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Cimarron

Gasser

Cimarron (1931)

Cimarron (1931)

This week I will review two Best Picture winners that had they been released in another year would not have stood a chance for the Academy’s top award. First is the 1931 winner Cimarron. This western about settling the Oklahoma territory is also the saga of a family confounded by the husband’s need to roam.

At the picture’s opening we meet Yancey Cravat (Richard Dix) who joins thousands of other settlers in making a run to claim portions of the Cherokee land that would become Oklahoma. He knows precisely where he wants to make his claim and nearly makes it there when a woman –Dixie Lee (Estelle Taylor)– falls with her horse into a ditch. Yancey stops to help her and loses the claim to Ms. Lee.

Yancey returns home to his son and wife and her family in Wichita, where he convinces his clan to move to a boom town in the newly settled land. There the man –already well known to many in the settlement of Osage– sets up a newspaper. He also helps to establish a church by holding a service in the only building big enough to hold all the townsfolk: the gambling hall. Trouble from an outlaw band leads to a standoff at the service, but Yancey manages to shoot the leader dead before he can make a similar move.

Yancey’s wife Sabra (Irene Dunne) has a second child while living in their now very nice home attached to the newspaper office. The girl Donna joins son “Cim”, whose name is short for Cimarron, meaning wild one. It also happens to be a rarely used nickname for Yancey.

Dixie Lee takes up residence in the town, having been driven off the land she stole from Yancey. The man has no hard feelings, however, and readily accepts a friendship with the woman of ill repute, who seems to lead a horde of prostitutes. Sabra is naturally offended by any association between the two.

Yancey next leaves home to settle a new strip of government-released land from the Cherokee without much consideration to his home responsibilities. During the multiple years he is away, Sabra maintains the newspaper with the help of the loyal printing assistant. The children grow while Yancey remains away with no word of his whereabouts. He returns at last, having served in the Spanish-American War, just in time to find Sabra preparing to print a story about the conviction of Dixie Lee as a public nuisance. Being a lawyer, Yancey immediately heads to court to defend the prostitute, winning the case for her.

Next in the history of the Cravat family is Yancey’s controversial editorial supporting citizenship for American Indians who have gained wealth as a result of the oil boom. Sabra opposes the opinion piece and Yancey disappears after its issuance.

Fast forward to the newspaper’s 40th anniversary when the town of Osage is a steel city and Sabra a newly elected Congresswoman for the region. She is given a congratulatory dinner where she talks about the paper and her family, saying her husband is out of town. In truth he has been missing for decades. Later, while visiting an oil drilling site, Sabra learns a man is badly injured only to find it is her long-lost husband.

Probably the largest problem with Cimarron is the unlikeability of the main character. Yancey might be kind to the down-and-out prostitute or American Indian, but he treats his wife atrociously through his repeated abandonment of her and his children. We come to like Sabra quite a bit through Dunne’s wonderful-as-usual performance, but even her tearful reunion with her husband at the close could draw no sympathy from me because the movie did a poor job with their romance. This was no case of lovers who just can’t seem to get their timing right. This was a story of a man too restless to stay in one place regardless of his responsibility to people or business.

Cimarron might hold interest as a story of the settling of a new town and the impact of oil developments in the Oklahoma region, but it fails as a story capable of drawing any emotion.

True Confession

Ring a Ding Ding

True Confession (1937)

     I mentioned before that the first on-screen pairing of Carole Lombard and Fred MacMurray was a bit lack luster on the latter actor’s part, but when the two reunited two years later for True Confession they had something better going on. Lombard still far outshines her male counterpart but MacMurray at least is a more seasoned comedian by this point, which helps to back the hilarity the actress brings to the screen.

     Lombard brought all kinds of unique character traits to her role of Helen Bartlett, some of which were scripted and others that make me certain this part would have been entirely different if portrayed by another actress. We first see Helen scuffling up the stairs of her apartment building while muttering something repeatedly to herself before sitting down to the telephone in her flat and recounting some gossip to her lawyer husband (MacMurray) that could mean a case for the less-than-successful attorney. It seems the butcher’s son is charged with stealing a van full of hams. Having his scruples, however, means that lawyer Kenneth Bartlett will not defend a guilty party. The alleged thief says he did not steal the hams but will not be able to pay Kenneth until he gets money from selling the hams. Naturally, the attorney throws him out.

     We now have the groundwork for this ruthlessly honest lawyer and as we spend more time with Helen –an unsuccessful fiction writer– we find she is a compulsive liar, having duped a man sent to repossess her typewriter into believing her husband is insane and thinks the machine his baby. Looking to earn some money to support the family but wanting to hide the work from her disapproving husband, Helen takes a job with a rich man who needs a personal secretary four days a week, three hours a day for $50 per week. The deal is really too good to be true, which Helen learns as the man starts chasing her around his home office before she socks him in the gut and runs out.

