Sunday, March 28, 2010


with Richard Dix

Release date 9. February 1931

" We can´t tear our lives up and start all over again. You´ve done your share."
"Sugar, if we all took root and squatted there´d never be a new country."

All I love about Irene Dunne as an actress is already obvious in "Cimarron" but it´s still "Dunne in the making". Regarding her performance the outstanding part is her handling of the aging process of Sabra, mainly through the subtle use of her speaking voice in a range from the high pitched voice of young Sabra to the slightly quivering voice of an old woman. From the very beginning she positions the asset of her instrumental use of her voice,but the other fortes of her signature minimalist acting style are still in the background.

Epos is written all over "Cimarron", starting with its sheer duration of about two hours - outstanding in 1931 - the 40 years its story covers - from 1889 till 1929 - and the topics it is aiming at.

We follow a young couple, Sabra (Irene) and Yancey (Richard Dix) from Wichita to the newly founded Osage in Oklahoma where he plans to start a newspaper and in general to become part of the conquest of the Southwest. The very first minutes of the film - wonderfully filmed mass scenes of a land race - establish Yancey´s character as an adventurer and free spirited personality with natural authority and Sabra´s character through the simple fact that she is absent, though there are women around.
As to be expected Yancey and Sabra have to face all kind of troubles: shootings, forays and difficult life circumstances to start with - Sabra is definitely used to something more noble. As soon as the couple gets more established - wallpapers for the den, a women´s club for Sabra and the newspaper is doing nicely too - Yancey throws himself in the next adventure: the opening of the Cherokee strip, thus leaving Sabra and the kids alone.

We see the city grow, the newspaper gain in importance, Sabra filling her husband´s place as an editor and writer and Yancey turning back from time to time to put his family - mainly Sabra of course - on the right track again, which means in the direction of liberty and fighting for the civil rights of the native Indians. Sabra is always hesitating to adjust to her husband´s point of views, but makes them, with time and basically being good natured and understanding, her own. Yancey rushes from one adventure to the other but we stay with Sabra who under those circumstances becomes a career woman, manages the newspaper successfully, brings up the kids and crowns her life with an election to congress, but the couple is still to be reunited for a last time...

As Yancey stands for adventure, progress and development, Sabra stands for duration, establishment and steadiness - and one needs the other. There is no doubt that those two human beings love each other deeply but as Yancey isn´t made for staying longer in one place, Sabra isn´t made for packing up her things every five years. As it needs pioneers to start something new on the one side, it needs people in the background to actually build things on the other side. The fact that the absence of Yancey gives Sabra room for an exciting development and that she ends as a successful congress woman in opposite to "Old Yance" working on a oil field, sheds some interesting light on the characters and the principles of moving and staying.

Looking at those aforementioned first scenes of the film it´s no wonder it won an Oscar for best picture and was the first Western to do so. In 1931 it must have been overwhelming on the big screen and decades later it´s still striking though we are simply spoiled technically. A real asset of the film is its creating of an atmosphere - especially the buzzing of the growing Osage - and the lovely treatment of details - all different kinds of representatives of mankind crowd the screen. But nevertheless "Cimarron" looks dated which is maĆ­nly due to the performance of its leading man Richard Dix who was a star in the silent era and though blessed with a distinguished voice acts with "silents obliged", exaggerated gestures. How different the reception of his acting style was for his contemporaries shows his winning of an Oscar nomination.

Well, Irene earned an Oscar nomination for it too - the first of a total of five - and this film, only her second, definitely put her on the map as a film actress and openend doors for her as a dramatic performer in spite of her theatre beginnings on the musical stage.

For a long time "Cimarron" was Irene´s favorite film, after rewatching it in the 70s she found it "awfully hammy", which I have to admit it is, but nonetheless an early attempt of scoring liberal points through a Western and last not least an entertaining film.

Detour - Why in chronological order?

If I´m really interested in an actress I like to watch her films in chronological order because of two reasons:

- First - it seems to be the best way to understand the development of a performer. The original order gives me a detailed impression of how an actress changed through her career - sometimes a span of decades.
- And second - it´s simply how contemporaries watched those films. That´s the nearest I can get to the reception of films by actual moviegoers of this era. Of course with the access to a DVD copy at any time and with the possibilities of the use of the fast forward and rewind button it´s only "an idea of a reception" but still the closest I can get...



Release date September 12. 1931

This is going to be the shortest film review ever because as far as we know no copy of "Leathernecking" exists.
Nevertheless there are some interesting tidbits about this film which are from importance for Irene´s career. "Leathernecking" was RKO´s attempt to jump on the bandwagon of an early talkies´musical fad. During production it became obvious that this bandwagon was already slowing down and they decided to stir the whole film more in the direction of comedy. Looking at old reviews this mixture wasn´t felicitous and "Leathernecking" ended as not much of a success.
Miss Dunne being initiative and not used to failure of any kind started campaigning for the role of Sabra in "Cimarron", a property RKO had bought for its then leading male star Richard Dix. After two screen tests - one as young Sabra and the other after having aged 40 years - the coveted part was hers. Here is in Irene´s own words what "turned the trick":

At first there was an astounded gasp from producers. Sabra, a straight dramatic role, the emotional plum of the year, to a musical comedy star? Nonsense. Nonsense or not, I wanted that role. My father´s words again rang in my mind -"Go after what you want". And it took a bit of going after. Came the day of the test. Something was needed. My wig was beyond reproach, but there was something missing. Sitting in the make-up chair I remembered seeing the woman who designed the wigs that morning. She had on the hat I wanted for Sabra. I ran around the lot, and a few minutes before the test, found her hidden away in a corner of the work room. I borrowed her hat. I´m convinced as much as today as I was then that the hat turned the trick. (excerpt from the article "Hats-Hunches And Happiness" by Irene Dunne, Picturegoer Feb.17 1945)

Well, Miss Dunne, nice anecdote, but it certainly wasn´t all about "a hat" but about determination and having a clear concept of a part - omens for the things yet to come.