Last year, in June of 2016, an article was published by Good Housekeeping, “The Most Popular Book the Year You Were Born,” written by Kaitlin Menza. In her article, Menza assembles a list of books that were the “most popular” every year from 1930 all the way to 2016. Unfortunately, she doesn’t make mention of where she assembled the list from; I’ve checked in against the Publisher’s Weekly and the New York Times Best Sellers Lists and it matches neither. As I am crazy, I was inspired to try and read every book on the list, many of which I’d never even heard of before that point. This challenge quickly grew to include watching the film adaptations, should they exist and be relatively easy to find. After that it wasn’t much of a stretch to start writing up book/film reviews as I go.
These reviews are probably not going to be terribly in depth as I don’t want to put in huge amounts of research. This is a purely contemporary look at these works, maybe with some references to them in the context of their own time. The number of things you need to consider to properly analyze a book in its own time is pretty huge and since I’m not getting paid or graded for these I just don’t have the time for that sort of investment.
With that out the way, let’s start with the most popular book of 1930, Cimarron.
The book is focused on Sabra Cravat who is married to Yancey Cravat. Yancey is the living embodiment of wanderlust, a heavily romanticized caricature of the cowboy/pioneer always seeking new lands, while Sabra is the child of a wealthy Kansas family, from a long line of wealthy landowners originally from the South. Although Sabra is technically the protagonist the story is mostly about Yancey and it’s not until almost the end of the book that Sabra actually does anything on her own.
The book opens with Yancey having just failed in his attempt to stake a claim in the Oklahoma Land Rush of 1889. He, Sabra, and their four-year-old son Cimarron (referred to mostly as Cim in the book, film, and rest of this review), have been living in Kansas with Sabra’s family, the Venables, while Yancey runs a newspaper he uses to express his particular brand of philosophy about thegovernment, Indians, and anything else he feels needs expounding on. Yancey is a fairly progressive thinker for 1930, and especially for 1889, defending the various bands’ rights to their lands and ways of life. He dreams of a new world free from confines of society and believes it can be obtained in the untamed land to the west.
Yancey announces his decision to take Sabra and Cim from their home in Kansas to live in one of the pioneer towns being built in the newly settled land and start a newspaper there. This is a surprise to everyone involved, including Sabra. However, she immediately agrees to go with him, despite growing concerns for herself and her son. Sabra spends most of the first part of the book complaining and hating Indians. I’m going with that word because it’s the term they use in the book, also because changing it would take away from how incredibly racist the book is. I can usually disconnect the more unfortunate parts of something I’m reading from the rest of it when it’s from a different time or culture, but this was just…uncomfortable. It’s not just casual racism from ‘the day’, it’s downright spiteful, and the book never really goes into why Sabra is like this. It is mentioned that she was raised surrounded by these kinds of racist thoughts but no one else seems even half as vindictive. Also, since Yancey is on the complete other end of the spectrum, I wonder how she manages to tolerate him.
Way too much description later they finally reach Osage, the beginnings of a town in what will eventually become the state of Oklahoma. Yancey starts a combination newspaper and law practice, and becomes instantly liked and respected in the community. I do mean instantly, it takes less than 24 hours for everyone to both know and like him. Sabra, who has never experienced any kind of rough living before now, has a lot of fish-out-of-water scenes that are almost painful to read. They’re the kind of scenes that make you cringe both at the character and on their behalf. Yancey is determined to solve the murder of the previous newspaper editor. He does this by just walking up to people in the street and demanding to know who the killer is, being under the impression that the entire town knows who did it but no one will say. Yancey is not exactly a great detective. He is also quick to defend the various Indian people of the area. Between both these things, he becomes targeted by a selection of people who don’t share his views. Meanwhile, Sabra continues to be racist against pretty much everybody and to complain a lot.
