coldcat's wit

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Birth of a Nation is perhaps the most racist movie ever made. Of course it was released 12 years before the first Oscar ceremony, so it could not be the most racist Oscar winner. That distinction goes to 1931ís winner Cimarron.

The opening scene is wonderful. Thousands of people trying to stake their claim to newly opened land in Oklahoma gather, and with a gun shot, are off to the races. The main character, Yancey Cravat played by Richard Dix, has his eyes on a piece of land where he wants to build a ranch, and after the initial chaos of the land rush, is within sight of it when a woman named Dixie Lee tricks him out of it and stakes the claim herself.

That accounts for about the first five minutes or so, and after that it goes quickly downhill. When Yancey gets back to his wife and family in Wichita, the blatant racism kicks in. The Cravat family, you see, has a young African-American boy sitting on a platform suspended from the ceiling over their dinner table with a large fan. When he falls off the platform and lands in the main course, he quickly scurries off the table and onto his knees in front of Yancey begging "please Massa Yancey, please." In the very next scene Yancey and his wife have left Kansas for Osage, OK and they find the boy hidden in their luggage and once again, he falls to his knees and pleads with "Massa Yancey." A few scenes later when the Cravats are on their way to church, Yancey tells him he canít join them and in a condescending tone, asks him to go back and defend the house. Iím white and I felt offended by this. And the bigotry is not only focused on blacks. Native Americans and hookers get a taste of it too.

The stage is set for a rivalry between Yancey and an outlaw who keeps shooting his hat off and giving him dirty looks, which worries Mrs. Cravat constantly. Of course Yancey kills the main outlaw during the church scene, the only thing that could possibly liven up the worst church service ever, and then gets into another shoot-out with another outlaw moments later, driving the entire gang out of town, and weíre not even halfway through the movie. Way to get rid of all the dramatic tension, guys.

Yancey gets antsy and takes of without his wife for five years, but being a total sap, sheís still happy to see him when he comes crawling back. After Oklahoma becomes a state Yancey tries to run for governor, but instead publishes an editorial in his newspaper calling for Native American citizenship. Then he disappears again. When we check back in itís 1930, his wife has just been elected to congress, and he is still nowhere to be seen 23 years later. The party honoring Rep. Cravat is about to tour the oil field when there is an accident, and Yancey, who has been working in the field and posing as an old drifter, is killed.

Wow, what a piece of crap movie. Does it want to be a western? Does it want to be a character study of Yancey? Does it want to be a study of the relationship between Yancey and his wife? Well it fails at everything. There is the one good scene, the land rush, and one somewhat entertaining scene, the church service, and nothing else even remotely makes sense. You want a main character that canít seem to stay still for long? Fine, but follow him on his travels, donít just skip ahead five years until he pops up again. IMDB lists this as a western, but it really isnít. It follows a lot of the basics of the western for about an hour, then just veers wildly off into no manís land. And one of the basics of a western is a villain who menaces the hero and who we remember. Yancey kills off the guy who menaces him almost immediately, and the next guy he kills is. . . .well, I have no idea who the hell that guy is. The movie never really goes into that.

Then thereís the acting. Itís bad. Really bad. Itís so bad itís actually rather distracting. Bad acting can kill a movie just as fast as bad writing, so luckily this movie provides us with both. Iím not sure any of these characters would actually act like that or say the things they say if they were real people. Screenwriter Howard Eastabrook seems to have never met an actual human before, because he doesnít know a whole lot about them. The dialogue is campy and there is zero cohesiveness in the plot. Much of the plot isnít even accurate. The movie depicts the rise of Osage, OK from small frontier town to booming metropolis. You know what the population of Osage, OK is today? 193. Wow, thatís a boomtown.

This movie is a total mess, and the audience knew it. This is the only Oscar winner for best picture to lose money. The land rush scene is a good scene, but they shouldnít get a statue for one scene of work. Apparently the Academy disagreed at the time.

Also nominated that year was Front Page, which is good and is in fact far better than Cimarron, but itís nowhere near as good as the parody a few years later, His Girl Friday. Not nominated that year was Little Caesar. Before there was the original Scarface, before there was Public Enemy, and well before The Untouchables, The Godfather, and Goodfellas, there was Little Caesar. It set the standard for gangster movies, gave us one of the most memorable lines in movie history ("Mother of Mercy, is this the end of Rico?"), and there is even a rumor that the law used to prosecute gang activity is named after the main character. So the Academy feels it isnít even worth a nomination when the big award goes to Cimarron? Please. This is one of Oscarís biggest mistakes.

comments (2) 06-03-2007

The People's Comments:

I believe the exact line is that Broadway Melody of 1929 was worse than Cimarron. Well we get to find out, because guess which movie TCM is showing right when I get home from work Monday. It's a crappy movie weekend. I might have to throw in Unforgiven just to stop thinking of suicide.

And of course the Cimmaron joke in "Not the Fat One" is easily one of the funniest, most obscure jokes we have in that thing.

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