Finally, films with names I recognize!
Cimarron (Best Picture, 1931)
For the modern viewer, this film is very difficult to watch. Put politely, one might say it has not aged well. Put less politely, it is a dated and troubling portrayal of racial and gender stereotypes on the part of 1930s Hollywood. At this point in time, even these stereotypes have become stereotypes, in the sense that it is almost expected that movies from this era will treat African-Americans, native peoples, Jews, and women in this way.
The story, based on the novel of the same name by Edna Ferber, follows the Cravat family for about 40 years, from the rush to settle newly-opened territory in Oklahoma in the 1880s to 1930. Though the husband, the improbably-named Yancey Cravat, is the intended dominant personality amongst the characters, the story is in fact about his wife, Sabra, played by Irene Dunne in her second film role. Yancey manages to be absent for much of the 40 years due to his inability to stay in one place for more than a few years at a time, so what the audience sees instead is the way Sabra has to change in order to keep her family and business going. At the same time we watch the way the wild territory is rapidly “civilized” by the introduction of religious services to the wild-west type shanty town, as well as the presence of educated women and an insistence on proper justice for all. All in all the story comes across as a rather disjointed and hesitant attempt to praise the pioneers – and in particular, pioneer women – for civilizing the West. When the story closes, Sabra has been elected a member of Congress for Oklahoma, and Yancey has died while once again playing the hero.
CIMARRON, in spite of not having aged well, communicates an odd set of contradictory messages. It is a film that is widely recognized and criticized for its adherence to long-standing racial stereotypes, yet it also encourages a surprising degree of tolerance. This is particularly true of the portrayals of Native Americans and the one Jewish character, and their relationships to the family at the center of the story. The Jewish man, predictably named Sol Levy and equally predictably following a mercantile career path, is portrayed as sensitive and in need of protection. Not a paragon of masculinity by the standards set in the movie (we are presumably supposed to view the often absent and equally often patronizing Yancey as the ideal of masculinity), but Sol Levy could have been a much more distasteful character – Hollywood could have made him a Shylock. Instead, he is appealing and sweetly grateful for the friendship of both Sabra and Yancey.
The Native American portrayal, while weirdly limited (given the circumstances of the movie), is surprisingly good. Sabra repeatedly refers to them as “dirty savages,” for which she is chastised by both her husband and her son. When Yancey leads the town’s first religious service, he makes a point of telling the Native Americans at the back of the gathering that he sees no need for them to contribute to the collection, since there is no justice in making them pay further to assist men who have stolen their ancestral land. Furthermore, in the final minutes of the movie at a banquet in Sabra’s honor, it is shown that Sabra and Yancey’s son has married the daughter of an Osage chief (leading to a decidedly cringe-making moment when she greets the banquet attendees in the “words of my people” while wearing a “traditional” gown of buckskin).
The one black character is obviously meant as light comic relief – the whole circumstance of his life and his unnoticed death in the attempt to save the Cravat children from a gunfight is so completely distasteful that I don’t really know what else to say about it. Hollywood, shame on you for such portrayals. It may be 80 years too late, but it is still disgusting.
I am torn about the character of Sabra Cravat. On the one hand, hurrah for a story that praises the work of the female pioneers. It shows a woman going from a comfortable life in Wichita to a wild western shantytown full of gunslingers and vice, and helping to create a town that is safe and wholesome for her children. She manages to maintain a successful business while her husband is off wandering for years at a time, and she keeps house, family, and business all running smoothly. Sabra even gets elected to Congress in 1930, which is surely a wonderful example to show for the young women who might have gone to see this in its time.
ON THE OTHER HAND. Her husband treats her like an idiot child. Every time she protests his behavior or his choices, he kisses her into submission then stomps off to do exactly as he pleases, which usually involves rushing to the passionate defense of anyone outside his family. Yancey is gone for five, ten, even twenty years at a time without sending financial support or even a line to let them know he is in fact alive. Maybe it was a stand-by-your-man message for the early Depression years, but it comes across as mindless devotion to a man whose behavior has to rank as some kind of abuse. Surely abandonment is grounds for divorce!
I keep telling myself, CIMARRON is an interesting piece as a historical artifact. Luckily, that doesn’t mean I have to like it.
Grand Hotel (Best Picture, 1932)
GRAND HOTEL apparently bears the dubious distinction of still being the only Best Picture winner not to be nominated for any of the other major Academy Award categories. When one thinks of the cast – Greta Garbo, Joan Crawford, Jean Hersholt, Lionel Barrymore, John Barrymore – this is nothing short of astonishing. Of the films so far this is the first one where I recognized the names of nearly all the top-billed actors. Indeed, the Barrymore brothers (not to mention Greta Garbo) are pretty much Hollywood legend by this point.
The Grand Hotel in Berlin is a place where people come, people go, and nothing ever happens – a statement that is of course false because otherwise there would be no story to film. And while there are plenty of movies out there severely lacking in story, GRAND HOTEL is not one of them, but it is difficult to summarize. A broke baron-cum-hotel-thief (John Barrymore) is at the Grand Hotel to steal the pearl necklace of famous dancer Madame Grusinskaia (Garbo). Along the way, he meets terminally ill accountant Kringelein (Lionel Barrymore), who is desperate to live a little before he dies and consequently spends most of the film drunk, meat-headed industrialist Preysing (Wallace Beery), and stenographer Flaemmchen (Crawford). Caught in the act of stealing the pearls, the Baron and Grusinskaia fall madly in love and decide to go on to her next performance in Vienna together. As the Baron is reluctant to take money from a woman (apparently), he spends the rest of the film trying unsuccessfully to get cash. He eventually resorts to trying to steal Preysing’s pocketbook. Preysing catches him in the act, and ends up bludgeoning the Baron to death with the telephone. All the hotel staff work to keep Grusinskaia in the dark about the death of her lover, and she goes off to Vienna thinking she’ll meet him on the train. Kringelein and Flaemmchen decide to join their lots and go to Paris in search of a really good doctor for him, and Preysing goes to jail.
I enjoyed the movie more than I have the others so far, but I still can’t say I actually liked it to the point of actually seeing a day in the future when I’d watch it again. I particularly enjoyed the Barrymores and Crawford, but did not like Garbo as much as I had hoped to. Her famous line, “I want to be alone” is not the sulky/sultry statement I had come to expect from the way it’s usually quoted, but instead it comes across as something in between petulant child and capital-d Depression. To be perfectly honest, the combination of Garbo’s odd speech delivery, frenetic body language, and melodramatic mood swings makes Grusinskaia come across as not so much tragic as manic-depressive. I’m a romantic, but I don’t believe in the lightning bolt kind of attraction – films and books show that it rarely ends well. Grusinskaia spends the first half of the film in depression bordering on suicidal (which is how she and the Baron meet, incidentally – he’s hiding in her closet with her pearls in his pocket and sees her take out a vial of medicine and contemplate it while talking despairingly at the mirror, so he talks her out of killing herself). The second half is full of a wild, can’t-sit-still kind of joy that is actually more disturbing than the despair, since it speaks to a psychological chemistry that is fundamentally unbalanced.
In spite of my issues, GRAND HOTEL is the first of the Best Picture films since WINGS that I would recommend to others. The story follows the inevitable train wreck format, but it unfolds in unexpected and very interesting ways.
Because Cavalcade (Best Picture, 1933) is not available on DVD, I am forced to skip it. Pity, really, since it’s based on a Noel Coward play and I’ve never seen any of his serious stuff.
Next up: It Happened One Night and Mutiny on the Bounty (Clark Gable double bill? SIGN ME UP!)