Cimarron (1960)


 Available via Warner Archive;

$21.99 Blu-ray; Not rated.
Stars Glenn Ford, Maria Schell, Anne Baxter, Arthur O’Connell, Russ Tamblyn.

MGM’s large-scale remake of screen history’s deadliest Best Picture Oscar winner looks so impressive on a big screen TV that I pleasurably breezed through its 2 hour, 38 minutes in one interrupted sitting, though without being truly stimulated. This basically replicates my original theatrical-run reaction to this Oklahoma-set soaper/epic, whose old-school cinematography by the perpetual class-act Robert Surtees washed over me at my favorite local downtown movie palace as the studio’s more-or-less pre-Christmas attraction (the national opening date was Dec. 5, 1960). But capital city didn’t get it — in a situation I’ll bet was replicated in many other markets — until mid-March of 1961 when The Absent-Minded Professor was just opening one block over (my 12-year-old self did a double-header that day).

So to some extent, MGM dumped what was obviously an expensive undertaking — and this was when no one knew or could have dreamed that the two “little” movies the studio served up was well that previous December  (Village of the Damned and Where the Boys Are) would end up seeing their stock rise so substantially with the passing years. Yet at the same time, remaking Cimarron may have seemed like a good bet, at least to the front-office hard arteries who didn’t realize that audience taste changed a lot in the later 1950s. Edna Ferber adaptions had enjoyed a remarkably successful run dating back to the Richard Dix-Irene Dunne original’s 1931 Oscar win. And just four years before the remake, Giant had become the most financially successful picture Warner Bros. had ever had up to that time. In fact, 1960 had begun with the release of the Ferber-originated Ice Palace, which my faint memories tell me isn’t even as good as Cimarron despite Richard Burton and Robert Ryan headlining its cast and the underrated Vincent Sherman directing.

This is the context. The story, or at least its basic structure, will be familiar to most or all Ferber followers: a decades-spanning chronicle involving young principals who wed, and not always happily, in an out-of-the-way but economically developing geographical setting — eventually living to see their children grow up and occasionally rebel as the family fortunes (and those of paupers mom and dad knew in their youth) improve. Other instant identifiers sometimes include unrequited love on someone’s part; a tendency on the part of at least one decent guy from the early part of the movie turning pompously ostentatious when he starts to smell the green; and fun times for the studio make-up artists who finally get to “age” principals who’ve remained youthful-looking on screen over the previous three or four decades.

My generalization here is an over-simplification — I don’t recall any of the above happening the last time I saw Ferber-stable standouts Dinner at Eight or Stage Door — but it’s true enough. What we have here is a young wife from a pampered upbringing (Maria Schell, whose high-profile Hollywood tenure was brief) wedding a well-traveled lawyer (Glenn Ford) — a “dreamer” as well who wants to take part in the 1889 Oklahoma Land Rush and, though it’s against his character, allegedly settle down. Instead, and despite his near-overnight transformation into the ensuing local newspaper’s editor/publisher, Ford spends the entire picture running off for five years or more at a time on one or another of his witness-to-history sprees. This means, of course, that the long-suffering Mrs. is left holding some bags, namely the newspaper’s daily production grind and motherhood (the latter just once, possibly because Ford is rarely home). She suffers, but because bubbly Schell is playing her, she smiles a lot through it all until finally getting fed up. Schell even laughs in the scene where she’s delivering their son, but this is possibly because the neighbor acting as mid-wife gives her several snorts (one woman’s medically questionable approach to natural childbirth).

There are two ways to interpret Ford’s character, who is named, in colorful Ferber fashion, “Yancy Cravat.” One is that Yance is a bigger-than-life visionary of uncommon gravitas, kind of like what Rock Hudson’s towering version of Bick Benedict in Giant might have been had he had incurable wanderlust and not preferred to do what most guys would: stay home on that isolated Reata spread and make it with Liz Taylor. The other way to go look at Yancy is as an irresponsible flake — and though Ford’s performance got some critical drubs at the time, I think you can at least make the argument that the actor’s familiar fidgets and tics in his dialogue deliveries make him a credible choice for that take on the character. The picture definitely loses something when he’s not on screen.

