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Black and white, 1931
RKO Pictures
Directed by Wesley Ruggles
Runtime: 123 minutes

Starring: Richard Dix (Yancy Cravat), Irene Dunne (Sabra Cravat), Estelle Taylor (Dixie Lee), William Collier Jr. (The Kid), Rosco Ates (Jesse Rickey), George E. Stone (Sol Levy), Stanley Fields (Lon Yountis), Edna May Oliver (Mrs. Tracy Wyatt)


Opening text:
"A nation rising to greatness through the work of men and women... new country opening... raw land blossoming... crude towns growing into cities... territories becoming rich states....

"In 1889, President Harrison opened the vast Indian Oklahoma Lands for white settlement... 2,000,000 acres free for the taking, poor and rich pouring in, swarming the border, waiting for the starting gun at noon, April 22nd..."

The scene opens to a sea of horses, covered wagons, and people stretching out to the horizon. Riding on horseback, Yancy Cravat happens upon a group of old friends in the crowd as they all await the starting gun for the Oklahoma Land Rush.

Yancy announces he will be looking to claim land for a ranch around Little Bear Creek. Overhearing his plans, a woman named Dixie Lee sidles up next to Yancy's horse and informs him that she will be looking for land there as well.

At noon the cannons are fired and the rush begins. People of all ages race on horseback, in wagons, on bicycles, and on foot to claim land.

Yancy rides quickly to his desired plot, followed closely by Dixie Lee. As he crosses through a steep hole to reach his intended claim, Dixie Lee follows. Losing its balance, her horse falls forward into the ditch, throwing her to the ground. Turning around before reaching his destination, Yancy comes to her aid. She asks him to shoot her injured horse. As he shoots the animal, Dixie Lee mounts his horse and rides away to claim the spot of land Yancy had planned on taking for himself.

Back at the home of his in-laws (the Venable family), Yancy recounts with good humor how Dixie Lee managed to grab his claim, much to the family's horror and chagrin. As Yancy speaks excitedly to the Venables about the new frontier and the "new empire" of Oklahoma, a young black servant named Isaiah listens on in awe. Yancy declares that he, his wife Sabra, and his young son Cimarron will be going to live in Oklahoma. Though her family disapproves, Sabra is determined to follow her husband to the frontier.

The Cravats take two wagons to Oklahoma, and Isaiah stows away in a rolled-up rug. When discovered, Isaiah begs to stay on, offering to do all their chores for the chance to go to Oklahoma. Yancy agrees to bring him along.

While camped one evening during their journey, a group of bandits approaches the Cravat wagon. Yancy recognizes one of the outlaws as his old friend "The Kid." Once The Kid realizes who he has tried to rob, his group puts away their guns and the old friends talk for a while. Yancy tells The Kid that he and his family will be moving to Osage to start a newspaper there, and asks him to stay clear of the town to avoid any conflict. The Kid agrees, and they merrily part ways.

As the Cravats ride into Osage during the night, the scene is bustling. Tent dwellings are everywhere, and construction of new buildings goes on through the night. The town has grown to a size of 10,000 people in six weeks. Sabra is shocked and panicked by the unruliness of the town; her first reaction is to go home. Yancy convinces her to get some sleep and reconsider in the morning. He then goes out for the night to meet up with his friends and local businessmen.

While at the town's big gambling tent/saloon, he encounters a man named Lon Yountis, a local bully. Yancy questions Yountis about the shooting death of the town's former newspaper editor; by his reaction, Yancy can see Yountis and his men had something to do with the shooting.

The next morning, Yancy and Sabra take in the town by daylight. A man named Sol Levy passes by with a mule-load of department store notions (thread, lace, needles, etc.) that he is selling on the street. Loitering on the street are Yountis and his men. In a display of bravado, Yountis shoots the hat from Yancy's head. In return Yancy calmly dusts off his hat and shoots Yountis in the ear.

