like these beg the question, Are they Westerns at all? What was Alan Ladd doing up in Saskatchewan or Tyrone Power, also in a red tunic, in Pony Soldier? Or Texas Ranger Gary Cooper in North West Mounted Police, come to that. Randy got up there quite often (Canadian Pacific, Susannah of the Mounties, Cariboo Trail). Still, Canadian Pacific is a Western, alright, with Indians attacking a train, bad guys with six-shooters and all the trappings. And we could argue, I suppose, that especially before the Oregon boundary dispute was settled in 1846, there was little difference between US and British regions of north-west North America. And let’s not forget what a fine Western The Far Country was.

Canadian Pacific is very attractive visually. It was photographed by Fred Jackman Jr. (201 silent, B movie and TV Westerns including six Randolph Scott oaters) up in the Banff National Park and round Lake Louise in Alberta, even if a lot of scenes are shot on sound stages and the lovely Cinecolor sometimes gives way, perhaps with age (in my print anyway) to sepia browns.

There’s the conventional three-way love affair, with Randy at first gung-ho in love with French-Canadian Cecile Gautier (Nancy Olson, 20, in her début; next stop was Sunset Boulevard) and all ready to set off on a The Virginian-style idyllic honeymoon camped by a lake,


Pre-Sunset Blvd. Olson


but then gradually falling for sophisticated Dr. Edith Cabot (Jane Wyatt), the railroad doc. With whom will Randy finally tie the knot? The outcome is undecided until the final moments of the last reel.
 

Falls for educated Doc
 

Scott is a funny kind of surveyor, with his two-gun Tex look and willingness to shoot barmen and punch out heavies. Still, the public expected that from Randy. Sadly, his part gave him few extended speeches and although this speeds up the action, it doesn’t let his character develop at all, so we don’t really know who he is or what he’s like. That’s the fault of poor direction (Edwin L Marin again) and writing (a Jack De Witt story and screenplay with input from Kenneth Gamet).
 

Strange kind of surveyor
 

Scott was friends with Canadian writer John Rhodes Sturdy (there’s a British Empire-building name for you) who was the technical advisor on the movie, and in fact used him again the following year when Sturdy provided the story for another Canadian ‘Western’, Cariboo Trail.
 

Naish as cranky old-timer
 

We have J Carrol Naish miscast in a Gabby Hayes-style cranky old-timer part as Dynamite Dawson, the explosives expert. He looks the part alright, in his whiskers and costume, but never quite gets the comic-relief aspect. And he is expected to do absurd things, such as ride a wagon full of dynamite helter-skelter through the camp just to get Randy’s attention. When he escapes from the besieged train to ride off to get help, there’s an episode as stupid as it is in bad taste, when he hands out dynamite sticks to the Indians who have waylaid him and lights them up as cigars, before sneaking off and laughing at the off-screen explosion.
 

Unfunny and insulting scene
 

Talking of ridiculous episodes, while Randy is piling up five cases of dynamite, Victor Jory’s henchman (Don Haggerty) shoots the bottom one with a rifle and the whole lot goes up. Boom. That’s the end of Randy. Nope, in the next scene he is being saved by Doc Cabot and in no time he is sitting up and quipping with only a bandaged head.
 

Five cases of dynamite? It's just a scratch.
 

Jory was always so good as villain. He didn’t even have to open his mouth. He just looked villainous. In Canadian Pacific he is one of those melodrama badmen and his part is pretty poor. Actually, when, for his own greedy and evil ends, he is stirring up the Indians to take the warpath, he unconsciously talks quite a lot of sense when describing how the railroad will change their way of life for the worse. During the final-reel shoot-out when his sixgun is empty of course he throws it away in annoyance, you know how they do. Either the director told him to do that or didn’t tell him not to; either way it’s poor.
 

Villainous Jory
 

There is one vaguely thoughtful exchange which reminds us of Amy talking to Kane in High Noon (1952) and Marian and Shane’s conversation in Shane (1953).

Edith: My father was killed, Mr. Andrews, because he tried to use a gun against a man instead of reasoning with him. If he hadn’t worn a gun, he’d still be alive.
Tom: I’m sorry about your father. I’ve learned, though, that in this country if I draw faster, I keep living.

