Edna Ferber decided to write about Oklahoma after her friend (and editor of the Kansas-based Emporia Gazette) William Allen White regaled her with tales of the 1889 land rush and its rocky road to statehood.
“I knew literally nothing of Oklahoma until that evening,” Ferber writes in her first memoir, A Peculiar Treasure. “It was a state in the Union. That was all.”
After years of research and writing, she produced a novel she called Cimarron, named after the no-man’s strip of land fought over by white settlers and Cherokee that became the Oklahoma panhandle. Cimarron was the best-selling book of 1930, one of the top grossing films of 1931, and the Academy Award winner for Outstanding Production (now Best Picture) in 1932.
Edna Ferber created blockbusters before the word existed.
Richard Dix stars as Yancey Cravat, an adventurous young man bored with his life running a newspaper in Wichita, Kansas. He convinces his wife Sabra (Irene Dunne, in her first of an eventual five Academy Award nominations for Best Actress) to head out to the uncivilized wilds of the Cimarron Territory to gain excitement and a free piece of land.
Things do not go as well for Yancey and Sabra as they do for Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman at the end of 1992’s Far and Away, another film that depicts the Oklahoma land rush. Unlike Cruise, Yancey comes away with nothing after a prostitute outsmarts him and stakes her claim on the land Yancey wanted.
Undeterred, Yancey opens a newspaper in Osage, a rough western town that rose up overnight to accommodate the influx of white settlers looking for land in the unconquered west.
Filthy, violent, and overrun with criminals, prostitutes, and gambling halls, Osage is no place for a lady, much less Yancey and Sabra’s young son. Yet Sabra finds enough grit in her soul to toughen up and adjust to life in a town where men are regularly gunned down in the street.
Four years later, Yancey tries again in the 1893 rush for land in the Cherokee strip. He leaves Sabra and their now two children temporarily behind. Once he secures a bit of land, he’ll come back for them.
Sabra doesn’t see him again for five years, and when she does he’s still landless.
Wanderlust kept him away.
He leaves again, and this time Sabra doesn’t see him for decades.
Abandoned Sabra doesn’t return to Wichita. She takes over the newspaper, raises her children in a wild land, and watches as Oklahoma grows from a savage wilderness to a state in 1907. She eventually becomes the young state’s first female congresswoman.
Through it all, she remains loyal to Yancey, never taking his name off the newspaper’s masthead, and never speaking a word against him. She loves him through it all, and the film ends with her holding him as he dies after not seeing him for decades.
“All the critics and the hundreds of thousands of readers took Cimarron as a colorful romantic Western American novel,” Ferber wrote. In both the book and film, Sabra was seen as the ideal wife, Penelope waiting for her Odysseus to return.
Yet this was not Ferber’s intended message.
“Cimarron had been written with a hard and ruthless purpose,” she admits. “It was, and is, a malevolent picture of what is known as American womanhood and American sentimentality. It contains paragraphs and even chapters of satire and, I am afraid, bitterness….Perhaps it will be read and understood in another day, not my day.”
Though she’s not around to witness it, those of us still watching and reading the story of Cimarron can see clearly what Ferber was trying to say. The American woman of 2022 would not leave her husband’s name at the top of a newspaper she’d been running for decades. The American woman of 2022 would not admire another woman for doing so.
Ferber was a feminist, a word I don’t think she used to describe herself, and Cimarron is one of the starkest examples of one of the major themes of her work—that the American woman is stronger than the American man.
Ferber women are forever picking up the pieces of the weaker, unfocused, and dull men in their lives.
Sabra’s only fault in the film is that she detests the Native Americans of Osage. She considers them no better than filthy savages, and forbids her children to play with them. Yancey is the one advocating for their rights in his newspaper, when he’s around to run it.
But in a storyline Ferber would repeat years later in Giant, Sabra is forced to confront her racism when her son marries a Native American girl. Like Bick Benedict in the diner, Sabra shows she has grown past her narrow views when she praises her Native American daughter-in-law at a public ceremony.
Yet like Dinner at Eight, this film is bit too old for the modern viewer. It’s impressive for a film made in 1931, when directors were still figuring out how to make talkies. For film buffs, it’s worth taking a look just to watch the scene of the land rush, and get a glimpse of a very young Irene Dunne in only her second role. She’s miles away from the confident, wily woman who verbally two-stepped with Cary Grant, but the raw talent is on display.
There’s a 1960 remake with Glenn Ford, but your best bet is to skip both film versions and instead find a copy of Ferber’s novel, pour a whiskey, settle into your favorite easy chair and enjoy a good yarn of the wild west.
- All direct quotes from Edna Ferber’s memoir A Peculiar Treasure, 1939.
- Ferber notes that Cimarron is her favorite film, but this was written in 1939, before she wrote Giant, another adaptation of her work that she greatly enjoyed.
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