Yancy's new Oklahoma Wigwam newspaper office is opened, and he and Sabra begin settling in to Osage. Yancy declares he has never spent more than 5 years in one place, and Sabra realizes that her desire to settle down and make their nest in Osage may be contradictory to his lust for adventure. Yancy's personality is in contrast to Sabra's in other ways-- he is open-minded about many things where she is slow to accept ideas that are new and different. He is quite sympathetic to Indians, for example, while Sabra sees them as "dirty" and "filthy." Despite these differences, they love each other dearly.

Again the scene cuts to Sol Levy selling his notions on the street. Yountis and his men mock Levy, lasso him, and try to force him to drink whiskey while he begs to be left alone. The men shoot at him and he falls backward against a T-shaped set of wooden beams, his arms up as though he were being crucified. As Yountis tries to force Levy to drink again, Yancy appears and shoots the bottle from his hand. Yancy kindly sends Levy back to work and confronts Yountis with a Cherokee death cry.

Because there is not yet a church in Osage, some of the townsfolk ask Yancy to conduct Sunday services. To accommodate the large crowd, the services are held in the gambling tent. Everyone attends the meeting, including Yountis who hovers at the doorway. The town whores, including Dixie Lee, attend the service as well. Sol Levy asks if it is okay for him to attend, and Yancy declares he is welcome.

Yancy goes on to welcome everyone to the "Osage First Methodist Episcopalian Lutheran Presbyterian Congregational Baptist Catholic Unitarian Hebrew Church." He leads the group in a song and takes up a collection for a church organ-- acknowledging that the Indians are excluded from the collection, because they would be fools to give money to a race that "robbed them of their birthright."

Yancy's sermon is chosen from Proverbs. "There is a lion in the streets of Osage," he declares, bringing up the murder of the former newspaper editor and threatening to expose the killer. By doing this, he goads Yountis into pulling his gun and shooting, and Yancy shoots him down dead in self-defense.

As everyone exits the church, Dixie Lee speaks to Yancy. She tells him she tried to settle the ranch land, but the neighbors drove her out when they found out about her past. Yancy treats her with decency, causing Sabra to be upset and confused as to why he would be so kind to a prostitute. It is another instance where Yancy's attitude is more open than Sabra's.

A year later in 1890, the town is still growing, and Sabra and Yancy have a newborn daughter Donna. As the couple are admiring their new daughter, Yancy's old friend The Kid and his men ride into town and begin shooting at the bank. Yancy races out to the street to confront the gunmen, while Sabra waits anxiously in the house. Cimarron is playing outside in the street during the incident, and Isaiah is shot down by an errant bullet as he tries to bring him home. Yancy manages to shoot down The Kid and his men, though he is shot in the arm in the process. Substantial rewards are on The Kid's head, but Yancy decides he cannot take any money for killing an old friend he used to ride the range with. As the family rejoices in Cimarron's and Yancy's safety, Sol Levy brings the body of Isaiah into the house. Yancy sadly cradles the boy in his arms.

On September 16, 1893, the Cherokee Strip is to be be opened for settlement. Yancy's friends discuss this new land rush, and Yancy is tempted to go with them. Sitting down to a civilized tea service with Sabra, he expresses his desire to go and seek out this new empire. Sabra wants to stay in their home; she has developed many connections in Osage, including starting a women's club. Unable to contain his wanderlust, Yancy decides to go and leaves with a small pack and a saddle, promising to return.

In 1898, five years have passed with no word from Yancy. Sabra has continued the work of the newspaper, acting as editor in Yancy's absence. The town has grown bigger, and men gossip in the street about Yancy's whereabouts and adventures. There is also gossip about Dixie Lee-- she will soon appear in court on charges of vice, a cause that has been spearheaded by Sabra and the women's group.

When Sabra sits down with the children for breakfast on the day of Dixie's trial, Yancy returns to their home wearing a military uniform. He has been serving in the Spanish-American war. He and Sabra are thrilled to be reunited, but things become tense when Yancy finds out that Dixie Lee is being tried without any legal defense. He upsets Sabra greatly by electing to act as her defense counsel.

