Cimarron: The New Western History in 1931
- Film & History: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Film and Television Studies
- Center for the Study of Film and History
- Volume 33, Number 1, 2003
- pp. 9-17
- View Citation
- Additional Information
J.E. Smyth | Special In-Depth Section Cimarron: The New Western History in 1931 J.E. Smyth Yale University In early 1931, RKO Pictures released Cimarron, a history of an Oklahoma pioneering couple's marriage from the birth of the territory in 1889 to the film's 1930 production year. Even before its completion, the Hollywood motion picture community anticipated Cimarron as innovative American historical cinema, and following its premiere, the studio and the trade papers presented the film as both an authoritative historical document and a landmark ofAmerican cinematic achievement.1 At the end ofthe decade, filmmaker and historian Lewis Jacobs reiterated its effect on historical cinema, and as time passed, Hollywood executives and trade papers tried to justify new big-budget historical Westerns by invoking Cimarron's memory.2 The film's name became a sort of talisman of artistic achievement for an industry traditionally credited with a short memory. Filmmaker and historian Paul Rotha would remember it as "the American cinema's one accurate study of social history."3 Yet until recently, academic film scholarship virtually ignored the industry's former masterpiece. Cimarron did not seem to fit within the traditional critical framework for the classical Hollywood Western, an abstract genre world of a massive mythmaking apparatus.4 Its complex historical narrative, frequent text inserts, and repeated contrasts between verbal and visual historical representation seem to have made Western film historians uncomfortable. Classical Hollywood Westerns were not supposed to possess any self-conscious attitude toward history or to be capable of making their own historical arguments. Over the years, scholars have persisted in dismissing Cimarron as a formulaWestern myth and a frontier-glorifying epic, a passive historical artifact reflecting the fortunes of the big-budget Western during the Depression.5 But a closer examination ofthe film's production history reveals both its nuanced historical structure and active engagement with contemporary Western historiography and criticism. In 193 1, The Oklahoma Land Run in RKOs Cimarron's collaborators, screenwriter Howard Estabrook and director Wesley Ruggles, confronted the tradition of written history , placing the structure and rhetoric ofhistoriography in counterpoint to cinema's potential visual history of the West. The result introduced a new attitude toward Western history articulated in a new cinematic language orfilm historiography. Foreword: Revisioning the Historical Film in 1931 Although by 1930, a few professional historians had begun to question traditional Western historiography and the eloquent eulogies to white westward settlement exemplified by the work of Frederick Jackson Turner, the criticism tended to dispute individual aspects ofTurner's "frontier thesis" rather than to generate an organized alternative to the robust and self-congratulatory history expressed by Turner and popularhistorian, Theodore Roosevelt.6 No accredited historian wrote the first fully-developed and widely-read revisionist history oftheWest; this achievement belonged to popular American novelist, Edna Ferber. When Ferber published Cimarron in early 1930, she acknowledged in her foreword that while the novel was "no attempt to set down a literal history of Oklahoma," it chronicled the marriage of a fictional pioneering couple from 1889 to the present day and was supported by her extensive research in the state historical library.7 Although Ferber later claimed that Cimarron was a revisionist account oftheAmericanWest, depicting Oklahoma's multiethnic and multiracial settlement and development , she concentrated her historical critique within her fictional protagonists ,Yancey and Sabra Cravat. Ferber felt that in creating her scathing portrait of Sabra, a bigoted pioneer woman, she was denouncing the essential materialism of American society and its sentimental view of the s Cimarron (1931).female pioneer.8 Vol. 33.1 (2003) | 9 Smyth I Cimarron: The New Western History in 1931 Yet writing in 1931, literary critic Percy Boynton understood the novel only as apopularreconfirmation ofFrederick Jackson Turner's 1893 frontier thesis and as a culmination of twentieth-centuryWestern nostalgia.9 Other reviewers were more pointed in their criticism of Ferber's romantic history. Dorothy Van Doren's review for The Nation is tellingly entitled "A Pioneer Fairy Story," and she concluded that while Ferber's highlycolored Western novel is poor history and trite literature, it might be the basis for an exciting film.10 IfVan Doren and other critics took a dim view of...