Sabra Cravat, Frontier Editor

Gun-toting Richard Dix as Yancey Cravat, and Irene Dunne in frontierswoman apron

Irene Dunne & Richard Dix in Cimarron

In both versions of the movie “Cimarron,” the visual spectacle of the 1889 Oklahoma Land Rush may have stolen the show. But in two radio adaptations, the story all belonged to Irene Dunne‘s portrayal of Sabra Cravat, frontier wife, mother and — although she hadn’t planned it — editor of a scrappy newspaper called the Osage Wigwam.

It’s not just that radio loses the visual spectacle of the settlers’ stampede and her husband Yancey’s gunfights — both radio adaptations make Sabra the narrator of the story and enlist  Dunne’s star quality as “First Lady of Hollywood.” (While gun-toting Richard Dix’s name came first at the movies, the openings of the radio versions don’t even identify her leading men. Dix was not involved in either production.) The radio versions also manage to compress the 40-year story of the Cravats and Oklahoma — two hours of film — into a half-hour!

Pulitzer-Prize-winner (for fiction) and former newspaper woman Edna Ferber‘s novel, of course, had already been compressed in the film adaptation, losing such details as her description of the controversial nature of Cravat’s original newspaper:

“Its very name was a scandal: The Wichita Wigwam. And just below this: All the News. Any Scandal Not Libelous. Published Once a week if Convenient.”

Its Oklahoma successor was the paper inherited by Sabra Cravat. Dunne created the role for the Academy Award winning 1931 film. On the radio, she starred in both a Cavalcade of America: Cimarron in 1941…

and a Hallmark Playhouse: Cimarron in 1948…

(Click the title to play or download if your browser does not show a “player” icon.) An actress of 40 or 50 could play a young bride more easily at the microphone than on the movie lot. For the screen, makeup and her vocal skills had worked the transformation in the opposite director for her portrayal of Sabra from youth through old age.

1931 Cimarron film poster

1931 Cimarron film poster

As for the newspaper, Sabra’s first steps into journalism are cautious ones. Here, she and Yancey discuss his plans for the Osage Wigwam:

Sabra: “Yancey, you’re going to be very careful what you print in the paper, aren’t you?
Yancey: “Careful, me?”
Sabra: Did you know that Tom Carter, the last man who ran a paper out here
was found shot right through the heart?
Yancey: Not through the center, though. The bullet barely pierced the heart. It was sloppy shooting.
Sabra: Sloppy shooting or not, he wasn’t able to write about it the next day.

All, however, is well: Yancey reveals that not only is he a lawyer and a newspaperman, he’s also the fastest gun in town. And Sabra reveals that she’s up to the task of running the paper while he’s busy carving notches in his six-gun and heading off for the next land-rush, the war in Cuba, or the Oklahoma oil fields.

Her part in the newspaper starts with women’s features. But when he suggests selling the paper and heading for the Cherokee Strip (“We’re frontier people, Sabra, we have to move on as the West moves…”), she winds up being the newspaper’s editor for five years:

“And believe me they were five years of reform… I was fighting for the day when Osage could take its place in the sun with Wichita and Kansas City… I wrote editorials… I denounced politicians… I fought for law and order and the sanctity of the home…”

Her editorials have two unforeseen effects: First, a saloon owner burns down the newspaper and the Cravat homestead. Yancey comes galloping back, but only to announce that he’s enlisted in the Rough Riders, then gallop off again… while the 20th century comes roaring in, and oil makes Osage a metropolis. Next, Sabra’s editorial prominence gets her elected to Congress.

Also made into a 1960 film with Glenn Ford and Maria Schell, “Cimarron” started as a best-seller by Pulitzer-winning novelist and former newspaper woman Edna Ferber. Ferber’s first book, in fact, was another story of a young woman and a newspaper, Dawn O’Hara, available at the University of  Virginia Electronic Text Center and at Project Gutenberg. Her Pulitzer Prize, however, was for So Big,  about a woman whose son disappoints her by becoming a stock broker. Perhaps it would have had a happier ending if he became a newspaperman. Maybe not, judging by the career of Dawn O’Hara’s husband, a top-notch reporter who goes quite mad early in the novel by that name.

Ferber’s 1940 autobiography, A Peculiar Treasure, says that the newspapering in both Dawn O’Hara and Cimarron was informed by her own experiences in Wisconsin newsrooms, starting in 1902 at the age of 17 with a salary of $3 a week.

“I wouldn’t swap that year and a half of small-town newspaper reporting for any four years of college education… I learned how to sketch in human beings with a few rapid words, I learned to see, to observe, to remember; learned, in short, the first rules of writing.” (p. 103, Peculiar Treasure).

Irene Dunne, meanwhile, went on to play a very different small-town newspaper editor in her own radio series, “Bright Star,” subtitled, “The Irene Dunne and Fred MacMurray Show,” which I’ll get to in future episodes of JHeroes.


Note: The linked audio files include one from the Internet Archive collection of Dupont Cavalcade of America episodes, and one from the Calfkiller Old Time Radio Podcast. The Internet Archive version of the Hallmark broadcast has several minutes missing.

Without Irene Dunne, at least two other radio “anthology” series, Ford Theater and Lux Theatre, broadcast adaptations of Cimarron, but I haven’t found copies of them on any of the usual collector/historian Web sites. The listings tend to say “N/A.” It’s too bad — it would be fascinating to hear Clark Gable — who played many newspaper roles — as Yancey Cravat!

Updated: Since writing the first-posted draft of this page, I’ve read the novels Cimarron and Dawn O’Hara and parts of Ferber’s autobiography referring to the role her own newspaper experience played in both books. I’ve written a bit more about Ferber’s observations on What writing is…

Was there a historical Sabra Cravat?
The Cavalcade broadcast doesn’t mention Ferber’s research methods or inspiration, but Elva Shartel Ferguson, Oklahoma journalist, wife of an Oklahoma territory governor and co-founder of the Watonga Republican newspaper, clearly was an influence — although not the sole model, according to Ferber. The Oklahoma Historical Society lists several resources about Ferguson, as well as her own 1937 book, They Carried the Torch: The Story of Oklahoma’s Pioneer Newspapers.

About Bob Stepno

mild-mannered reporter who fell deeper into computers and the Web during three trips through graduate school in the 1980s and 1990s, then began teaching journalism, media studies and Web production, most recently as a faculty member at Radford University.
This entry was posted in 19th century, adaptations, cavalcade, editors, Hallmark, journalism, movies, newspapers, radio, women. Bookmark the permalink.

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