Yancey is eventually asked to perform a sermon, as the town hasno church, during which he claims he will print the identity of the murderer in the first edition of his paper. This scene also introduces us to Dixie Lee, who has just established a brothel in the town. Both these things would become important later, except that, um, confession time, I didn’t actually finish the book. I know, I know, I know. I tried. I have a philosophy that there is no purpose in finishing a book that adds nothing to your life when there are other things you could read that will, and even with that I tried to slog through to the end. I just couldn’t do it. By the time I gave up, I had been reading it for months and making less progress with every attempt. When I conceived of this project, I went back and tried to pick up where I left off, but it just wasn’t worth it. I’ll tell you the rest of the story, as I gathered it from other reviews and online articles about the book, later. First, I’ll explain why I never finished reading.
Cimarron is one of the slowest moving books I have ever read. I gave up at the halfway point in the book because it still felt like the beginning, like the book was two thirds exposition and only one third… everything else. From what I have read from other people who have read the book, that feeling seems not too uncommon. Huge amounts of time are dedicated to the journey to Oklahoma, the first days in Osage, Yancey’s quest to solve the murder, and so on. It was a downright slog to read and I was praying for something to happen. Also, there is an abundance of detail, to the point where it bogs the story down. Scenes go on for pages with endless descriptions. Every place, every character, every action is described minutely, often repeatedly, sometimes in the same paragraph. While it does paint vivid pictures of the scenes and characters it also grinds the already slow pace of the novel to a halt. There are a few places where it is useful, for example, Sabra’s tendency to refer very specifically to dresses with terms like “second-best black grosgrain” help to show how much she isn’t accustomed to the rough life of a pioneer town. However, most of the time it forces you to pick out any action that might be happening from a slew of unhelpful details.
The main reason I could not stand the novel is that Sabra is a hugely unlikeable character. This was a book published in 1930, set in 1889, and Sabra is racist by the standards of the day. That… that is actually kind of hard to do. Her view of Indians as being less than human is repeated multiple times throughout the book. Plus, there’s exactly one black character in the book and she treats him about how you’d expect, and she never changes. In fact, according to everything I was able to gather, she never changes, ever, and ends the book thinking the exact same way. Beyond that, she spends most of the time complaining, being afraid, or being angry. There were a few moments where I did feel sorry for Sabra, such as her first days in Osage, floundering in unfamiliar surroundings. Those scenes made her into a human enough character that I felt bad for what she was going through. If that had been maintained through the rest of the book I would be writing a vastly different review. However, every time this would happen, she would immediately think or do something to cause those moments to lose any impact they might have had.
I want to like Sabra, really, because you don’t see a lot of competent female characters in western stories, or, really, this time period. She ran a business, raised a family, and become a congresswoman in a town that, when she came to it, was almost nothing but shacks and mud. Her story should be a fascinating one but is ruined by how downright spiteful and unlikeable she is as a character. I am aware that you can still like a character who thinks or does things you don’t agree with or who is a terrible person. My issue with Sabra is not that she has no redeeming qualities but rather that the negative aspects of her character overshadow those qualities, rendering me unable to care about what deserves to be a good story.
Sabra’s biggest problem, however, is that her story is not really hers. As I pointed out above, although Sabra is the protagonist, the book really is about Yancey. At least up to the point where I threw in the towel, Sabra had no real motivations of her own. She just followed Yancey around and did whatever was required to make his goals work. Sometimes while I was reading I would get the feeling the author really wanted to just write about Yancey, but didn’t want to tell the story from a man’s perspective. The book spends a huge amount of time and adjectives describing Yancey Cravat in terms so glowing you could use them for a torch. It is continually reminding us that Yancey is rugged, tall, and dark, with a huge, heavy headoften compared to a buffalo (this is a compliment, I think, not really sure how). It exalts his skill as an orator, able to captivate anyone who listens to him speak, something which is provided to us almost entirely via tell-don’t-show with the exception of maybe two orthree scenes. It boasts his great talent as a sharpshooter, with particular emphasis that he can shoot from the hip with a pistol so quickly the movement is almost invisible, and yet never miss a target. Any time Yancey is being mentioned he is also being praised.