This gun-control/pacifism theme could have been interesting if developed but unfortunately Scott straps on and hangs up his guns every ten minutes so that we never get a sense of who is winning the argument. Anyway, we know perfectly well that it’s all going to end in a blaze of gunfire and the final message of the movie is pretty NRA-friendly.
 

She's against guns
 

In fact the final-reel The Lady Vanishes-style attack on the train is rather good. Guess who sneaks out of the train and confronts the villain up in the woods.

The unspecified-tribe Indians who are attacking the train are very weakly written. Poor old Chief Yowlachie had the unenviable (uncredited) task of being their chief. He only gets to say Ug, me big chief and the like. Yakima-born Yowlachie was in 94 film and TV Westerns from the silent Kentucky Days in 1923 to the Steve McQueen color movie Nevada Smith in 1966, including some fine Westerns like Red River and Winchester ’73. But he rarely got the chance to say more than Ug.
 

Yowlachie
 

Canadian Pacific is just about watchable but coming the year after classy Coroner Creek and the year before the excellent The Nevadan, I’m afraid it’s on the low end of the Scott Oater Scale (SOS). It wasn’t Randy’s fault; it was just poor writing and direction.


Nice train scenes

 

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Colt .45 (Warner Bros, 1950)










A whole film about the Colt .45




 
 
 

 
Guns have always been essential to the Western, an integral part of the whole ethos. The word gun in one form or another appears in very many Western titles, such as Gun Battle at Monterey, Gunbelt, Gun Brothers, Gun Fever, Gunfight, A Gunfight, Gunfight at Comanche Creek, Gunfight at Dodge City, Gunfight at the OK Corral - gunfights, in fact, all over the place, The Gunfighter, Gunfighters, Gunfighters of Abilene, Gunfighters of Casa Grande, Gunfire, Gun for a Coward, Gun Fury, Gun Glory, The Gun Hawk, Gunman’s Walk, Gunmen from Laredo, Gunpoint, The Gun Riders, The Long Guns, Guns A’Blazin’, Guns for San Sebastian, Gunsight Ridge, Gunslinger, Gunsmoke, Have Gun Will Travel, Guns of a Stranger, Guns of the Magnificent Seven (naff sequel), Guns of Wyoming, Guns of Honor, The Gun that Won the West, Young Guns and Young Guns II, to name but a lot.

 
Colt .45
 

 
And it’s not surprising also that Western movies were made about specific guns: the gun that won the West in the list above was the Springfield rifle. Gary Cooper knew all about the Springfield Rifle too, just as James Stewart knew the Winchester ’73 and Randolph Scott the Colt .45.

The idea of Colt .45, Randolph Scott's first film under his new Warners contract, is that new revolving pistols come on the market but must not under any circumstances fall into the hands of the bad guys, only the forces of law ‘n’ order. It’s a fairly preposterous premise as the six-shooters were freely available by mail order from Colt's Patent Fire-Arms Manufacturing Company in Hartford, Conn.
 

Jejune
 

But bad guy Jason Brett (Zachary Scott) steals a brace of salesman Steve Farrell’s .45s and proceeds to rob and kill with them, the cad. Farrell (Randy) sets off on a quest to recover them, as if this will restore peace and harmony to the West.
 

Badman Brett steals those .45s
 

The exact date is not mentioned in the movie, though it is after the Mexican War (1846 – 48) because the hero Farrell tells how he fought in that war and would have been killed had it not been for the revolving pistols. Of course the costumes and accoutrements are all generic 1870/80s, as they were in most B Westerns, but the story appears from the plot and dialogue to be set before the Civil War, let’s say 1850 or 1851. In fact there was little new about revolvers per se then. Samuel Colt was granted the patent on February 25th, 1836 for the .28, then .36 Colt Paterson. It was not even the first: there had been, for example, Collier’s revolving flintlock.
 

