The Oscar Project 1931: Cimarron

Still in the early days of the Oscars every time a movie wins it becomes the first of something or other. Cimarron is no exception. It was the first…

  • RKO film to win best picture
  • To receive more than 6 nominations
  • To be nominated for the “Big Five” (picture, director, actor, actress and screenplay)
  • To be nominated in every eligible category
  • Western to win best picture (it wouldn’t happen again for almost 6 decades)

1931-cimarron-posterI’ve never seen an opening credits like the ones in Cimarron. The main performers appear in vignettes next to their names. They aren’t scenes from the film but just a few seconds of them in character. It was a little weird.

The story opens with the Oklahoma land rush of 1889. It is a spectacle, which isn’t surprising. It was a big draw for audiences in the 30s to flock to theaters to see scenes like these. There were over 5,000 costumed extras on horses and wagons dashing across the plain.

There’s a lot of strong camera work on the action. But the close-ups of the leads reveal they are obviously on a soundstage in front of a projection screen safe from any danger. Stunt doubles are used for their more precarious riding, shot from a distance.

Our hero, Yancey Cravat (Richard Dix), is a man with a square jaw in a big white hat. He’s sort of a Nathan Fillion/Judge Reinhold hybrid (look at the picture). When he is tricked out of his claim he goes home to get his wife Sabra (Irene Dunne) and son from Kansas and head out together to Oklahoma to start a new life. He’s a lawyer and a journalist and plans to start a newspaper when he lands in Osage, Oklahoma.

Although Osage is a real town in Osage county (as in August Osage County), the boomtown of Osage is completely fictionalized for the film. The town sets are massive. At first I thought it might be a matte painting but actually a complete western town and a three block modern main street were built to represent Osage over a 40 year span. These award-winning sets eventually formed the nucleus for RKO’s expansive movie ranch in Encino.

It didn’t take long before I began to realize that this is not a very racially progressive film.

I generally don’t begrudge the term “Indian” for Native Americans when used in old movies because it wasn’t overtly derogatory, just ignorant of their true identity and history. On the other hand, phrases like “dirty, filthy Indians” and “savages” are pretty disparaging.

In Sabra’s parents’ home in Kansas they have servants, a very typical black mammie, a black butler and a young black child Isaiah that—I’m not making this up—lays on a platform mounted to the ceiling above the dining room table with a large feather fan to fan the family while they eat.

After falling off his platform onto the table during their meal Isaiah (Eugene Jackson) stows away with Yancey and Sabra to Oklahoma. When they arrive in Osage—again I’m not making this up—Yancey points out a pile of watermelons to the boy who is delighted he came to Oklahoma.

There are plenty of other stereotypes in the film. Isaiah sings spirituals while he shines shoes or does other chores and he is laughed at for trying to “dress up” for the Sunday church meeting.

There’s a laundry truck for “Wong Lee Laundry.”

The Jewish merchant…oh, did you think I was done? Nope! The Jewish merchant Sol Levy (George E. Stone) walks through town with his wares on his donkey selling dressmaking supplies. And boy does he have a bargain for you!

Cimarron is wall-to-wall with one-dimensional characters.

  • The wealthy, uptight busybody
  • The grizzly murderous thug
  • The shunned woman with a scandalous past
  • The stuttering comedic sidekick
    • (The Broadway Melody had this too. I guess stuttering was sure-fire comedy in those days.)
  • The scrawny undertaker
  • The jolly black house boy
  • The lovable Jewish mensch

But as the film went on I began to wonder if some of it was done intentionally to setup Yancey who is only slightly more complex than the others… the noble hero who stands up for the disenfranchised.

Yancey defends the former prostitute from their witch hunt. He welcomes Sol into their church service. He writes and prints an article in the paper demanding the government grant full citizenship to the Native Americans. He embraces his son’s romance with the Osage chief’s daughter. Much of this in spite of Sabra’s protest.

Make no mistake, this movie is all about Yancey Cravat.

At one point outlaws, “The Kid” and his gang (yes, seriously) roll into town. Yancey runs out to help stop them. The outlaws are dismayed.

Outlaw #1: “It’s Cravat!”

The Kid: “Dangit! I didn’t figure on him!”

It sounds like Ralph’s daydream of driving off Black Bart and his gang from descending on their home in A Christmas Story.

Black Bart: “Oh NO! It’s….”

All Bandits: “Old Blue! Oh no!”

Yancey is the hero and the film won’t let you forget it.

Most of the acting is way over the top just in case you weren’t sure that they’re… ACTING!

“That dirty scum!”

The death scenes are very DRAMATIC! In fact, they’re so dramatic one character dies twice. Well, it just looked like he died when he was first shot but he survived long enough to give us another dramatic death scene.

The story chronicles the 40+ years, from 1889 to present day 1930. And that’s where you see Sabra begin to shine as the heroine of the story. Yancey is a nomad. He can’t stay put in one place for more than five years. When he goes looking for adventure for years at a time Sabra is left to not only raise the children alone until he returns but also run the newspaper. Over time she becomes successful in her own right. In fact, in the end she’s been elected to congress.

Although the story isn’t great I suspect audiences connected with the characters emotionally. When we see them in 1930 I’m sure the audience felt as if they’d watched them all grow up and grow old, having gone through so much together.

When Yancey dies in Sabra’s arms at the end they must have been very moved and when the statue of him is unveiled in the center of modern-day Osage sympathy had to have been through the roof.

In some ways I understand the appeal of the film but it just felt a lot like a TV western with a spectacular budget ($1.5MM). But the reality is that TV westerns were in many ways just Cimarron on a tight budget. After all, TV westerns wouldn’t even exist for another almost 20 years. Too much time has passed and Cimarron is a victim of presumably being so good in its day that it was emulated to death for the next 86 years.

Nothing feels revolutionary. Nothing feels groundbreaking. Cimarron just feels like a pretty well-executed 1930s western.

At the 4th Academy Awards Cimarron was nominated for 7 Oscars which was especially impressive considering there were only 9 categories. It would win three for picture, adapted screenplay and art direction. This was the first time any film won more than two awards.

This would be Richard Dix’s only Oscar nomination of his career but Irene Dunne would receive a total of 5 best actress nods over the next 17 years. She never won.

DVD available from Netflix.

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