Not too too long ago we happened to catch on television the 1931 “Cimarron”, based on a popular book by Edna Ferber which romanticized the opening of Oklahoma Indian Territory to white settlement, her characters migrating from Wichita Kansas to the Osage, Oklahoma, obviously a fictitious rendering of Pawhuska. I’ve not read the book but in the movie we have the hero, Yancey Cravat, losing the land he desired to a woman who will become the town’s prime-interest prostitute, and having lost that land he takes his wife and settles in Pawhuska (if I remember correctly, Pawhuska is mentioned in the movie) becoming a newspaper editor. However, pioneer wanderlust is the main ingredient of his adventurer blood, and not-too-eventually he disappears, becoming a myth of a man, while his reluctant wife takes on the newspaper, builds it up, and at the apparent acme of the area’s remarkable oil boom becomes some sort of government representative.
I’ve since read that the 1931 version of the film has been thrown over in favor of the later remake with Glenn Ford, which is given as more sympathetic to the plight of the American Indians. Which surprised me, because I watched the one starring Glenn Ford directly following the original and thought it pablum trash in comparison that, rather than confronting racism, made every effort to avoid the issues exempting a brief nod to the good assimilated Indian who ought to be welcomed into society and not eschewed.
A supporting but principle character in the 1931 version is an African-American servant by the name of Isaiah, a youth who is, yes, more-than-less presented in broad strokes as the fool utterly devoted to Yancey, who unquestionably appears to be depicted as his master. Still, it’s obvious that the eagerness of the child to leave Wichita with Yancey, rather than staying in the service of Yancey’s wife’s family, is because of the appeal of the great western frontier and its promise of freedoms not to be found in Wichita. One watches in awe the manner in which the character is depicted but there seems always an edge that slips past the stereotype of the time in which the film was made. Laughs are provided a 1931 audience, and the townspeople, when Isaiah attempts to imitate his hero, Yancey, in dress and deportment, but Yancey exchanges the child’s fool’s clothing for the real thing, which raises the character a step out of stereotype. During a gun fight, the child slips down the street in an effort to reach a child of Yancey, in order to keep him from harm, and in this film he is shot, whereas in a lesser film he would have rescued the child and continued as the devoted servant with a heart of gold. I say “a lesser film” because now is when the character of Isaiah slips the most comprehensible bounds of the day. His self-sacrifice is at first literally overlooked. Yancey wins the gunfight and breezes right past the boy as he rushes home to find everyone safe. Isaiah dies without recognition or a world of farewell. Then his body is carried into Yancey’s house and now, as he is delivered to Yancey, the character fully breaks out of caricature into personhood. As Yancey stands holding the body of the child, his mute confusion seems to condemn not only the thoughtlessness of the previously rejoicing Yancey family, but those in the audience. Just who was the boy, the film begs, and demands that we question his presence in the film and the part he played, how he was portrayed and how the audience received it. What threatened to become maudlin, pulling a tear for the devoted clown of a slave stereotype, resists any easy resolution as Yancey doesn’t say a word, nor does he cry. He simply holds the boy, as if dumbfound at having received into his arms a tragedy too great and complex for commentary. Yancey’s gun battle bravery also takes a beating as one senses he comprehends himself as less the hero than this child who he knows will never have a statue built in his honor, as Yancey eventually will.
The child’s desire was to be released from the iron-bound social restraints of Wichita and is played out in the film with his escaping caricature, but not death, a death which seems to express the promise of the western frontier ends up not being for all, that even there its opportunities ended up belonging to the white individual.
The later film rejected the character of Isaiah. He makes no appearance.
The assimilated American Indian gets the most screen time in the later film.