The Walker Colt
 

In 1844 Capt. Samuel Walker of the Texas Rangers ordered a thousand Colt’s revolvers. They were six-, as opposed to five-shooters, and .44 caliber. But the gun was a monster weighing four and a half pounds (Sam Colt remarked, “It would take a Texan to shoot it”) and was really a horse pistol. The first real handgun revolver was the 1851 Colt Navy, the pistol favored by Wild Bill Hickok and Jesse James. This gun used cartridges made of nitrated paper, a pre-measured black powder charge, and either a round lead ball or conical bullet. Perhaps this is the one Randy would have been selling. It was a six-shooter. But it was .36 caliber. The famous Colt .45 Peacemaker wasn’t introduced until 1873. Oh well, we don’t watch Randolph Scott B Westerns for historical accuracy, do we.

Anyway, Randy searches the West and finally tracks down the evil Brett and his gang. One of Brett’s henchmen is Lloyd Bridges, so that’s good. Brett has evolved a vile plan to rob the stage (using his stolen .45s) with his gang dressed up as Indians and blame it on the redskins. But Randy befriends the redmen, saving the life of their chief, Walking Bear (Chief Thundercloud), and together he, the Indians (of unspecified tribe) and beautiful Ruth Roman foil the fiendish plot.
 

Evil Scott caresses his .45s, henchman Bridges covets
 

Probably the best thing about the movie, which is really rather juvenile all round, is that the sheriff (who seems decent but soon turns out to be in the pay of badman Brett) is played by third-billed Alan Hale. You probably know Messrs. Alan Hale, Sr. and Jr. This is daddy (1892 – 1950), who was a Warners character actor much in demand. He was a buddy of Errol Flynn (and was Little John to Flynn’s Robin Hood, as well as appearing in 12 other Errol Flynn movies). He was in 17 Westerns, from the early silent days (he was in The Covered Wagon), and including Dodge City, Virginia City and Santa Fe Trail, obviously (they were Errol Flynn oaters), as well as South of St Louis and Stars in My Crown with Joel McCrea. Colt .45 was his last film. He was always big, bluff and hearty. He doesn’t quite suit the crooked sheriff – Ray Teal would have been better. But it’s great to see him. He comes to an, er, sticky end.
 

Alan Hale, hearty as ever
 

I must say, Zach Scott (no relation) did the sneering sadist awfully well. That mustache helped. He only did seven Westerns (and a couple of Rawhide episodes), which was rather a pity. He could usefully have sneered his way round a few more. I liked him as Charlie Burns in South of St Louis, slowly descending from good-guy status into derringer-pulling city slicker. He actually led in a 1955 B based on a Louis L’Amour story, Treasure of Ruby Hills, but he was the goody there and therefore miscast. In Colt .45, though, the villain is very one-dimensional. Variety said, "...the histrionic antics of Zachary Scott are ludicrous in the extreme" but that does seem a little over the top. Still, the film needed one of those attractive badmen that Randy played opposite later in the 1950s in those Ranown/Boetticher movies.
 

Bridges, Roman, Z Scott, in it together
 

Ruth Roman was fabulous, Ava Gardner-classy in The Far Country and beautiful too opposite Gary Cooper in Dallas. She was in twelve Westerns (if you count the TV The Sacketts) and quite a few TV shows. But I don’t think she ever got the chance to shine in a top-class Western film apart from The Far Country. Pity. In Colt .45 her part is so crudely written she couldn’t do much anyway. Except look pretty.
 

Ruth Roman, classy
 

The movie was in color. Warners were obviously splashing out. It was quite nicely photographed by Wilfred M Cline (silents, B Westerns and TV shows; probably his biggest Western was The Indian Fighter in 1955), with some pleasant Vasquez Rocks Californian locations, though most of the movie is shot on a sound set, either in town or in the Indian camp.

The director was Edwin L Marin. Marin worked for pretty well every studio at one time or another and had been in charge of second features at MGM but was with Warners briefly 1950 – 51. He directed seven Randolph Scott Westerns (this was the fourth of them). He was alright but no one would claim that the movies he did were Randy’s best. He was good at action scènes and Colt .45 certainly nips right along but he was rather plodding on stories and plot development. The characters of the people in the story don't develop - indeed, are hardly portrayed at all. The writing, by Thomas W Blackburn with many additions/changes from anonymous Warner hacks, didn’t help. This was Blackburn’s first Western and a bit on the clumsy side.
 

Randy rides alone (all in black)
 

Although a bit of a plodder, the film was a commercial success, perhaps because of the mystique of the Colt .45, perhaps for the picture’s action and jejune plot. NRA types still like it, I believe. Maybe they like the opening screen, which reads: A gun, like any other source of power, is a force for either good or evil, being neither in itself, but dependent upon those who possess it.