     When Helen returns later with the moral support of friend Daisy (Una Merkel) to retrieve her hat, purse and coat, the police arrive immediately because it seems the man has just been shot dead. The confusion has Helen looking mighty guilty. She is taken to the police headquarters and as the detective begins to verbally construct his presumed sequence of events, Helen –story writer that she is– one-ups him with a better explanation of why she killed him, before again denying the crime. The police even find a gun in the Bartlett home with two bullets missing (Helen had fired them at a tree as research for her writing) and determine her gun killed the man.

     When Kenneth comes to his wife in jail he naturally presumes she killed the man as self-defense, and thinking that given the mounds of evidence against her make that explanation more likely than her innocence, Helen rolls with it. Here enters John Barrymore as the excessively creepy Charley, a mad man whom we quickly assume is the actual murderer. He follows the trial intently, sitting beside Daisy in court and noisily deflating a balloon throughout. He repeatedly insists Helen will “fry” but Kenneth gets the gal off. The now-successful writer-lawyer couple are enjoying a wealthy life when Charley decides he wants to claim the luxuries he naturally thinks belong to him, given he is the actual murderer.

     Lombard is possibly at her best in True Confessions, which I realize is a bold statement given the public’s general love of My Man Godfrey. Her character is so impulsive, often sticking her tongue into her cheek as a signal to us she has just thought up a doozy of a lie. MacMurray also has to hold her back as she attempts to throw things at the prosecuting attorney during the trial or threatens to beat him up. As I said, MacMurray –whom I generally consider to be a great comedic performer– pales in comparison to this woman, but as he should. The two characters are on the opposite sides of the spectrum in their beliefs and so too are the qualities of their personalities.

     Barrymore, who shows up about half way through, could have upstaged both the leads had he been given more screen time. In a purely comedic movie, he gives a dramatic performance that genuinely conveys the personality of a mad man. He makes no motion to gain a laugh deliberately, instead adhering to the sociopathic glitches for which his character calls. Barrymore also appeared with Lombard in 1934’s Twentieth Century in which the two play actors whose dramatic personalities lead to equally hair-brained action aboard a train. Also a very good watch.

I’m No Angel

Dullsville

I'm No Angel (1933)

     I have always avoided Mae West because in the snippets I have seen of her films, I have found the sexpot to be highly unattractive and unappealing. I regret to say that in my first experience with a West film, my suspicions were confirmed. I’m No Angel gives story, screenplay and dialogue credit to West, which leads me to believe the star wrote the film around the sort of character she always played –the strong, foul-mouthed temptress.

     West as Tira is a small-time circus performer at the start of I’m No Angel. Her act merely involves her wearing a nearly see-through gown with beading in all the necessary places while singing some song in that husky jazz voice of her’s. She gets by well in her world by taking lavish gifts from male “friends.” After one incident with a wealthy circus-goer results in Tira’s boyfriend being arrested for assault and theft, the star of the circus agrees to do a lion-taming act in exchange for the dough to cover Slick’s trial. The lion-act takes the show to the big time and Tira is now rolling in money and gems from her new salary and even higher-class fans. This is where she meets Kirk (Kent Taylor), who is engaged, yet considers switching fiancées in the midst of showering Tira with expensive gifts. To prevent a scandal, Kirk’s cousin Jack, played by Cary Grant, approaches Tira about calling it quits but finds himself enamoured of the woman. Now the two are engaged, but some meddling by Slick and Tira’s boss result in a break up of that relationship and Tira suing Jack for breach of promise.

     West has the misfortune of a figure that is more husky than sultry and a face that leaves much to be desired. That did not stop the woman from becoming the symbol of sex during her reign in Hollywood. Her deep voice peddling all kinds of euphemistic banter and suggestive sighs were enough to attract the men on screen, and I image, off. Besides being highly unfeminine even with her hips that seem to sway in persistent motion, West’s character is severely low-class. No respectable woman would say or do the things Tira does and still get away with a sophisticated husband. The relationship between West and Grant felt all wrong. I do not think I have ever seen Grant paired with a woman that did not match him in level of refinement.

     While watching West, I could not help but wonder what she was like off-screen. Did she really speak in that low tone and rattle off such offensively suggestive one-liners? West maintained the same emotional level throughout the entire movie. She was never not cool, confident and seductive, even when she should have shown heartbreak or affection. The persona West created was highly unique, but it seemed to override any sort of performance, at least in I’m No Angel. I hope my next experience with her is better, if I can bring myself to dive back in.

  • I’m No Angel is set for 11:15 p.m. ET March 30 on TCM.
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