Now, this flattery might make sense if it were coming from Sabra’s perspective, her infatuated view of the man she loves. It is not; the book isn’t in the first person and these descriptions aren’t attributed to Sabra or anyone else, they’re given as facts about the character. Really the only thing that keeps the focus on Yancey from becoming unbearable is the few moments where Sabra admits his faults. The best instance of this is in a scene when the family has just begun to set themselves up in Osage, and Yancey is trying to hang the sign for his newspaper on the outside of the building. Sabra is inside listening to the men outside make a big production of the process,and after thinking to herself that she could do it much quicker and easier, she has the revelation that men, and particularly Yancey, are not infallible. In short, I like none of the characters and everything is tedious.
Moving on, the rest of the plot, as I’ve been able to gather it from online sources, is thus:
Yancey and Sabra have another baby, Donna, but then the Cherokee Outlet happens in 1893 and Yancey takes off, abandoning Sabra, Cim and Donna for 5 years with no contact. He returns for a while, how long is unspecified, but then takes off again for parts unknown, this time for 12 years. Cim declares his intent to marry a Sioux girl, Sabra pretty much disowns him and he leaves to live with his wife on her reservation. Sabra treats Donna awfully because she didn’t inherit the usual beauty of Venable women. During both of Yancey’s absences, Sabra runs the paper in his stead and turns it into a highly successful business, she is one of the driving forces to make something out of Osage, and eventually she becomes a member of congress after Oklahoma becomes a state. At the end of the book she finds Yancey, having been mortally wounded working on an oil rig, and is able to be with him as he dies. She never overcomes her racism or reconciles with her son, and ends the book a bitter, disillusioned woman.
As to the pace of the rest of the novel, what I’ve been able to gather is it becomes increasingly rushed, with time moving faster and faster the closer you get to the end. When I gave up, again just past the halfwaypoint, Donna hadn’t even been born yet so I can’t see how the story could have been told using the painfully slow pace from earlier and still see both children reach adulthood. I don’t know how much better of a novel this might have been if this had it been paced better, but even if it was, the worst thing is still that Sabra is a supporting character in her own story. If Yancey was the supporting character and the writing focused solely on building Sa
bra up as a person with her own ambitions, then the story could have been something great. My final opinion of the book is that it is a potentially great novel focusing itself in all the wrong directions.
Now let’s talk about the film. That part I did actually get through.
Cimarron actually had two film adaptations: the first from RKO in 1931 starring Richard Dix and Irene Dunne as Yancey and Sabra, and the second from MGM in 1960 starring Glenn Ford and Maria Schell. I couldn’t find a cheap copy of the second film, from what I read it was disliked by both critics and audiences and as a result was probably left by the wayside of film history. In comparison, the 1931 version was the first western to win the Academy Award for Best Picture. I was genuinely surprised to find that out. It was, in fact, the first film ever to be nominated for all “big five” awards (Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Director, and Best Writing). My only guess is it was the Depression and there weren’t very many films competing with it. It was also nominated for Best Cinematography, which it did not win despite that being the only award it could have actually deserved. RKO poured around 1.5 million dollars into the film (about 24 million dollars American today), which it was unable to make back due to state of the economy.
I will give Cimarron this, it looks like it cost 1.5 million to make. The cinematography is incredible. The film opens with the Oklahoma Land Rush, a huge scene with literally thousands of extras racing across the prairie on horseback and in covered wagons. It took a week and over 25 cameras to film and it looks amazing. It captures the scope and rush and marvel of a huge moment in American history, and it does it with smooth, well-framed shots and tight editing. Throughout the rest of the film the action is framed well, the audience always knows what we’re looking at and what to pay attention to, even when there’s a lot going on in the background. The camera moves smoothly, even in crowded sets or during panning shots, which was not easy, given the enormous cameras of the 30s. The sound is decent and, despite one or two lines, I could hear and understand all the actors. The sets are interestingly designed and pleasant to look at. The costumes and makeup are mostly good, there are some scenes where Richard Dix appears to be wearing way too much makeup, and the effects used to age Sabra and Yancey throughout the course of the film are well done. This picture was clearly made by people who knew how to make a movie. But when it comes to how to write a movie, there are problems. A lot of problems.
