Once upon a time, MGM launched a big spectacle Western remake with the top star Glenn Ford and the bright import Maria Schell — and then second-guessed the whole production, cutting back on everything so severely that director Anthony Mann ankled the set for Spain and El Cid. The storytelling is a mess — after starting big, the show soon falls into pieces. But many of individual scenes and set pieces are exemplary, especially Mann’s re-run of the Oklahoma Land Rush, staged in Arizona and augmented by classy special effects. The large cast rounds up some big talent — Mercedes McCambridge, Russ Tamblyn — to tell Edna Ferber’s multi-generational story about ambition, intolerance and dreams of glory on the frontier.
Warner Archive Collection
1960 / Color / 2:35 anamorphic widescreen / 147 min. / Street Date January 21, 2020 / available through the WBshop / 21.99
Starring: Glenn Ford, Maria Schell, Anne Baxter, Arthur O’Connell, Russ Tamblyn, Mercedes McCambridge, Vic Morrow, Robert Keith, Charles McGraw, Harry Morgan, David Opatoshu, Aline MacMahon, Lili Darvas, Edgar Buchanan, Mary Wickes, Royal Dano, L.Q. Jones, Vladimir Sokoloff.
Cinematography: Robert L. Surtees
Film Editor: John Dunning
Original Music: Franz Waxman
Written by Arnold Schulman from the novel by Edna Ferber
Produced by Edmund Grainger
Directed by Anthony Mann
For a non-celebrity director, Anthony Mann had a career with a stellar arc. His rise to success beat the odds when he turned two cheap Eagle-Lion noirs (Raw Deal and T-Men) into A-list successes; for the rest of the 1950s, studio contracts and smart associations paid off at every step. At MGM he continued to make admired ‘small’ pictures while proving himself a handy man to have around — his excellent fire sequence in Quo Vadis is an oasis in otherwise static filmmaking.
Only about half of Mann’s western filmography has to date been released on Blu-ray. The James Stewart westerns (Bend of the River, The Far Country, and The Man from Laramie) and the Gary Cooper Man of the West are available in good editions. The DVD-only holdouts are the Stewart Winchester ’73 and The Naked Spur, the Robert Taylor Devil’s Doorway, the Victor Mature The Last Frontier, the Henry Fonda The Tin Star and the Barbara Stanwyck / Walter Huston The Furies.
1960’s Cimarron was neither a commercial nor critical success. Some books lauding the career of Anthony Mann barely mention his CinemaScope remake of the 1931 Best Picture Oscar winner. Cimarron is part of Anthony Mann’s final career move, from a bankable name director to a maker of enormous Road Show epics. It was the third false step in a row. He and James Stewart parted company due to creative disputes over a Universal-International western that ended up being directed by James Nielson. Star-producer Kirk Douglas then fired Mann from the Super Technirama 70 Spartacus after only a few weeks of filming. Mann went directly to MGM and Cimarron, only to run into a wall of front-office interference. Other factors probably figured in, but Cimarron was most likely a victim of the studio finance crisis of the late 1950s. Both the script and location shooting in Arizona were cut way back, imparting a stage-bound, back-lot MGM feel to the bulk of the movie.
After fifteen years of relative freedom to shape his movies as he pleased, Anthony Mann couldn’t have been happy about this. When he left the production, director Charles Walters was brought in to re-shoot some sequences, some say almost half of the movie. Mann’s exit may have been precipitated by a better offer, with a guarantee of autonomy. His good reputation landed him the enormous Bronston production El Cid, which became a huge success.
Was Cimarron filmed in script order? The first forty minutes or so are not bad. The adventurous, college-educated westerner Yancy Cravat (Glenn Ford) takes his new, city-bred wife Sabra (Maria Schell, fresh from her triumph in Delmer Daves’ The Hanging Tree) out west hoping to claim a farm in the first great Oklahoma Land Rush. Yancy’s stature as the living spirit of The Frontier is established early and frequently reconfirmed. He’s on a first name basis with outlaws like The Cherokee Kid (Russ Tamblyn), intellectual newspaperman Sam Pegler and his wife (Robert Keith & Aline McMahon) and the clueless sodbusters Tom and Sarah Wyatt (Arthur O’Connell of Man of the West and Mercedes McCambridge, of Giant & Johnny Guitar).