In any event, Ford/Yancy is a crusader always on the side of right, especially when it comes to racist treatment of Native Americans (Charles McGraw plays the key heavy here, and who better?). This fairly extensive side issue conjures up more narrative interest than some of the other subplots, but truth to tell, the movie peaks early with a re-creation of the Land Rush that’s really something to see, as it must have been in real life. Wagons topple, axels break, a senior citizen gets trampled, and I especially liked the shot of one lone guy on a big-wheeled unicycle, trying to compete with galloping horses in the race to lay claim to the most choice land because the losers have to make do with barren dirt where crops won’t grow.

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As noted, the film was shot by the great senior Surtees (fellow cinematographer Bruce was his son), who was the go-to guy for a full Leo the Lion share of MGM biggies from a spectacle-heavy extended era: King Solomon’s Mines, Quo Vadis, Mogambo, Ben-Hur, Brando’s Mutiny on the Bounty and (on loan-out, wouldn’t you know) Oklahoma! Later, as proof he couldn’t be typed, he then tried around and photographed The Graduate, The Last Picture Show and the studio-shot scenes (Britain’s Robert Krasker did the rest) for William Wyler’s The Collector. And do you want even more class when it comes to Cimarron? Franz Waxman did the score.

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This is a movie where the techno credits are more exciting than the casting, and I could never figure out, even when I was a kid, why an actress with almost no sex appeal (Anne Baxter) ended up playing the town’s most glamorous prostitute — though, of course, her place of work is presented as some kind of social club for local males to purge their urges as the biddie demographic walks by the building and goes, “Tsk, tsk.” Still, and as noted, it’s all pretty watchable if you have a big screen, and certainly preferable to the ’31 Oscar version (a year when City Lights wasn’t even nominated), which is basically Richard Dix sporting 10 pounds of pancake makeup on a dusty street.

On paper, Cimarron-’60’s large budget would seem to make it a transitional film for director Anthony Mann. It was situated between the director’s series of five celebrated James Stewart Westerns plus Man of the West with Gary Cooper — and his very pricey entry into the Charlton Heston loincloth arena (though if you press me, I’ll concede doubts that anyone ever even claimed that Chuck wore one in Mann’s El Cid. We’re speaking symbolically here, folks.) Instead, I recently learned that despite receiving solo screen credit for Cimarron, Mann left the project early, leaving MGM mainstay and former outstanding dance director Charles Walters to complete a huge chunk of the film’s second half. Walters’ top directorial achievements included Good News, Lili, The Tender Trap, High Society and Please Don’t Eat the Daisies, which also came out in 1960. All are crowd pleasers, but Walters was never much of a stylist, which suggests to me that producer Edmund Grainger kind of bailed on the project even during production. Mann, interestingly enough, then went into Spartacus before taking on El Cid, but left that project even more quickly. No wonder the guy ended up dying on the set of a heart attack mid-picture in 1967.

Mike’s Picks: ‘Cimarron’ and ‘Jungle Fever’

Les cinq secrets du desert (Five Graves to Cairo)


All-Region French Import;
$29.99 Blu-ray;
Not rated.
Stars Franchot Tone, Anne Baxter, Erich von Stroheim, Akim Tamiroff.

Given Kino Classics’ laudable current endeavor to bring the cream of the 1929-49 Paramount library out on Blu-ray, it will will likely get around to releasing what remains one of Billy Wilder’s least-seen films (and an early collaboration with producer/co-writer Charles Brackett as well), maybe even sooner rather than later. But one of my ubiquitous “twilight” life projects is to go through Wilder’s output chronologically (as well as that of other filmmakers of his stature) in their best available renderings, and All-Region Elephant Films from France has done standout work with vintage Paramounts-that-matter almost straight down the line. So, here we go.

Set in slight flashback for in the time it was made against what looks to be one of the most geographically granular parts of Egypt, 1943’s Five Graves to Cairo was just the second Hollywood movie that Wilder directed, sandwiched between the still charmingly hilarious The Major and the Minor and all-timer Double Indemnity, whose sordidness apparently so offended Brackett’s outward Southern gentleman to such a degree that he took a pass on contributing to it. In World War II terms, Cairo’s geographical backdrop is here located in what at least for now is German Gen. Erwin Rommel territory, with Franchot Tone playing the one surviving member of a British Eighth Army tank crew who’s been whipped along with his other  colleagues during the recent conflict. The picture’s opening visual is a British tank full of corpses and an unconscious Tone — which means that no one is actually piloting the currently aimless vehicle that keeps rolling up and then down one sand dune after another. I first saw Cairo when I was about 12 in 1960 and have never forgotten this shot. Movies are funny that way, just as brief real-life remembrances are.