In court later that day, Yancy defends Dixie Lee by calling her to the stand to tell her story. Dixie Lee explains that her parents died when she was fifteen, and at that time she found work in a library. A man told her he loved her and they got married, but she later found out that he was already married. She never saw the man again, and the baby she bore died. She then moved on and got a job as a school teacher, but when someone found out about her past she was forced to leave. This pattern continued until she was forced to work as a prostitute to make a living.

Yancy indicts "social order" as the real criminal in the case, keeping Dixie Lee from being able to keep a job other than prostitution. The jury, moved by Yancy's arguments, finds Dixie Lee not guilty.

At home later that day, Sabra accuses Yancy of making up the story to free Dixie Lee, and wonders if he has ulterior motives. Yancy explains that the life story she told was true, and that putting Dixie Lee in jail would not punish the real crime, "social order." He declares that "Dixie Lees have been stoned in the marketplace for 2000 years and it hasn't done any good." Sabra comes to see that his interest in helping Dixie Lee is so that she'd get "one less kick." She also realizes that she is lucky to have had a family and life circumstances that helped her to avoid the same situation.

In 1907, the state of Oklahoma is formed under President Roosevelt. Osage is bustling with streetcars and a few automobiles, and oil has been discovered in the region. Donna has grown up and is attending school in the East, while Cimarron has become an engineer and is set on marrying Ruby, the Indian girl who has served as the Cravat's maid for many years. Sabra is against the marriage, while Yancy supports it. Donna, who is focused on wealth and its trappings, has her mind set on someday marrying the richest man in Osage.

Meanwhile, Yancy is running for governor as a member of the Progressive Party. Pat Leary, the former governor and the prosecutor in the Dixie Lee case, comes to visit Yancy regarding his political aspirations. Leary promises election assistance if Yancy promises to appoint an Indian agent who will cheat the Indians of their oil rights. Yancy tells Leary he will smash those plans and writes an editorial calling for full Indian citizenship, bringing the dirty politics to light. By publishing the editorial, Yancy ruins his own political ambitions, much to Sabra's chagrin.

As the pioneering days have come to an end, Yancy again is struck by wanderlust and leaves Osage. Sabra carries on the work of the paper as editor, and the years pass with no word.

In 1929, Osage is filled with skyscrapers and pavement. The fortieth anniversary edition of the Oklahoma Wigwam is going to press, and Sabra decides to re-print Yancy's now famous Indian citizenship editorial in honor of the paper's history and Yancy's foresight.

1n 1930, Sabra, by now a prominent citizen, has been elected to Congress. At a dinner in her honor, her old friends and children have gathered. Sol Levy is now the owner of the largest department store in town. Donna has indeed married the richest man in Osage. Cimarron and his wife Ruby are there with their two children. And Sabra is now proud of her Indian in-laws. Sabra makes a short speech to the gathered dignitaries, and then the group moves on to make an inspection of the Bowlegs Oil Field.

At the oil field, Sabra marvels at the fast-growing industry, echoing Yancy's words that it is "a new empire"... "all this, up from raw prairie, overnight." Nearby a crowd gathers and workers rush to get help-- there has been an accident with nitroglycerin. One of the workers explains that an old drifter who some call "Old Yance" had been working the oil field and sacrificed himself by hugging the exploding nitro to his chest, saving the rest of the men. Sabra, realizing this is Yancy, rushes to find him.

As he lays dying, Yancy recognizes her and asks if everyone is okay. Sabra reassures him that they are. His dying words to her are, "Wife and mother, stainless woman, hide me, hide me in your love." She responds, "Sleep, my boy," as he dies in her arms.

The film closes on the unveiling of a statue, very much in the likeness of Yancy, in honor of the Oklahoma pioneer.

Plot keywords: civilization versus frontier, pioneer town, Oklahoma land rush, Cherokee Strip land rush, town newspaper, Spanish American war, oil, prostitute with a heart of gold, interracial relationship, courtroom

Scenery: plains, rolling hills, frontier town

Notes and trivia: The first western to win an Academy Award for best picture.

Cimarron is available on DVD.

Classic Westerns on TCM

Westerns on Fox Movie Channel


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