When the TV series Colt .45 came on in October 1957, the movie was renamed Thundercloud (oddly) to avoid confusion, I guess. The series was one of those many ABC/WB ones, like Bronco, Cheyenne, Lawman, Maverick and Sugarfoot. It was loosely based on the film and had (at first) Wayde Preston in the Randolph Scottish part as Christopher Colt, though he was a government agent as well as salesman for the arms company.
 

Good salesman. Sheriff drools.
 

There were 133 Westerns in 1950 (oh, happy year) including great pictures such as Rio Grande, Winchester ’73 (also about a man getting revenge for a stolen gun) and Broken Arrow. I’m afraid Colt .45 doesn’t come anywhere near those. Still, let us not, dear e-readers, be dismissive. It’s a Randolph Scott Western in color, after all, and ergo a whole lotta fun. Actually, though, if you want a color Randy B Western of 1950, watch the Gordon Douglas-directed The Nevadan (Columbia). It’s fab and makes Colt .45 look like a kids’ matinée.

 
Good action scenes

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Frontier Marshal (Fox, 1939)










The first screen Wyatt Earp




 
 
Frontier Marshal was an important addition to the WyattEarp/Doc Holliday myth. It was the first time that the Tombstone story had been told with a named Wyatt Earp in the lead. Considering the huge popularity of the story and the success of Stuart N Lake’s book Wyatt Earp: Frontier Marshal back in 1931, you would have thought that such a film would have come earlier. But the heirs and survivors of the Earp family guarded their rights jealously. Fox had produced an earlier film, the first Frontier Marshal, in 1934 but this featured “Michael Wyatt” (George O’Brien) and “Doc Warren” (Alan Edwards). Randolph Scott had, therefore, the honor of playing the first true Wyatt Earp on screen, ten years after the death of the 81-year-old Earp in Los Angeles.
 

 

Adult Westerns were just coming into vogue in 1939. Stagecoach, of course, but also high-budget offerings from big studios, like Warners’ Dodge City, a sort of Wyatt Earp picture, with “Wade Hatton” (Errol Flynn) cleaning up Dodge, Universal's Destry Rides Again with Dietrich and Stewart, and Paramount’s Union Pacific with Joel McCrea building a cross-continental railroad. Fox could easily have got in on the act with a big-budget color ‘A’ picture about Wyatt Earp. But they chose instead to go with the Jesse James myth (for which they had also paid the surviving family for the rights) and their lead man Tyrone Power played Jesse opposite Henry Fonda as Frank in the very successful if historically false Jesse James. The Earp story was relegated to a small black & white B Western with Randolph Scott.
 

 

Scott always seemed to be the lead in B pictures and support actor in A ones (such as Jesse James, where he was a US Marshal, friend of the James family). He had started in Westerns in the early 1930s with Paramount’s talkie versions of Zane Grey stories, Heritage of the Desert et seq. He had become a star with his Hawkeye in the 1936 The Last of the Mohicans. Frontier Marshal was probably his biggest Western lead part since.
 

 

Fox got Allan Dwan to direct it. You probably know Allan Dwan if you are a Western fan. He was amazingly prolific. According to Kevin Brownlow in The Parade's Gone By, Dwan thought he'd directed over 1400 films, between his arrival in the industry in 1909 and his final film in 1961. He was a technical innovator: he pioneered the dolly shot back in 1915 and on tracking shots he said, “There's always a certain amount of camera improvisation. If a man is being pursued and the pursuers are more interesting than the pursued, I'll track to include them. Things would occur on the set and sometimes ahead of time.”
 

 

Dwan understood the Western. He should – he directed 171! But 157 of these were silent movies produced between 1911 and 1917. Then there was a long pause until the very average Tide of Empire in 1929, one of those movies on the cusp between silents and talkies. Frontier Marshal was therefore his first proper talkie Western and his first oater for a decade. Later he seemed to specialize in Westerns with powerful leading women such as Belle le Grand, Montana Belle, Woman They Almost Lynched and Cattle Queen of Montana. His last Western was the very good The Restless Breed in 1957.

