Cimarron (1960)

 BLU-RAY REVIEW:

 Available via Warner Archive;

Warner;
Western;
$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’

Bend of the River

BLU-RAY REVIEW:

Kino Lorber;
Western;
$29.95 Blu-ray;
Not rated.
Stars James Stewart, Arthur Kennedy, Julia Adams, Rock Hudson.

This second of the five revered James Stewart-Anthony Mann Westerns consistently gets high marks on rank-them-in-order lists, but leaving aside 1955’s perfectly respectable but unexceptional The Far Country (a ’54 release in England), you can shuffle your specific preferences in just about any order without anyone calling you crazy. I myself prefer Winchester ’73, The Naked Spur and The Man From Laramie — but on the other hand, ranking 1952’s Bend of the River fourth just doesn’t quite send the right signal. (For that matter, I could use an update viewing on Country if long-promised Blu-rays ever materialize.)

Certainly, River has the “elements”: two great lead actors playing characters who are alternately friendly and adversarial with each other; a supporting cast of young screen players who were getting early career breaks on the way to expanding their fan bases; older character actors (sub-category: Western) who are not anyone’s pretty faces; and excellent Technicolor locales once we get by a shoddy-looking set-bound exterior during some an early nocturnal combat between white settlers and Shoshones. The picture was largely filmed way, way up in the Mt. Hood area of Oregon, and it’s been said that Stewart regarded it as the most physically demanding role of his career.

For a star-director quintet that proved quite popular with the public yet was relegated to functional bread-and-butter status by critics, a lot of screen ink has been expended in subsequent years on the ways in which these movies toughened up Stewart’s screen image and played a little to that persona’s occasional neurotic dimension — as in what for me are the actor’s two greatest performances (earlier on in It’s a Wonderful Life and a bit later in Vertigo). In River, Stewart keeps his emotions remarkably in check amid all sorts of narrative mayhem but finally lets it out all out late in the game when co-star Arthur Kennedy (as Stewart’s erratic sidekick) reveals his true character, which we’ve seen hinted at from the beginning.

Which is to say that the two meet when Kennedy has a rope around his neck as one about to be lynched for horse thievery — a vigilante group-vs.-individual act to which Stewart responds negatively on general principles, resulting in the former’s unambiguous rescue. Subsequently riding together, the two soon become aware that they know each other by reputation — though this mutual rep is as former “raiders” from the Civil War era, which doesn’t go down too well in postwar society. As a result, the screenplay — by Red River’s Borden Chase from a Bill Gulick novel — somewhat enters future Budd Boetticher territory in that the good guy and the bad guy have more in common than they do with, in this case, wagon train settlers. Though Stewart is trying.

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As my favorite character actor ever, Kennedy predictably delivers the standout supporting performance, but the movie also gives pretty good indication of the young contract players Universal-International was “pushing” in those days. Julie Adams (here still billed as Juli-a) is the young settler who takes an arrow in her shoulder, a la Joanne Dru in Red River, and seems as confused in her choice of men as Hope Hicks. There’s also Adams’ fellow “Creature” lust object Lori Nelson, in her screen debut as the closest thing to a bobbysoxer that the wagon train has to offer — plus Rock Hudson is a gambler named “Trey Wilson.” This said, and by virtue of being played by Rock, the guy looks nothing like the prematurely deceased comic actor from Raising Arizona and Bull Durham — though it was an appealing early role for the actor in terms of his seemingly effortless (which it wasn’t) screen magnetism. Hudson is mostly on hand to show off his professional gambler’s garb and to lend a hand during fatal shoot-outs — some of which take place in the formerly civilized Portland, which goes all crazy when someone discovers gold.

Also around — and Blu-ray commentator Toby Roan bios them all practically down to the number of times they hit the men’s room each day — are familiar Western types like Chubby Johnson, Harry Morgan, Royal Dano, Jack Lambert and Howard Petrie. Not so familiar by 1952, due to the already wincingly retro nature of his act, was Stepin Fetchit, who was making his first appearance in a Hollywood film (as opposed to a so-called “race picture” of the era) in about 20 years; he plays the 40-year companion here to boat captain Johnson, which means, I guess, that the two have managed to work out their relationship. Also among the settlers eventually faced with potential starvation (and with winter approaching) is Frances Bavier. As Bing didn’t sing on his Decca recording, other than in my imagination, it’s looking like “Twilight on the Trail” for Aunt Bea. If that is, Stewart and Kennedy (who’s beginning to make it clear that he may be in it for just himself), can’t get their bought-and-paid-for supplies back from money-hungry Petrie.

Ultimately, River lacks that final “oomph” that pushes it out of the high side of decent into something more, an assessment that applies to the print here as well. The movie was shot in three-strip Technicolor, so its genes are obviously tops, but it looks as if an older master was used here, which is a crucial decision when it comes to this kind of outing. Predictably, it’s stronger in the closeups, though if you went on location in the mountains, you would instead be indulging in long shots, right? Fortunately, the inherent visual material gives River certain advantages, something that’s doubly or even triply so in its choice of protagonists. Kennedy’s character is posted as one who’s smiley, easygoing and wry most of the time (as well as generally dependable in the clutch), and no one was ever better at putting this conflicted demeanor over than the actor U-I chose for the role. Kennedy came through in a similar kind of role in The Man From Laramie, too, which (from Twilight Time and in contrast) is one of the best Blu-ray presentations of a movie from this era that I’ve ever seen.

Mike’s Picks: ‘Bend of the River’ and ‘Melvin and Howard’