Wesley Ruggles’ tale of how Oklahoma was transformed from Indian Territory to oil-rich statehood most certainly deserved the Outstanding Production award (now known as Best Picture) in 1930/31. The extended opening sequence of pent-up pioneers racing across the parched earth to stake their claim to free land is a marvel of cinematography (Edward Cronjager) and editing (William Hamilton)—think Ben Hur with wagons. Intercutting spectacular long shots with inventively detailed close-ups (the fat man has a birdcage riding shotgun; a brood of kids seem more than their dad can handle; incongruously, a Springfield Roadster bicycle being pedalled with vigour), the sense of adventure and dash for future riches succeeds at every turn.
As screenwriter Howard Estabrooks’ take on Edna Ferber’s epic novel unfolds, it’s clear that more than the film is in glorious black-and-white.
Hero Yancey Cravat (Richard Dix wearing his pristine makeup, including severely defined eyebrows—like a real star until the last hurrah mucks everything up) sports a white Stetson and a pair of ivory-handled pistols (complete with notches for each despatched villain) to confirm his status as good guy. Scruffy beards, unkempt clothes and good-but-not-quite-as-accurate marksmanship are the hallmarks of career criminal Lon Yountis (Stanley Fields) and The Kid (William Collier Jr.) who eschews respectability—in earlier times this rebel with a cause worked ranches with Cravat, “sleeping beside me at night”—in favour of bank heists and campsite break ins.
The manner in which people of colour are depicted tells as much about the early 1930s as the various plot strands that bind the narrative together.
Eugene Jackson delivers an incredibly warm portrayal of Isaiah. The black teenager metaphorically hides himself in a rug in order to escape Wichita (where his parents are the servants to Cravat’s in-laws) and soon settles into his own life of servitude as his “Massa” begins to publish the Osage Wigwam. Riding into town, Jackson dutifully gleams with stereotypical rapture as a heaping load of watermelons are pointed out to him by his otherwise progressive (Cravat favours giving Indians the vote) saviour. In the portrait-painting opening credits, the audience is introduced to the happy-go-lucky character while—with his engaging eyes never looking up—he applies spit and polish to his betters’ boots.
Indian-lover Cravat can be spotted smoking a peace pipe and crafting editorials that champion the rights of those who received $1.40 per acre from the U.S. government. Not as kindly disposed towards First Nations is Sabra Cravat. Irene Dunne does everything she’s asked, playing the long-suffering wife (every few years hubby heads to the next uncharted territory and never bothers to let his wife and children know what’s become of him; his surprise returns always find a forgiving spouse and delighted kids) but has to endure seismic character shifts that threaten to redefine implausibility. Son Cim follows in his absent father’s footsteps by opting to marry Ruby (her dad is the regional chief) first to his mother’s horror, which suddenly vanishes on the news that her better half has known of their relationship for some time and approves. On her visit night in Osage, Sabra vows to go back home, but after trying to sleep alone (with sporadic nearby gunfire serving as the lullaby) and her protector across the street in the local saloon, she wakes up refreshed and ready to serve.
Curiously, as the years, then decades pass (the rise from donkey-leading ribbon salesman to hugely successful merchant by the token Jew—Sol Levy, played with dignity by George E. Stone—is one of many inventive ways the creative team employs to show and tell the changing fortunes), the production’s focus takes a decidedly feminist turn. Sabra runs for Congress while her daughter marries shamelessly for cash.
Two other women are at opposite ends of the fairer sex pole. Dixie Lee (Estelle Taylor) is the feisty Madame of the local brothel. Her beauty inspires the scorn, deeply recessed jealously and hatred of Sabra’s straight-laced friend, Tracy Wyatt (Edna May Oliver’s Eastern twang is a hoot). Trying to run her out of town leads to a court battle where Lee’s tragic past is brought to poignant light. This brief moment of humanity-revealed is in stark contrast to the of-course-they’d-do-that characterizations that abound.
Once oil is struck, black gold rears its ugly head. The desire for untold wealth claims a victim early on, providing a moment of global foreshadowing. None of the filmmakers could have begun to imagine just how the insatiable thirst for “Texas tea” would continue to horrendously fuel the notion of economic-growth-at-any-cost and desire to be solidly in the black when, surely, the more tempered shades of gray would better suit the powerful and disenfranchised alike. JWR