Frontier Marshal had a screenplay by Sam Hellman supposedly based on Stuart Lake’s book. It was Hellman’s first Western, though he wrote the excellent The Return of Frank James for Fox the year after and, more importantly, he returned to the Earp myth as a contributing writer to John Ford’s My Darling Clementine in 1946, also supposedly based on Lake. Lake himself was on the set of several of these Wyatt Earp pictures as advisor. I don’t know what he achieved, though, because history was cast completely aside and radical changes to the story were made. Mind, Lake himself wasn’t exactly a fiend for historical accuracy and Ford played fast and loose with the facts (e.g. Doc Holliday is shot dead at the OK Corral in his version). Wyatt's widow Sadie was hired as consultant, a decision the studio certainly came to regret for she spent the whole time saying, “Mr. Earp would never have done anything like that” and insisting on rewrites.
 

 

The 1939 Frontier Marshal, though, is particularly phony as far as fact is concerned. They don’t even get the year right – it’s set in 1880. Wyatt is alone in Tombstone. He has no wife or girlfriend and there are no Earp brothers. There are no Clantons either, or Cowboys, or Johnny Behan. Doc is killed by Curley Bill (Joe Sawyer) and Wyatt goes down alone at night to the OK Corral where he faces Curley Bill and some nameless henchmen, whom he shoots. The End. Well, it was a B Western. Allan Dwan's excuse for the falseness of the history was, "We never meant it to be Wyatt Earp - we were just making Frontier Marshal, and that could have been any frontier marshal." A bit weak as a get-out, Mr. Dwan.

Still, since when did we watch Western movies for a lesson in American history? And Frontier Marshal is a whole lot of fun. Randolph Scott Westerns always were (well, except for Belle of the Yukon). The poster reads “I’m the law in Tombstone and from now on it’s up to you whether the city or the cemetery grows the fastest…!” It’s refreshing to see a Western movie poster with a correct use of whether, even if it spoiled its grammatical correctness with a superlative at the end.

After the titles there’s a lively montage of the growth of the boomtown of Tombstone (including Ed Schieffelin enthusiastically showing a silver nugget to his burro). There’s mucho shooting in the streets. Ward Bond (who was in the ’34 Frontier Marshal too) is the cowardly marshal who won’t go into a saloon to dislodge a drunk and armed Indian Charlie (Charles Stevens, who played the same part in Clementine) and so Wyatt Earp, whose sleep has been disturbed, goes in, shoots Charlie and drags him out by the heels. The mayor (Harry Hayden) wants him as marshal now. “General Miles said you’re the best scout the Army ever had.” (I don’t know where that came from). But he turns down the marshal’s job. Then Curley Bill and his friends beat Wyatt up so he goes back to the mayor and takes the star after all. From then on, watch out.

I must say, Randolph Scott is very good. In some ways he was made to be Wyatt Earp, the Earp of myth anyway, cleaning up the town single-handed. Quiet, authoritative, strong, he is a proper film Wyatt.

Doc is played by Cesar Romero. He is perfectly splendid. He’s called Doc Halliday for some reason (maybe Fox hadn’t bought the rights from Doc’s family…) and he comes from Illinois but it’s Doc alright. Dark, powerful, charismatic, he is menacing and tragic in equal measure, a true cinematic Doc. It was a great performance, to rival Victor Mature’s in Clementine. Wyatt and Doc become friends (no mention of Dodge or previous acquaintance) and Doc saves Wyatt’s life by shooting a heavy aiming at Wyatt’s back in Tombstone, not in the Comique in Dodge in ’79 as actually happened.
 

 

The Bella Union, owned by the mayor, is big, brash and fun, a proper saloon. And the barman is, obviously, Chris-Pin Martin. I say obviously because when was he anything else? There’s a badman named Dan Blackmore (Edward Norris) who tried to draw a derringer on Wyatt, the fool. Another is Pringle (Lon Chaney Jr.) who is shot down by Wyatt in a street gunfight. The chief villain though is rival saloon owner Ben Carter, a top-class John Carradine. So a quality supporting cast, though minor characters are not developed and Carradine, Bond and Chaney are wasted, really. What a pity, by the way, that John Carradine never got to play Doc Holliday himself. he would have been superb in the part.
 

