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

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Cimarron (MGM, 1960)

Western soap

I couldn’t give this remake only a one-revolver rating out of five. Every pulp Western gets one, even those trash spaghettis and Eurocrap like Bandidas. After all, this one was directed by Anthony Mann, photographed by Robert Surtees and starred Glenn Ford. Now that’s a pretty damn good line-up.

But it only gets two Colts. That’s because it isn’t a Western at all, really, but fast degenerates into one of those dreary ‘family sagas’ Americans are so fond of. It shares with the original 1931 talkie Cimarron (and with William S Hart’s fine 1925 Tumbleweeds) the Oklahoma land rush theme, and MGM’s 1960 version was based theoretically on the same (cheesy) Edna Ferber novel. But it’s a very different treatment indeed.

The 1931 Cimarron was the first Western to win an Academy Award for Best Picture. That was never going to happen this time.

The Arnold Schulman screenplay is turgid and the film slow-paced and too long at 140 minutes. The Franz Waxman score is ponderous and sloppy by turns. Although this was a Surtees picture, the photography, except for the land rush scene, is not up to his usual high standard (compare wonderful work like Escape from Fort Bravo) and there are too many scenes in the studio forced on Mann, death for an epic Western.

On the other side of the coin, Glenn is in it and even in poor films he was splendid. In fact he lifted them and gave them quality. He is partnered by the distinctly average Austrian Maria Schell (The Hanging Tree with Gary Cooper), and better Anne Baxter (Yellow Sky with Gregory Peck) as bordello owner Dixie Lee, who completes the love triangle. Edgar Buchanan, as the judge, is wonderful, obviously, not so broadly comic this time, but rather touching. We have the excellent Harry Morgan as Jesse the printer and a more portly Mercedes McCambridge (so splendidly malevolent in Johnny Guitar) as the doughty midwife Mrs. Wyatt. Later on we have Robert Keith, Royal Dano and LQ Jones in various parts. So the support acting is there. If only the script had been better and direction tighter. Brian Garfield, on the button as (nearly) always, says, “Those who believe in an Anthony Mann oeuvre will have a difficult time finding a place in it for this dispirited elephantine sprawl.”

Probably in a last-ditch effort to combat TV, studios were throwing budgetary cares to the wind, drafting casts of thousands and trying to give the public what TV couldn't - big-screen spectacle. Anthony Mann had moved from noirs to Westerns in 1950 and now in 1960 moved from Westerns to epics (El Cid and The Fall of the Roman Empire were to come). Perhaps MGM thought that a color remake of a box-office and critical hit like Cimarron was a sure-fire hit, and Mann a banker's bet.

But Mann, who longed to do it all on location, quarreled with producer Edmund Grainger, who wanted as much as possible shot on sound stages, and Mann flounced off. More obedient Charles Walters, famous for Easter Parade,  finished the film, uncredited.

There are some fine Surtees-shot scenes here and there and the land rush is pretty spectacular, in widescreen. The film is definitely worth seeing. It has occasional 'a-man’s-gotta-do' grit and the Glenn Ford character is wild and footloose to the end. The book was by a woman about a woman but Mann predictably tried to shift the emphasis. 

There’s a worthy dig at anti-semitism and a lynched Indian to add darkness; racism is quite a strong current running through it - it harks back to Mann's Devil's Doorway in that respect.

The actors ‘age’ courtesy of the make-up department. In 1960 they hadn’t reached the pinnacle of perfection as far as this was concerned and so we just get Maria in a white wig.

The movie has its moments and the early part especially is OK, but it goes downhill after the land rush. Occasional Mannish touches like Yancey capturing the bank robbers give us a glimpse of what might have been. It’s just a pity that it slowly subsides into a soap opera.

The least of Anthony Mann's Westerns, it was in fact hardly a Western at all.


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