The first and most important question to ask of any adaptation is how well does it represent the source material? Cimarron does okay from a plot standpoint; all the plot threads do make the jump from novel to screen with the narrative flow intact. This doesn’t always serve it well, however, as some things could have easily been left behind. I’ll list those off at the end because, sadly, oh so sadly, the book is actually better. The film has not only all the issues of the book, but manages to come up with a few of its own.
The biggest problem with the film is that, even more than the book, the film is all about Yancey. While Yancey is the main cause of all the events that happen in the book, in the end it is Sabra’s story. She is the only character to end in a different place than where she began. Yancey does not have any real story, he dies the same person he was throughout the rest of the book, nothing having changed. The film, however, is under the impression that Yancey is the protagonist, and focuses almost exclusively on him to the extent that when he is not on screen all that happens is other characters talking about him.
When Yancey leaves, first for five years and then for twelve, the film both times covers it in a single title card. During his first absence, the film skips from the moment he leaves to right before his return, where, even though he had only lived in Osage for four years before leaving, he is shown to be fondly and widely remembered. Stories about him are told in everyday conversation. When he arrives in town he is greeted as a hero, including by his wife, who immediately falls into his arms with barely any complaints about his absence. The film never even reveals what he was doing for five years; he shows up in a military uniform and is indicated to have been fighting in the Spanish-American War, but we are never told how he ended up in the army, the war, or whether he even took part in the Cherokee Land Rush, the thing he abandoned his business and his family for. It’s not established exactly how long he stays, but Donna, who was an infant when he left and around five or six when he returned, is shown to be somewhere in her teens when he leaves again. The next time skip takes us to the end of the film, both Cim and Donna are grown and married, and Sabra is a grandmother. The fact that any of them even had lives outside of their relation to Yancey is barely an afterthought.
There are no scenes or even characters that do not relate to Yancey in some way, and Sabra, far from being the focus of the story, exists mostly to disagree with him, thereby providing him a soapbox from which to prove how right he is. When she’s not disagreeing with Yancey, Sabra’s only job is to dote on him and/or his memory continually. Whether intentional or not, the film upholds the antiquated idea that a woman must agree with and follow her man, no matter what her personal feeling or opinions are. That she has no value apart from him and her own achievements do not matter. This is most apparent when, after been made a congresswoman toward the end of the film, the only part of her acceptance speech anyone remarks on afterward is her one mention of Yancey, that he is “out of town” and therefore unable to attend. Yancey has been missing from all of their lives for over a decade, and yet he’s still the only person anyone wants to talk about.
This results in two extremely frustrating things, first it means that for the second half of the movie we are getting constant exposition dumps to let us know what has happened since the last scene, and second that almost Sabra’s entire character arc happens off screen during time skips. She turns the newspaper into a huge success that runs for decades, during the last scene was see her getting ready to release a special anniversary edition, raises and marries off both children, gets over her racist beliefs (I think), becomes a congresswoman and seems to be considered part of the backbone of the now full-grown city of Osage, and none of that happens on screen. I know that this was still the fairly early days of film, all things considered, but looking to other films of the time, for instance All Quiet on the Western Front, the best picture winner from the year before, telling a coherent and gripping story was something cinema had mastered by this point. The people who made this film had to purposely make the decision to create a disjointed storyline, requiring the audience to frequently and repeatedly be brought back up to speed, rather than make Sabra the focus. That, to me, is maddeningly frustrating.