 

There’s a woman, of course, not Clementine but the nurse Sarah, come looking for Doc from back East. But she doesn’t fancy Wyatt or anything. She stays loyal to Doc till death do them part. Sarah is played by Nancy Kelly, pretty, sincere, if a little saccharine.
 

 

There’s another dame, natch, the saloon gal Jerry (Binnie Barnes) who loves Doc and is jealous of Sarah. But Wyatt gets her to see reason and she leaves town. “There’s a stage in the morning …” but sadly, instead of completing the line properly with “be on it”, Jerry is told to “go on home.” She gets in the ‘Pioneer Stage Line’ Concord in front of Carradine’s now closed rival saloon, become a savings bank, smiles, and bowls off, pausing only to wave a fond goodbye to Doc’s grave in Boot Hill. Much of this plot was taken up again by John Ford in 1946 for My Darling Clementine.

Eddie Foy has quite a large part as he comes to Tombstone, as he did to Dodge, and performs an act excruciating enough to be genuine Victorian music hall. Eddie Foy was played by Eddie Foy Jr., his son.
 

 

Doc is a surgeon, not a dentist, and as is traditional in Westerns there’s a small boy, Pablo the barman’s son, who is caught in the crossfire of the gunfight and critically wounded, so Doc has to sober up, summon up his medical skills once more, and, aided by nurse Sarah, operate on the child. It’s like Thomas Mitchell’s Doc Boone in Stagecoach but of course such a scene had been done many times before that and would be again.

For some odd reason, when Doc and Wyatt are comparing pistols (like little boys, I suppose) Doc tells Wyatt that his is a Buntline Special with the barrel cut down. Of course, if Buntlines ever existed at all (Stuart Lake thought they did) it was Wyatt who had one, not Doc. Doc used a .38 in a shoulder holster. Every Western fan knows that.
 

 

It’s only 70 minutes and while there is some nice outdoor photography of Lone Pine locations by Charles G Clarke (the silent 1926 Whispering Smith and the 1934 Viva Villa!) and the stage hold-up is actionful and well done, most of the movie is limited to a smallish set of a town and not very imaginatively shot. The music (four uncredited contributors) is slushy and poor.

Well, well. This is a Randolph Scott B Western, no more but no less either. It’s a lot of fun and if you take it for what it is you will enjoy it greatly.

 

Monday, July 21, 2014

Cimarron (RKO, 1931)


More soap opera than horse opera




 
 
There have been several films showing the Oklahoma Territory land rush of April 22nd 1889 and very impressive they are too, as thousands of extras in every kind of conveyance (there’s always a penny-farthing bicycle to emphasize the variety) hurtle off at the sound of the military gun in a frenzy of state-sponsored greed to stake a claim to free land. It happened again on 16th September 1893 when the Cherokee Strip was opened up for settlement. The fact that these lands had previously been assigned in perpetuity to Indian tribes was conveniently forgotten. Sometimes it was not even mentioned in the stories these films told, which concentrated on self-made Americans in the making. William S Hart’s silent Tumbleweeds in 1925 was an epic example and, by the way, a must-see for all true Western fans.
 

 

But Edna Ferber’s novel Cimarron, which was twice filmed (1931 and 1960), for all its soapy characteristics, did at least discuss the rights of the dispossessed Osage and Cherokee. Ferber (1885 – 1968) was born of Jewish storekeeper parents in Kalamazoo, Michigan.

 
 
 
Her So Big won a Pulitzer Prize in 1924 and Show Boat came out two years later. Cimarron was published in 1929. Later, of course, she wrote Saratoga Trunk and Giant. Her books usually contained a strong female protagonist and characters who suffered discrimination because of their race, gender, color or creed.

The film was a massive project. RKO was failing in the throes of the Depression, yet invested nearly $1.5m in the film. Wikipedia tells us:

Filming began in the summer of 1930 at Jasmin Quinn Ranch outside of Los Angeles, California, where the exciting land rush scenes were shot. More than twenty-eight cameramen, and numerous camera assistants and photographers were used to capture thrilling scenes of more than 5,000 costumed extras, covered wagons, buckboards, surreys, and bicyclist as they raced across grassy hills and prairie to stake their claim. Cinematographer Edward Cronjager carefully planned out every take … in accordance with Ferber's descriptions. In order to film key scenes for this mammoth production, RKO purchased 89 acres in Encino where construction of Art Director Max Ree's Oscar winning design of a complete western town and a three block modern main street were built to represent the Oklahoma fictional boomtown of Osage.

