- Production Company: RKO Radio
- Year Released: 1931
- Directed by: Wesley Ruggles
- Starring: Richard Dix, Irene Dunne, Estelle Taylor
- Expect to pay: $6-18
In the annals of Academy Award winners, few titles have been as divisive as the subject of this review. At the time of Cimarron’s release, it was hailed as a masterwork of filmmaking, historically accurate to a fault and a pinnacle of an entire genre. Nowadays, many critics see it as undeserving of its Best Picture award due to its scattershot storytelling, glacially slow pace and racist caricatures instead of characters of color. While all of these criticisms are valid, I still wound up walking away pleasantly surprised.
1931’s Cimarron, based off the Edna Ferber novel of the same name, begins with the 1889 Land Rush, which occurred after President Benjamin Harrison allowed the Oklahoma Territory to be settled. The story follows Yancey Cravat (Richard Dix) and his family as they try to make it out in one of the last pockets of unsettled America. Yancey eventually arrives in the fictional town of Osage, where he sets up the newspaper and acts as Sherriff. From there, the movie follows this family and their struggles from 1889 all the way up to 1930. For its two-hour runtime, it delivers quite a lot of majestic scenery, and it is nice to see how the town starts off small and then, over the course of 40 years, blossoms into a bustling city.
Yancey, being an adventurer, can never sit in any one place for long, and as soon as affairs are settled in Osage, he’s off for greener pastures, though he often visits his wife Sabra (Irene Dunne) and his children. There’s a great deal of talk of racial and religious equality and of the pioneering spirit and the building of empires in a day, and Yancey is eventually commemorated with a statue in 1930 using his visage as a representation of the American Old West. But for every one statement about how Native Americans should be granted full citizenship this film has, Cimarron still has its foot firmly rooted in the old hatreds.
Let’s just get this out of the way now: Cimarron is chock-full of racist imagery directed at black people. I am uncertain if any of this was in the original novel, but in the film there is a servant character named Isaiah, and he is just about the weakest part of the movie. He is so gracious to Yancey and acts so sniveling that it was uncomfortable to watch. It is worse than anything seen in the likes of Gone with the Wind, and that film had actual slaves as part of the plot. There’s even a scene where Isaiah freaks out over watermelons. Yeah. It wasn’t okay back then and it sure as hell isn’t okay now. It should also be noted that this film won an Oscar for its screenplay as well as Best Picture. That the Academy would choose this at the time only shows just how different public opinions are from where they used to be over 80 years ago.
Watermelons aside, the rest of the cast is good. Yancey is a likeable adventurer, and in the film’s eye, can do no wrong. He’s a good shot, a good rider, a good editor and he’s a man of God. He even holds a church service for all denominations within Osage’s gambling house as its tent is the only place big enough to house such a service. He is also a conflicted man. Richard Dix does an excellent job of portraying his inner turmoil of wanting to stay with his wife and live as a family man and wanting to continue his wanderlust and be part of history.
Irene Dunne also portrays Sabra well. Sabra is perhaps the most dynamic character of the film. It shows her as she overcomes her fear of her husband cheating on her with the harlot Dixie Lee (Estelle Taylor), as well as her overcoming her hatred of Native Americans. The rest of the cast also does a stellar job, with many comic relief characters (especially Edna May Oliver as Tracy Wyatt) getting more than a few chuckles from me. It is strange that for everything that this movie does to show Native Americans and women in a positive light, it has this odd prejudice against black people. Perhaps it was just a product of its time or perhaps that is the way it is in the original novel.
Regardless of the dated racial politics, there are several excellent shots in this film, especially in the first 15 minutes. The opening where settlers rush into Oklahoma at the sound of a gun was an actual historical event and was meticulously recreated for the big screen. It was likely an impressive scene in 1931 and it still is now. Everything, from the costumes to the sets, is exactly what they would have had back in 1889. The film continues with these little details even as time progresses into the Spanish-American War and eventually what was the modern era at the time of its release.
Unfortunately, not all is well with this plot. This film does jump around quite a deal, which is why a lot of critics say that the storytelling is scattershot. While it is a bit hard to follow, I was never lost. Unfortunately, the film just sort of runs out of steam halfway through. The pacing falls to the wayside one hour in and never gets back on track. While the second half is nowhere near as good as the first, it is nonetheless still enjoyable. What is not enjoyable is the audio mixing. No one ever cares about the audio mixing, so it must be bad if I’m complaining about it. Due to all the background noise of horse hooves and the goings on about Osage, it’s difficult to hear what the characters are taking about. Max Steiner is wasted on an this film, as his score has barely any time to play due to the nature of early talkies. It is unfortunate, as what score there is meets his standard of excellence.
Overall, I’d say that this movie is a bit of a mixed bag. The story and characters range from decent to cringeworthy thanks to Isaiah. But the film more than makes up for it with its score and its cinematography. Despite being one of only three westerns at the time of this writing to win Best Picture (the other two being Dances With Wolves and Unforgiven), this is not one of the best westerns ever made. For all of its poor taste though, it does just enough for me to give it a pass. It won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, but if you can ignore the outdated racial politics and take it for what it is, I think you’ll find a lot to like.
From the oft-ignored western genre, the Academy swung back to its standard drama for the next year. In 1932, the chose Grand Hotel as the best film of that year. Next time, we’ll see if it’ll be as grand as the name implies. See you then.