Beginning in November 2019, I embarked on the Old Hollywood Best Picture Challenge, where I will endeavor to watch all 270 films that were nominated and/or won for Best Picture at the Academy Awards between the years 1927-1969. For a list of all films and reviews, please see my original post.
- Film & Year: Cimarron (1931)
- Standing: Winner – Best Picture of 1930/31
- Type: Western, Pre-Code
- Other AA Nominations: Best Director (Wesley Ruggles), Best Actor (Richard Dix), Best Actress (Irene Dunne), Best Cinematography (Edward Cronjager)
- Other AA Wins: Best Writing, Adaptation (Howard Estabrook); Best Art Direction (Max Ree)
- Director: Wesley Ruggles
- Studio/Producer: RKO / William Le Baron
- Cast: Richard Dix, Irene Dunne, Estelle Taylor, Edna May Oliver, William Collier Jr., Eugene Jackson, George E. Stone
- Production Notes: Based on the book by Edna Ferber, Adapted for the screen by Howard Estabrook, Music by Max Steiner, Cinematography by Edward Cronjager, Costumes and Art Direction by Max Ree, Makeup by Ern Westmore
- Viewing Order: 15/270
Summary & Viewing Experience:
It’s 1889 and 2,000,000 acres of Indian Oklahama land is free and up for grabs for white settlement, courtesy of the United States government. When the starting shot sounds, thousands race to claim the land of their choice. Yancey Cravat (Richard Dix), who has big dreams about being a part of this wild, new world, beats canny Dixie Lee (Estelle Taylor) to his preferred spot, but before he can lay claim, she tricks him and takes it for herself. Down, but not out, Yancey moves his wife Sabra (Irene Dunne) and son Cimarron “Cim” (the word meaning “wild”) from civilized Wichita to the wild and quickly growing town of Osage where he plans to start a newspaper business. On his way there he runs into an outlaw named “The Kid,” (William Collier Jr.), who happens to be an old friend. Yancey requests that The Kid and his gang keep their sticky, trigger happy fingers out of Osage and The Kid agrees.
The Cravats settle into town, have a daughter named Donna, and no sooner does Yancey get rid of the town villain, The Kid breaks his promise and he and his gang show up to threaten the town. Yancey certainly won’t stand for that and a fight ensues…
When another land rush opportunity presents itself by way of the Cherokee Strip, Yancey doesn’t bat an eye about leaving his wife, kids, and business behind to go participate. Sabra takes over the newspaper business in his absence only to have Yancey return 5 years later and act like he’s only been away 5 days. Home for about 10 minutes and not one to hold a grudge against past rivals, he ticks off his wife by announcing that he will represent Dixie Lee, on trial for being a public nuisance, that afternoon since no one else will and he believes everyone deserves a fair trial. Yancey continues fighting for what he believes is right until he falls victim to wanderlust again and disappears, leaving Sabra to run the home and the business and wait for his return…
Yancey is an interesting character. His past is clearly not spotless; he’s friends with questionable characters and has several notches etched into his pistol, eluding to the men he’s killed. Despite claiming to love his family, he has no problem leaving them and not even attempting communication for years at a time. Yet he sticks up for the weak and doesn’t judge or mistreat feared or ostracized members of the community like his neighbors and wife do. He supports citizenship for Native Americans and his son’s wish to marry a Native American woman, and bashes greedy politicians for mistreating them and stealing their lands.
Considering the level of prejudice against anyone non-white in America in 1931, the support shown to the Native American community by the film’s main character, a character who is portrayed as a wise and influential man, caught me off guard (in a good way). Cim and his Native American wife Ruby’s marriage was also an outright slap in the face to the Motion Picture Production Code and its stance on miscegenation. However, despite this there is an uncomfortable amount of racism and stereotyping displayed in the film. The only black character (played by Eugene Jackson) is a servant of the Cravats who, though not mistreated by them, is also clearly not seen as an equal despite all of Yancey’s big talk about equality. Though I get the sense that the filmmakers thought they were being magnanimous to this character, they also didn’t try to portray him as anything more than a stereotype and used him as the comic relief in extremely uncomfortable ways (when the character tries to dress nicely like the white men in town, he is laughed at by them and turned into a joke). This dates the film to a large degree and is bound to put off modern audiences.
Sabra is also intriguing as Yancey’s loyal, but moxie filled wife. Though she begins as materialistic and prejudiced, she evolves into a practical and more open-minded person. While her husband is off selfishly chasing his own dreams, she raises the kids and keeps the family business alive…even becoming an icon for gender equality and getting involved in government.
Despite her reputation, Dixie Lee is probably the most admirable character of the bunch. Not only does she outwit the cleverest man around (Yancey), she also endures a barrage of unjust hatred shot her way by an entire town without giving up and leaving or sinking into despair. Though she is hated for it, she still attempts kindness towards her neighbors.
Cimarron was an interesting history lesson wrapped up in an entertaining story. By way of subtle (Sabra showing off the latest fashion from Chicago – puffed sleeves!) and not so subtle information (title cards spelling out the details of historical events) left here and there, context and details about the time period (which spanned from 1889 to the 1929 in the film) were provided. This time jump also required the actors to age several times, realistically and effectively handled by the makeup department, especially in Dunne’s case.
The land rush scenes, including hundreds of extras, horses, and carts, are exciting and interesting and I’m still in awe of the amount of coordination that would have been required in setting this up and filming it.
Film newcomer Irene Dunne was praised for her performance and pegged as star material by certain critics (they would be proved right in the years to come!) She was nominated for a Best Actress Academy Award for her performance in this film as was the film’s male lead Richard Dix for Best Actor (neither would win).
Also look out for Edna May Oliver in her role as Sabra’s friend, the comically snobby Tracy Wyatt. Along with Dunne, Oliver was recognized by critics as a definite highlight of the film.
Behind the Scenes:
Cimarron was based on the bestselling novel of the same name by Edna Ferber. It was adapted into a film a second time in 1960 by MGM, but did not do as well as this 1931 version did. Several more of Ferber’s novels would be adapted for the screen in years before Cimarron and after, including So Big (1924, 1932, and 1953 films), Show Boat (1929, 1936, and 1951 films), Saratoga Trunk (1945 film), and Giant (1956 film).
Why did it win Best Picture?
Cimarron did well with critics and audiences who marveled at the acting talents of the leads and the educational but entertaining progression through an important time in America’s history. It was wildly popular and critics pegged it as the next All Quiet on the Western Front almost immediately, correctly predicting its own Best Picture Academy Award win.
How does it hold up today?
Not well. While most can appreciate it for its time capsule quality and highlighting of an important time in American history, modern audiences are prone to find it stiff and horribly dated. With the power of hindsight, it is often noted as one of the most undeserving Best Picture winners when comparing them.
- IMDb = 5.9 out of 10
- Rotten Tomatoes = 55% out of 100% (11 fresh vs. 9 rotten) by critics and only 25% by audiences
Would this be my pick for 1930/31’s Best Picture?
It wasn’t bad, but I don’t know if I would go that far. Though the lead characters each showed levels of progression, I still found them fairly hard to connect to or care about. This was perhaps enhanced by the undercurrents of both addressed and un-addressed racism and stereotyping that, while I get was a norm of the time, is hard to watch today without it affecting the overall viewing experience.
*My full 1930/31 ranking will be updated after all films from the year are watched