In the rush to claim newly opened lands in the Oklahoma Territory, a man takes his Upper Middle Class wife Sabra (Irene Dunn) to the barren prairie to claim his piece of the wilderness. That man is Yancey Cravat (Richard Dix), a polymath with dreams of opening a newspaper in the burgeoning boom town of Osage. As the town thrives, Yancey becomes a local hero and leader but his itchy feet urge him to move on and his adventures out of town leave his wife to fend for herself in the dangerous South West while running his newspaper and raising their children in his absence.
Cimarron won the 1931 Academy Award for Outstanding Production (subsequently renamed Best Picture) and was the first movie to be nominated for seven Oscars as well as the first to be nominated for the ‘Big Five’. In addition to its critical reception, the movie was also RKO’s most expensive picture to date and would remain so for close to a decade. The expense, coupled with the Great Depression meant that the film produced a loss for the studio and didn’t recoup its budget until a re-release several years after its initial release. Despite the large budget and critical success I thought Cimarron was a slightly messy and uninspiring film which left me bored for most of its two hour run time.
The theme of the movie would appear to be progress; the progress towards Manifest Destiny and the progress and liberalisation of people. Many of the characters have racist, xenophobic, sexist and classist traits but in the end I concluded that the film itself was not racist. I think that the film tries to put forward the idea of equality but occasionally comes out on the side of xenophobia. The central character and hero of the piece battles intolerance wherever he sees it so I believe that is also the message of the film. Unfortunately the plot and characters were so frail and messy that this was often mistaken for racism or not fully understood by myself at least.
Initially many characters are hostile to Jewish, black and Indian characters but most of them get their comeuppance or learn to tolerate and sometimes respect their neighbours and fellow citizens. The film ends with a woman elected to Congress so the fairer sex also gets their share of equality in the eyes of the film. While the themes are admirable, the way the movie goes about presenting them is quite dull. The central character Yancey is never believable. He is loved by all who meet him and throughout the course of the film goes from adventurer to gunslinger to newspaper editor to Priest to lawyer to soldier to politician. It’s as though they are trying to cram every version of the American hero into one handsome face and it doesn’t come off. His wife’s arc is much more grounded and believable.
Something I enjoyed about Cimarron was the ever changing landscape of Osage. The town grows faster than a Sim City town with the cheats on and can be seen growing in a realistic way from scene to scene. It is populated with seemingly thousands of extras who turn the set into a buzzing boom town which feels like a real place. As it grows it alters drastically from timber and mud in the 1880s to gleaming skyscrapers, towering over trams and cars in the 1930s. I thought that the early sets in particular were very good and I really liked watching the town morph between shots. The sets remained after the film was completed and formed the nucleus of RKO’s Enico Movie Ranch which would later play host to some of the scenes in It’s a Wonderful Life.
I didn’t think much of the acting but both leads obviously had movie star quality screen presences. The acting was far too often stilted and overly dramatic and despite the actors shouting to be heard, I still struggled to hear them through the newly installed microphones. Poor sound quality though has more to do with the era than the film. Richard Dix makes a good leading man and has the rugged looks and personality to carry off the role. Irene Dunn comes out as the better actor but I still wasn’t convinced by her performance. Nonetheless both actors were Oscar nominated, Dunn for her first of five. I thought that George E. Stone was pretty good and Estelle Taylor was fine as Dixie Lee, a character who came and went to suit the story. Eugene Jackson plays an unfortunately heavily caricatured black character which reminded me a lot of a similar role his son played in Shenandoah some years later. The direction was very good throughout but the early scenes of people, horses and carriages racing across the prairie to settle new lands were wonderfully handled. Cameras seemed to get into impossible places to capture the speed and danger of the unregulated dash for wealth.
Overall Cimarron didn’t do much for me. I enjoyed the scenery and the central theme but the protagonist was unrealistic and the plot a little messy. It isn’t a film I’ll be returning to any time soon but don’t feel as though I’ve wasted two hours by watching it.
- The movie was the first Western to win Best Picture at the Oscars. It took another 59 years for another Western to win the award.
- Director Wesley Ruggles began his career as an actor, appearing in about a dozen of Charlie Chaplin's Essanay and Mutual films.
- Cimarron has the lowest rating (6.0) out of all the current Best Picture winners on IMDb.