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Some movie projects, no matter how promising, seem doomed to one form of failure or another. When RKO first filmed Edna Ferber's popular Western novel, Cimarron, in 1931, it was a major critical success, and even snagged the Oscar® for Best Picture. But it was an expensive movie to make, and the studio lost a pile of money on it. Then, when MGM enlisted Anthony Mann to remake Cimarron in 1960, the production was beset with an assortment of problems, including studio interference and a misbegotten romance between its lead performers, Glenn Ford and Maria Schell.
The film's premiere in Oklahoma was equally rocky. Co-star Anne Baxter, who traveled 9,000 miles from Australia with her husband to attend, discovered that most of her role had been eliminated in the cutting room and was now reduced to less than fifteen minutes of screen time. In her autobiography, Intermission, she also noted that "Ice had formed between Glenn Ford and Maria Schell for ugly private reasons, which didn't help. During shooting, they'd scrambled together like eggs. I understood she'd even begun divorce proceedings in Germany. It was obviously premature of her. Now, he scarcely glanced or spoke in her direction, and she looked as if she were in shock."
The resulting picture is a striking example of the CinemaScope process while still being something of a creative mishmash. The critics were bored, audiences stayed away in droves, and MGM never earned a penny from it.
Cimarron follows the plight of Sabra (Schell), a rich girl from the East who journeys to the untamed West beside her dashing husband, Yancey (Ford). The full scope of the pioneer experience receives its due, with everything from the pursuit of property to drilling for oil being depicted. Yancey's promising adventure will eventually turn sour but he'll get a chance to redeem himself in the final reel.
Mann wasn't the obvious choice to shoot an epic film in 1960, and the suits at MGM, rightfully or not, would eventually be sorry they hired him. Like many other directors at the time, Mann was shifting away from character-driven pictures to splashier projects that might convince viewers to abandon their dreaded TV sets for an entire evening. A lot of round pegs were being driven into square holes for the sake of generating a little more box office, and the pounding didn't always pay off.
Certainly, the Westerns Mann made before Cimarron rank with the greatest in the genre. Bend of the River (1952), The Naked Spur (1953), The Man from Laramie (1955), and The Tin Star (1957) are brilliantly constructed films that generate emotional impact with a bare minimum of melodramatic posturing. Although he moved his camera as gracefully as any director of the period, emotional angst rendered through extreme close-ups were Mann's forte, and he wasn't able to completely reconcile that visual orientation with Cimarron's vast landscapes.
It makes sense that, rather than focusing on the more refined Sabra, who guided both Ferber's novel and the earlier filmic adaptation, Mann chose to focus more on Ford's gutsy adventurer. He also hoped to capture the drama of the changing Western landscape as it fills with settlers, a task that perfectly suited CinemaScope. "I wanted to retrace the history of the U.S.A.," he said. "A remake didn't interest me." One has to wonder, though, if the executives at MGM were fully informed of this before he started their remake.
Mann ended up arguing bitterly with producer Edmund Grainger, and quit the production in the middle of filming. Director Charles Walters shot the rest, although he received no screen credit. As it stands, Mann guided
Cimarron's most thrilling sequence - a vivid re-creation of the Oklahoma land-rush of April 22, 1889. Despite the film's critical and financial failure, it still managed to garner two Oscar® nominations - one for Best Art Direction and one for Best Sound.
Would Mann have been able to weave his trademark obsessive protagonist into a larger narrative had he been left to his own devices? His later work on the better-received Charlton Heston vehicle, El Cid (1961), suggests that the answer is...maybe. Unfortunately, as the pictures got bigger, Mann's precise command of his material seemed to dwindle.
New projects would be few and far-between in the 60s. But Mann's reputation as a superb director of Westerns would actually grow by the 80s, with director Martin Scorsese, among others, often hailing his forceful economy of vision. That will have to do for a filmmaker who, almost inexplicably, was never properly appreciated during his career.
Producer: Edmund Grainger
Director: Anthony Mann
Screenplay: Arnold Schulman (based on the novel by Edna Ferber)
Cinematography: Robert Surtees
Editing: John Dunning
Music: Franz Waxman
Art Design: George W. Davis, Addison Hehr
Special Effects: A. Arnold Gillespie, Lee LeBlanc, Robert R. Hoag
Costume Design: Walter Plunkett
Principal Cast: Glenn Ford (Yancey Cravet), Maria Schell (Sabra Cravet), Anne Baxter (Dixie), Arthur O'Connell (Tom Wyatt), Russ Tamblyn (The Kid), Mercedes McCambridge (Sarah Wyatt), Vic Morrow (Wes), Robert Keith (Sam Pegler), Lili Darvas (Felicia Venable), Edgar Buchanan (Neal Hefner), Mary Wickes (Mrs. Hefner).
C-147m. Letterboxed. Closed captioning.
by Paul Tatara