The best example I can come up with to show you how much this movie does not give a fuck about anybody who isn’t Yancey is the character of Donna. Now, since I didn’t finish the book, I didn’t get as far as Donna’s birth and had to look it up, but from what I gathered she gets the short end of the stick because she didn’t inherit her mother’s beauty and is only given any decent treatment by Sabra once Cim is out of the picture. In the film, she doesn’t even get that much because that would be giving her even something of a character. Donna only has four scenes in the film and in one of them she’s an infant. We see her briefly as a child when Yancey returns, where she doesn’t do anything, and then right before the second time jump we see her as a teenager complaining about the school Sabra is forcing her to attend, with no introduction to her at all. This is the only time Donna has more than a couple lines in a scene and they are completely overshadowed by Cim’s announcement that he intends to marry a Sioux girl and the ensuing argument he has with Sabra, and ends with Donna storming out, announcing that she’s going to find “the richest man in town and marry him”. We see her one last time at the party celebrating Sabra’s becoming a congresswoman, where she is in fact married to the richest man in town, a background character with so little to do with the plot I had forgotten he existed until that scene.
Worsening all of this, Yancey is unbearable in this film, and not just because of Richard Dix’s performance. He is still depicted as unrealistically amazing, with all the traits mentioned earlier, except now he has also made the development to blameless for all his flaws, none of which are ever addressed. As I mentioned at the beginning, Yancey is a heavily romanticized character. He’s supposed to be a pillar of masculinity, but it becomes so ridiculous in the film that, if I didn’t know better, I would think he was meant to be parody. In fact, he is everything toxic about masculinity. He’s depicted as having wanderlust, but truthfully, he’s unstable and prone to rash and poorly made decisions. He’s show to be determined, but he’s also too stubborn to back down before he gets into trouble and he has no concerns that he might put his wife or young children in harm’s way. He’s well-read, a philosopher, and a visionary, but he’s also highly unreliable, overconfident, and unable to care about anyone else’s well being over his own desires. In short, he’s a dick. As for Richard Dix, I’m amazed he can close his mouth with all the scenery he’s chewing. The book continually emphasizes Yancey’s charisma which Dix, despite his efforts, simply doesn’t have. His attempts at the swagger and confidence the character is meant to exude are so exaggerated they border on pantomime. It’s distracting. So much so that every scene with Dix takes me out of the moment because I don’t see that character, I see him acting. This is probably my worst pet peeve in film, good acting can save bad writing but no amount of good writing can save a terrible performance.
Irene Dunne holds her own as Sabra, she’s a lot more believable as a person than Yancey and I buy her as a character. The problem, as I have mentioned many times, is she doesn’t have enough to do. Her job is to be wrong and to gush over Yancey, there’s no room for any expansion beyond that. Most of the other characters are so rarely touched upon they barely have time to make an impression, so while their performances are all capable, they leave little to no impact on the film.
For my last remark on the film, I would like to count up all the plot threads I haven’t already mentioned because they contribute little to nothing to the overall story (and because I would like this review to be shorter than the book itself):
First, the opening scene takes place at Sabra’s home and involves her entire family, who object to her moving to Osage. This could be a point to give Sabra some strong character development, choosing between being part of her husband’s dreams or staying with her family. But after a couple minutes of arguing Yancey and Sabra are on their way to Osage and the family is never mentioned again.
Second, the family’s servant Isaiah stows away in a rug to travel with them. He is every racial stereotype the filmmakers could come up with and we’re just lucky he isn’t played by a white actor in makeup. To credit his actor, Eugene Jackson, he contributes an enjoyable, sincere performance that manages to reduce how much I cringed watching him. Halfway through the film he gets shot and painfully dies in a genuinely hard to watch scene. Neither Sabra nor Yancey notice until someone brings them his body.