The Land Rush poses the same problem here that it does in the 1931 RKO version of Edna Ferber’s multi-generational epic — the big scene is in act one. Everybody knows what happens with the Titanic and The Alamo, but they at least have the courtesy to serve as foolproof movie climaxes. Mann’s version of the Land Rush isn’t any bigger, just a little more bloodthirsty — as in MGM’s then-current hit Ben-Hur, the rushing horses and wagons tumble and crash with a maximum of mayhem. The CinemaScope frame gooses the spectacle factor, aided by some good mattes. Look out for an American flag behaving oddly across the matte lines. A simply great optical printer trick pans across two separate shots of wagons charging the camera, doubling the apparent number of land rushers. I checked with Midwesterner Bill Shaffer, who tells me that, yes, the minor mountain in the background of the Land Rush scene is not at all typical for the Oklahoma panhandle, which at best supports low, rolling hills.
The rest of Cimarron is problematic. It never breathes much life into Yancy Cravat’s inability to truly settle down, despite frequent dialogue claiming that he embodies the restlessness of the frontier. While Sabra establishes civilization in the new town of Osage with a newspaper empire, her husband runs off to oil deals, wars and more land rushes. He builds a legend around himself but never really gets anywhere.
Unfortunately, none of this happens on camera. Glenn Ford insists on playing the role as lovable and coy. Cravat more or less exits the movie at midpoint, returning now and then to briefly pose in noble profile close-ups. The ’31 original brought Cravat back as a mystery ‘raggedy man,’ to reunite with his ever-faithful wife only at the point of dying. In Mann’s film Yancy’s demise takes place off-screen, with only a hasty montage and a telegram announcing the event. It’s as if Cimarron were a five-hour movie condensed into 2.5 hours.
The half that remains is fairly well done, at least from Sabra’s point of view. She grows from a clueless innocent to a wise old woman by passing the years waiting for an absent husband, suffering business setbacks with the newspaper and weathering the growing pains of a new territory. Since Yancy was tricked out of his farm claim by his old flame, ‘Social Club’ owner Dixie Lee (Anne Baxter), the Cravats never found their dream ranch, the promise made to Sabra at her wedding. The incompetent farmers the Wyatts strike oil and become illiterate rich folk and predatory capitalists. Sabra remains faithful to the mostly missing Yancey, forming life relationships with fellow newsmen and business folk (Harry Morgan, David Opatashu, etc.).
A heavy-duty, unsubtle Civil Rights sub-theme runs through Cimarron, diverting its energies. The script steers Mann to rehash elements of George Stevens’ Giant, another Edna Ferber original, this time directing the bigotry at Native Americans. The socially conscious element is not particularly compatible with Mann’s filmmaking style, which is direct and often violent. We watch while Charles McGraw’s unregenerate racist baits an Indian who dares race for land. McGraw wrecks the Indian’s wagon. It’s fairly clear that this is Anthony Mann material for sure, with its ‘signature’ Mann violence, as when Yancey uses a wagon wheel to choke Charles McGraw. Later, he lynches the man while his family looks on. Yancey can do nothing.
In the book Yancey remained a lawyer and championed equal rights from the beginning, but in the movie he’s only a concerned observer as all this evil takes place. S___ Happens When One Wins the West: the only message is that, gee, oppression is just plain sad. In the book we learn that a ‘Cimarron Territory’ is Texas-Oklahoma land either uninhabited or occupied by Native Americans. As with her multi-generational story Show Boat, a key theme for Edna Ferber is the American Original Sin of racial intolerance.
Yancey Cravat deals with social problems more realistically than did his 1931 predecessor Richard Dix, who shot it out with bad guys and presided over raucous political rallies. But the remake offers nothing to take the place of the hollow heroics in the old RKO picture. Yancey must now be satisfied with hiring the Indian’s widow and children as servant-employees. Then he can’t prevent the school from refusing to teach the Indian child. Sabra exercises her own prejudices fifteen years later, when her son falls in love with the same Indian child, now a young woman. All the scenes with the Indians are cruel, or sad, and they really don’t have speaking roles. Mann does create some great images, like the shot of the tiny girl being shoved out of the schoolhouse and sent home. Hero or no hero, Yancey Cravat cannot ‘fix’ these problems, so the movie’s positive energy is soon spent.
Yancey deals with the racist creep Charles McGraw, and takes time out to try to help his old buddy The Cherokee Kid (Russ Tamblyn) get free of the influence of a ‘juvenile delinquent’ gunslinger (Vic Morrow). This subplot aligns closely with the story of Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, but it still comes off as a replay of the Ford-Morrow conflict in Blackboard Jungle. But once Morrow and McGraw are dispatched, Cimarron has little more to offer in the way of action.