After what seems like a long hike during which he has to be seriously dehydrated, the barely alert Tone stumbles upon a town and its “Empress of Britain Hotel” — which is about free of Brits as you’d expect at this time. Actually, it’s pretty well free of everyone, though there is a proprietor played by Akim Tamiroff, an actor whose ham Wilder can’t always control here. (Speaking just for myself, my perception of Tamiroff only occasionally overcame J.D. Salinger’s characterization of him in one of the author’s anthologized Nine Stories — whichever one it is that describes Tamiroff as the actor who always says, “You make beeg joke — hah?”) There’s also a French chambermaid (Anne Baxter), who’d like to find some way to get help for her permanently injured brother who’s been captured by Germans. The role needs someone more exciting and alluring, and I wish Simone Simon, who apparently tested for it, had been cast instead.

Fortunately, Tone is pretty good here, and there are a couple supporting gems with future echoes of the Brackett-Wilder Sunset Blvd. One is the appearance of that masterpiece’s Erich von Stroheim himself, who cuts an imposing monocled figure as Rommel — a performance whose tone differs a lot from James Mason’s in Henry Hathaway’s The Desert Fox, an intelligent Rommel wartime biopic that I’ve always liked (it was one of the first films ever aired on NBC’s “Saturday Night at the Movies”). The other is an Italian general played by Fortunio Bonanova, who shortly thereafter would have a funny bit in Wilder’s Double Indemnity as a trucker/insurance scammer who fails miserably trying to pull a fast one on Edward G. Robinson, cast as the firm’s near-infallible cheat-sniffer. Wilder goes to town with these characterizations and the fun he pokes at the Italian general — with Rommel always making certain that the latter gets the hotel room where the bathroom doesn’t work when these members of the Axis powers take over the hotel for powwows from time to time.

This officer invasion demands some quick thinking on the part of Tone, who is neither German nor Italian. Conveniently, he takes over the identity of a clubfooted waiter who’s just been killed in a blast — a guy who never previously met Rommel met eye to eye but whom the general knows to have been a Nazi spy, which adds to Tone’s good fortune (at least for a while). Meanwhile, amid all this in-house intrigue, Baxter is reluctantly playing up sexually to Rommel/Stroheim’s favorite staffer lieutenant (it probably helps that she holds no love for the Brits) in an attempt to pull strings for her brother. The young officer’s role is a predictably comfy fit for Peter Van Eyck, who was in the early stages of career of playing German officers that lasted all the way up to swan song The Bridge at Remagen in 1969.

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Things get more complicated after this, and how could they not? This is definitely lesser Wilder, but it’s still a movie for grown-ups, which a lot of old Paramounts were. I’m constantly amazed at the level of assumed intelligence on the part of the audience that this old romantic cynic always worked on, and it’s impossible to imagine any Cairo ever having come from MGM — or if so, not unless Louis B. Mayer could shoehorn in a production number or two by Virginia O’Brien or Ginny Simms. (Ironically, the best by far of the era’s Hollywood-produced WWII dramas ended up coming from MGM right at the end of the war with They Were Expendable. Even L.B. wasn’t going to tell the future Rear Adm. John Ford how to go about his business.) I remember reading an interview with Wilder sometime in the early ’60s, when he’d recently caught Cairo on the late show and thought it too preachy. There’s a little of this, but not that much of it for the day, and it comes late in the film.

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As old Variety reviews used to say, “Technical credits are ‘pro’” — and the picture got Oscar nominations for cinematography, black-and-white art/set decoration and plus editing by longtime Wilder teammate Doane Harrison, whose association lasted until Sabrina. The cinematographer was John Seitz, who would shoot several of Paramount’s best movies (early Wilders included), and the score is by Miklos Rozsa, whose allegiance stretched, with long layoffs, from Double Indemnity and The Lost Weekend to Fedora). As a result, there’s an “old home week” feel to the movie, which I personally find appealing enough to elevate material that, to an extent, probably cramped Wilder’s style out of a need and necessity to support the troops. As expected, it looks very good on Blu-ray as well.

Mike’s Picks: “House by the River” and “Five Graves to Cairo”