Third, Yancey trying to find the murderer of the previous newspaper editor. In the book this was an ongoing plot thread. In the film, he reveals the murderer during the sermon scene and the murderer immediately tries to shoot him, Yancey kills him in one shot from the other side of a crowded tent. Nobody really seems to care and it’s never brought up again.
Fourth, a gang of outlaws appear early on and it’s revealed Yancey knows them. Later they shoot up the town and Yancey kills them all singlehandedly, because of course he does, is emotional about it for about ten seconds, and then the story just moves on. This is the only thing Yancey does that could be worth repeating even five years later, but it is never mentioned again, and the emotional turmoil it causes him is gone by the next scene.
Fifth, the trial of Dixie Lee, the town madam. You could write her out of the plot entirely and nothing would be changed. The scene is really just there to give Yancey another chance to be more right than everybody else. Also, he knows her entire life story with no explanation as to how or when he came by this information. The one good think I can say for the trial is that it is a hilarious piece of overacting, with Richard Dix not so much chewing the scenery as swallowing it whole.
Sixth, Sabra becoming a congresswoman. This should be a crowning achievement for her character, but nothing ever really comes of it except her speech, which is used to dump more exposition on the audience.
Finally seventh, Sabra’s racism as a whole. It feels weird to say it, but this aspect of her really contributes nothing to her character. There are almost no Indian characters in the film for her to react to, Cim’s wife Ruby is the only one I can think of who even has any lines. Despite the horribly racist portrayal of Isaiah she doesn’t do or say anything awful to him. It only comes up a handful of times so she can be wrong compared to Yancey. Even her change of heart at the end of the film as she proudly introduces her daughter-in-law rings hollow, because there wasn’t enough exploration of this part of her personality to emphasize how big of a change it was. Like many other things on this list, it feels as though it was kept because it was a part of the book, without consideration for the impact it was supposed to have on the character, the plot, or the audience.
That was, Cimarron, friends, and in the writing of this review I have come to realize this may be the worst film I have ever seen (it doesn’t win for worst book I ever read, surprisingly, as I never felt the urge to set it on fire). I have watch films that bored me, films that annoyed me, and films that offended me, but Cimarron managed to do all three plus have a horrible pacing in a badly executed plot that made me loathe the very experience of watching it. I cannot think of another film that I both hated while I was watching it and have maintained such a strong abhorrence for afterward.
Before I wrap things up here, there is one more thing to discuss. Although I said this review would be contemporary, you can’t really review a list of “Most Popular” anything without raising the question “why was this popular?” In the case of Cimarron, there were two factors I can think of. First, I have heard was there was a renewed interest in the Cowboy/Western genre around this time. I can’t say this for a fact because I don’t know that much about American culture in the 30s, but if it is true then we can assume some right-place-right-time helped bolster the book and the film. Second, it was published during The Great Depression, and I have no doubt the story appealed to people of that time. Sabra, for all her shortcomings, is a hard-working and determined woman who holds her family and her business together despite her fears and the absence of her husband. That must have resonated with the women of the Depression, many of whom were left to run things alone as the men searched for employment. The story is filled with the idea that hard work is ‘right’ and rewarded by good things, and Sabra’s journey from the riches of her original home, to the ‘rags’ of being a frontier wife, back to riches and success at the end supports this world view. Although I wouldn’t say the book or the film have a happy ending, the film ends with a statue of Yancey “Commemorating the Oklahoma Pioneer,” and a distinct sense that America is a country built on the determination and pioneer spirit he was intended to depict. That this message was popular in 1930 is something I can totally understand. However, I can also see why it was a pain finding a copy of this book (the most recent edition I could find was published in the 1970s), and why it has become seemingly largely unknown in the modern day. Cimarron is a product of it’s time, and it should definitely stay there.
Thank you all so much for joining me on this first adventure into Most Popular Books. Next up, from 1931 Pearl S Buck’s The Good Earth. See you then.
Additional thanks to my good friend Ardythe for the time spent helping me hammer this into some sort of shape.