It starred Irene Dunne, in only her second film. Later she became a great figure of the film world, known as The First Lady of Hollywood. As far as Westerns are concerned, in 1937 she was in the musical High, Wide and Handsome with Randolph Scott and Dorothy Lamour but that was all. In Cimarron she plays the rather bourgeoise wife of a wild roamer who is left to run the business and bring up the children on her own and who gradually grows to become a successful, independent, thoughtful woman who learns tolerance. The film takes her from 1889 to 1929 so acting skills (and good make-up) were required as she ‘aged’. She was nominated for an Oscar for the part.
 

 

The husband, with the rather silly name of Yancey Cravat, was played by RKO’s leading man Richard Dix. It is perhaps unfair to accuse Dix of being a ham. In the early talkies most actors overdid it by modern standards. Still, there is little subtlety in his portrayal. He was a big man at least and full of vigor and that does add a bit of zip to the movie but he looks faintly ridiculous in frock coat and his over-fancy Tom Mix-style double gunbelt with tie-down holsters. And boy, was his hair stupid. I think it's modeled on Ms. Ferber's. In the early 1920s Dix had been in the Paramount silent versions of Zane Grey stories (which were later remade as talkies with Randolph Scott). He joined RKO in 1929. Cimarron was his sixth Western of 19. He was probably most famous for two 1942 pictures, American Empire and Tombstone, The Town Too Tough To Die, in the second of which he played Wyatt Earp, but not very convincingly, I’m afraid.
 

 

Other actors include Estelle Taylor as Dixie Lee, the fallen woman whom the ‘respectable’ folk want to run out of town but who is defended by Yancey in an overdone and rather tear-jerking court scene; William Collier Jr., who plays the outlaw The Kid - as often happened with ‘kid’ parts, he was pushing 30 and barely credible in the role; Edna May Oliver in a comic part as the prudish dame who claims, often, to be descended from one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence (in fact Oliver was really a descendant of the 6th American president John Quincy Adams) – she was later to be memorable in John Ford’s Drums Along the Mohawk;

 

 
Roscoe Ates as the stuttering printer Jesse; and George E Stone, rather moving (and understated by 1931 standards) as the Jewish storekeeper Sol, with whom, doubtless, Edna Ferber identified. I also thought the villain Lon Yountis (Stanley Fields) very villainous. There are a couple of good close-ups of his dark, mustachioed unshaven face as he glares menacingly at Yancey. Before Yancey shoots him at a church service, that is.
 

 

The director (strangely uncredited) was Wesley Ruggles, who spent the 1930s at RKO and Paramount and made some successful movies. He only did two Westerns, though, this one and the entertaining Arizona (1940) with Jean Arthur and a young William Holden. The direction of Cimarron is sometimes heavy-handed but no more than usual for the period.

There are moments which seem pretty corny to us now, or even embarrassing, such as the scenes with the Negro servant boy Isaiah (Eugene Jackson, Pineapple in the Our Gang series), whose death in the crossfire of The Kid’s bank raid is pure Victorian melodrama.
 

 

One good thing: you should see the Simplex cash register in the saloon! You know how I love nineteenth-century gadgets in Westerns.

The movie was a critical success, being nominated for seven Oscars, no less, and winning three of them (William LeBaron for the production, Howard Estabrook for the adaptation of the Ferber novel and Max Rée for the art direction). It was the first, and for many years (until Dances With Wolves and Unforgiven) the only Western to win Oscars. But it didn’t repay the enormous investment, at least at first. It was re-released, with more hullabaloo, in 1935 and that helped recoup the losses.
 

 

In 1960 the film was remade in color and was directed by Anthony Mann, starred the great Glenn Ford and was photographed by Robert Surtees, so should have been truly great. But it wasn’t. You’re better off with the 1931 version, really, for all its corniness. It’s visually seriously impressive and despite its two-hour-plus runtime doesn’t drag. Give it a go, e-pards!