Along with C. B. De Mille’s THE GREATEST SHOW ON EARTH/’52 and AROUND THE WORLD IN EIGHTY DAYS/’56, this early Western ‘Talkie’ always places near the top of those snarky Oscar's ‘worst’ Best Pic lists. And while it’s hard to defend EIGHTY DAYS (though the original 30 fps Todd-A.O. prints must have been something to see), the other two cornball epics are basically irresistible. Helmer Wesley Ruggles gets right to it, opening with a spectacular 1889 Oklahoma Territory land rush, then plowing forward in a surprisingly successful attempt to cram in most of novelist’s Edna Ferber’s usual over-stuffed multi-generational narrative. The characters are cut from the same cloth used in SHOW BOAT*, written just before this, so naturally Irene Dunne (fresh from touring in that musical) and that great eccentric Edna May Oliver, the original Parthy on B’way, take on similar parts. (Oliver is consistently hilarious while Dunne’s role also parallels the citified girl with racist attitudes who falls for a burly Westerner that Liz Taylor played in George Stevens’ ponderously self-important Ferber adaptation, GIANT/’56.) These two, along with George E. Stone, as a sympathetic Jewish merchant (Ferber’s portrait of her own dad), already evince performing styles perfectly suited for the still-new sound process. But just about everyone else, including stentorian lead Richard Dix, declaim in stiff early-Talkie style. Yet, the antique nature of the filmmaking (the production is physically stupendous), and the struggle to hit a more modern cinematic presentation, plays right into the themes at the heart of Ferber’s tall-tale, the growth of Statehood & civilization vs the wanderlust of the adventurers who got us there; along with Ferber’s interest in Native American rights. (It was African-American rights in SHOW BOAT and would morph into Mexican-American rights in GIANT.) Ferber always massages her stories one generation past the bursting point, and this one could use a hefty snip in act three. But in its endearingly clumsy fashion, it’s holds up as big, juicy, honestly corny entertainment.
DOUBLE-BILL: While CIMARRON cleaned up at the Box-Office and at award time, Raoul Walsh’s big 70mm Western from the same year, THE BIG TRAIL flopped, sending new star John Wayne into Poverty Row purgatory for a decade before John Ford rescued him (and to some extent the entire Western genre) with STAGECOACH/’39.
SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: *And the publisher bragged about the similarities. (See book ad.)