The film’s strongest appeal is likely to be as a women’s western. While Glenn Ford runs on automatic pilot, Maria Schell delivers all of Cimarron’s dramatic highlights. Sabra and Sarah Wyatt take center stage for a boisterous childbirth scene. A scene between Sabra and Dixie Lee is also excellent, with great work by both actresses. On one of his rare visits back home, Yancey and Sabra go to Washington. Sabra is delighted when her husband is offered a cushy political appointment to govern the new Oklahoma Territory, and enraged when he turns it down: he doesn’t bother to tell her that the offer is made by a group of corrupt congressmen. The film’s good scenes tend to be marooned, lost in the blah MGM house style — terrible flat lighting for everything — and lumpy editorial continuity. Cimarron plays as if someone went through the script, arbitrarily eliminating scenes, and patching up the gaps with new material.
According to Peter Ford’s bio about his famous father, the 43 year-old Glenn Ford hurt his back driving a wagon, and ‘spent the rest of the film taped up or in a back brace or shot full of novocaine.’ Ford doesn’t look pained, but he doesn’t seem all that engaged with the role, which breaks down to a lot of posing, some good riding and gunslinger action, and an impassioned speech or two.
Peter confirms Maria Schell’s story about carrying on a passionate love affair with Glenn Ford on location. Little of that chemistry translates to film. Ms. Schell is superb in many pictures, notably René Clément’s film of Zola’s Gervaise, Luchino Visconti’s Le Notti Bianche. But she spends the first half of Cimarron forever smiling at Ford’s Yancey, as if he could do no wrong. The only tension is waiting for disillusion to set in. Schell’s smile is so overpowering that it needs to be rationed to stay fresh, as with her excellent characterization in The Hanging Tree. Between the two directors and an unfocused screenplay, neither of the stars can build on their characters.
I saw the film at age eight, and even I knew something was amiss: after two and a half hours showing Yancey Cravat failing at everything, abusing his wife and ‘not being there,’ the finale gives us a heroic tracking shot into a statue erected in his honor. Why, exactly? I find Cimarron to be yet another fascinating compromised editorial snarl worth careful examination… I’m surprised that I haven’t run into a critical study that examines the original shooting script to explain ‘what could have been.’ The show still has many impressive scenes, that might be the work of Anthony Mann. The final film is much better than its reputation would suggest.
The Warner Archive Collection Blu-ray of Cimarron is an improvement upon their 2009 DVD, mainly because of the heightened detail. We appreciate the better image in the action scenes, even if the soundstage night exteriors come off as too stage-y. Even with MGM’s touted cycloramic backings, the daytime stage scenes, as when Sabra is bathing when Yancey’s friends arrive, haven’t aged all that well.
The founding of the new town is nicely covered with special effects that show the streets being laid out and the city growing over time. The IMDB says that matte painter Matthew Yuricich did that work uncredited. This is one of long-time MGM special effects supervisor A. Arnold Gillespie’s last films. I wonder if he engineered the clever panning shot in the Land Rush scene that happens at exactly 33:52 in the movie. It spans two ‘scope frames side-by-side, with a soft blend in the middle. Note that the mountains in the background are ‘mirrored’ on each side of the soft blend.
Later on, Yancey runs into the street to save a little boy and a horse almost runs them down. Two shots have been cleverly combined to place the wild horse close to the vulnerable boy. Note that as the horse runs R-L it crosses another soft matte. It is roto-scoped so as to appear to pass in front of Yancey and the child. Once across the soft matte, the horse loses its shadow.
I don’t know what the film’s original audio configuration was, but the disc carries a 2-channel stereophonic mix. The show has 39 chapter stops, which is unusual nowadays, when so many features have as few as eight or even four. As with the older DVD, Warners includes no extras. The one extra is a trailer, a nicely assembled throwback to the earlier years of MGM that asserts that the audience is privileged to be offered such a monumental, history-making picture. In it Yancey is referred to directly by the name ‘Cimarron,’ something I didn’t catch in the movie itself. Note: The few images I could find on the web are not very good. None look as good as the visuals in the WAC’s transfer.
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Sound: Excellent 2.0 Stereo
Supplements: Original trailer.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: One Blu-ray in Keep case
Reviewed: January 5, 2020
Final product for this review was provided free by The Warner Archive Collection.
Text © Copyright 2020 Glenn Erickson