Cimarron (1931):  Taming No-Man’s Land

Irene Dunne as Sabra Cravat and Richard Dix as Yancey Cravat walking down the street of Osage.  Sabra carries an umbrella.  Yancey's hit has a bullet hole.
Cimarron (1931) opening title card

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.

Edna Ferber quote on the film Cimarron:  "Cimarron was made into a superb motion picture, the finest motion picture that has ever been made of any book of mine."

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.

Oklahoma land rush as depicted in the film Cimarron
Oklahoma land rush, as depicted in Cimarron (1931)

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.

Sources/Notes

  • 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.

Want more?  Click here for an index of all posts in the series, as well as source notes and suggested readings.

The King of Hollywood Meets the Screwball Queen

#22 Golden Age of Hollywood Series

Carole Lombard and Clark Gable in NO Man of Her Own (1932)
Opening banner for No Man of Her Own (1932) and Mr. & Mrs. Smith (1941)

Clark Gable married five times and slept with every woman who would have him, regardless of his—or her—marital status.

But the only woman he ever loved was Carole Lombard.

Clark Gable made eight movies with Joan Crawford.  He made seven with Myrna Loy, six with Jean Harlow, four with Lana Turner, and two each with Marion Davies, Norma Shearer, Claudette Colbert, Loretta Young, Heddy Lamarr, and Ava Gardner.

But he made just a single film with the leading lady of his heart.

They met on the set of No Man of Her Own, a rather charming Paramount picture.  Clark Gable plays Babe, a gambler and card sharp.  To avoid trouble with the police, he leaves New York City and hides out in a small town until things cool down.  He meets Lombard’s Connie Randall, a bored and beautiful librarian who is ripe for adventure.

Babe turns on the charm, and Connie is not immune.  Though inexperienced, Connie is not naïve, and when Babe proposes they spend the night together, she presents a counteroffer—they flip a coin, and if she wins, they get married.

She wins the toss.

They proceed from lust to marriage to love.  Babe hides his criminal enterprise from Connie, but eventually gives it up and goes straight to be worthy of her.  Yet in the end Connie proves an able match for Babe, for she has known of his gambling and stealing all along and loves him anyway.  

No Man of Her Own is a good but not great movie, forgettable but for the fact that Gable and Lombard eventually became Hollywood’s real-life power couple.

There’s chemistry between them on the screen.

On the set, however, there was nothing doing.

Lombard was still happily married to her first husband William Powell, and Clark Gable thought Lombard swore far too much for a lady.

Four years later, they met up again at a party and this time Gable fell in love with her, even if she did swear like a drunken soldier.

Carole Lombard lights a cigarette on a tennis court

But in her profanity, as in so many other things, Carole Lombard was crazy like a fox.  It started as self-defense.  As a young, beautiful blonde in Hollywood, the men she worked with both on and off camera were constantly pawing at her.  Lombard delivered her profanity in a breezy, devil-may-care attitude that usually turned their minds from seeing her as a romantic object, to one-of-the-guys, a pal.  Thus she got the men to keep their hands to themselves without alienating those who could help advance her career.

She played pranks, threw parties, went hunting and fishing with Clark and his friends.

And fell for him just as hard as he fell for her.

They married in 1939 during a break in filming Gone With the Wind.  It was a private ceremony with only a few attendants, as neither wanted the media to turn it into a circus.

Clark Gable and Carole Lombard seated at a table

Because she was as savvy with her business dealings as she was with her swearing, she made more money than Clark, despite him starring in the most commercially successful movie of all time.

Carole Lombard and Clark Gable sit on the tailgate of a truck

She could convince anyone to do anything.  She talked Alfred Hitchcock into directing her in  a screwball comedy.  He did it because he loved her.  Mr. and Mrs. Smith was a good film, starring Lombard and Robert Montgomery as a couple who find out four years after their wedding that due to a technicality their marriage license isn’t valid, and that they’re not legally married.  It was Hitchcock’s only comedy in his long career.

When World War II broke out, Carole Lombard wanted to help.  She wrapped filming on her film To Be Or Not To Be with Jack Benny and signed on to sell war bonds.  She took her mother on a cross-country trip and due to her tireless efforts, sold a record-breaking two million dollars of war bonds in a single day.

While on that trip, she pondered the next phase of her life and her career.  

Trying to win an Oscar, she’d dipped her toes into some films with more serious subjects.  Maybe she could do another one of those.  Or maybe she’d keep making comedies—she was already signed on to star in They All Kissed the Bride with Melvyn Douglas.

Maybe she’d take an extended leave from Hollywood—throw herself into the war effort.  Convince Clark to enlist in the war, then start a family when it was over.  She knew a lot about the movie business—maybe when she returned to work she’d direct a film herself.

But for now, all she wanted was to finish the war bond tour and return home to Clark.

If they made a movie of the story of Carole Lombard’s life, I’d tell you to turn it off right now. 

You don’t want to know how this story ends.

She didn’t make They All Kissed the Bride, or start a family.  She didn’t direct.  

On January 16, 1942, the plane she was taking back to Hollywood and Clark and her future crashed in the mountains outside Las Vegas.

There were no survivors.

Carole Lombard was dead at thirty-three.

Carole Lombard

Because she was flying back from her war bond tour, President Franklin Roosevelt declared her the first woman killed in the war.  In June the United States christened a war ship the S.S. Lombard, and it served in the Pacific theater throughout the war.

Clark Gable fulfilled her dying wish and enlisted in the United States Army Air Force.

Joan Crawford filled her role in They All Kissed The Bride, and donated her salary to the Red Cross that had helped search for the bodies in the Nevada mountains.

Though she’s left us with a stack of wonderful films, Carole Lombard’s death at thirty-three cut her down in her prime.  Hollywood is haunted by the films she never made.

If she’d lived, she’d almost certainly have eventually won an Oscar.  She had the looks of a quintessential Hitchcock blonde, and the director loved her.  She likely would’ve starred in one of his thrillers and perhaps opened up a whole new chapter in her career.

Thirty-three.

At thirty-three, Katharine Hepburn had never even met Spencer Tracy, much less made a picture with him.  She scored ten of her twelve Oscar nominations and three of her four Oscar wins after age thirty-three.

At thirty-three, Bette Davis had not yet made All About Eve, Barbara Stanwyck had not made Double Indemnity, and Joan Crawford had not made Mildred Pierce.

Undoubtedly, the best was yet to come for Carole Lombard. 

Her death ripped the guts out of Hollywood, and out of Clark Gable.

Hollywood recovered, of course.  Hollywood is bigger than any one star, even one as bright as Lombard.

Gable never did.  Despite living eighteen more years and marrying two more times, upon his death Clark Gable was buried next to Carole Lombard Gable.

Verdicts:  No Man of Her Own (1932) - Film Buffs Only and Mr. & Mrs. Smith (1941) - Film Buffs Only

Want more?  Click here for an index of all posts in this series, as well as source notes and suggested reading.

Carole Lombard and Clark Gable in NO Man of Her Own (1932)