Friday, March 22, 2013

Watching Oscar: Cimarron

Film: Cimarron
Format: DVD from Rockford Public Library on laptop.

It would be really easy for me to say rude things about Cimarron. It was the first Western to win Best Picture (and it’s only marginally a Western), and it evidently left such a bad taste in the collective mouth of the Academy that another film from the genre didn’t win until 1990. And it’s not even a real Western; it just takes place in the Old West. There’s a single shoot out, a lot of posturing, and something that I flat can’t make a lot of sense of. But times have changed. A film like Cimarron, made today, would be vastly changed from this version.

In addition to being the only Old West film to win in the first 60+ years of Oscar history, Cimarron is also the only Best Picture to lose money on its initial release, and it lost a lot. That’s what you get for producing a big-budget film in the middle of one of the worst years of a terrible economic depression. But hey, it won the top prize, and for that reason alone, it has some historical significance.

Yancey Cravat (Richard Dix) has signed himself up for the Oklahoma land rush, and has his eye on a prize plot of land. The starting gun is fired (and I really have to admit that this scene is pretty special, particularly for the year in which it was filmed) and off rushes everyone to claim what parcels of land they can. Yancey is tricked by former fallen woman Dixie Lee (Estelle Taylor) and he is forced to return home to Wichita empty handed. It is here that we meet his wife Sabra (Irene Dunne) and learn that Yancey is the editor and publisher of a local newspaper, the Wichita Wigwam. Not content with the results of the land rush, Yancey aims to return to Oklahoma and set up his paper there, taking Sabra and their young son Cimarron to start a new life.

And so they go. At one point on the trip, they are held up by a man called The Kid (William Collier, Jr.), who knows Yancey, and thus lets him go. The family arrives in Osage and sets up shop. Yancey soon becomes one of the most important men in town, and Sabra learns to appreciate Osage, Oklahoma for what it is. Yancey guns down local thug Lon Yountis (Stanley Fields), making him something of a legend. Later, when The Kid arrives to shoot up the bank, Yancey guns him down, cementing his reputation.

But with this reputation comes very little in the way of cold, hard cash. When the second land rush is announced, Yancey can’t help himself and leaves to try again, keeping Sabra at home to continue to run the paper, now dubbed the Oklahoma Wigwam. Sabra is aided by printer Jessie (the stuttering, rubber-faced Roscoe Ates) and Jewish peddler-turned-shopkeeper Sol Levy (George E. Stone), who was befriended by Yancey soon after his arrival in Osage. Sabra, left on her own, becomes a society dame, assisted by hawk-faced Felice Venable (Nance O’Neil).

Former comfort woman Dixie Lee has moved back into town as well, having been run off her land by those offended by her past. The townspeople aren’t any happier with her presence and Sabra soon finds a way to take Dixie to court to get her run out of Osage. Almost as if by plan, Yancey finds this moment to return after five years tromping around Oklahoma. He defends Dixie in court, earning him Sabra’s temporary enmity, since she is convinced that he’d been canoodling with her the entire time. A couple of choice words in his dulcet tones, though, and Sabra is once again brought back in line.

And then there’s oil, and the natives pushed back onto a reservation have the lion’s share of it. Yancey at this time is running for governor and is a champion for the rights of the native people. Offered a chance to rob them of their oil money, Yancey balks, a move that costs him the governorship but saves the land for the natives. And he vanishes again, unable to control his wanderlust or stay in the same place for long. Again, he leaves Sabra to fend for herself and run the paper without him while he’s off doing whatever someone named Yancey Cravat does when he isn’t at home.

This is a strange film in a lot of ways. There isn’t so much a plot as there is a series of events in the lives of these people. Richard Dix may get top billing, but it’s Irene Dunne who is the emotional center of the film. Except at the start and that first land rush scene, it is Sabra who stays with us for the bulk of the film. When Yancey disappears, it is Sabra who we learn about and Sabra’s successes that concern us. We see Sabra grow and change, becoming a woman of prominence and eventually being elected to Congress thanks to her tireless efforts on behalf of the people of Oklahoma—efforts that are made with the conspicuous absence of her larger-than-life husband.

I’m honestly not sure what we’re supposed to think of Yancey Cravat. Through the first half of the film, it is absolutely certain that he is the hero and that we are to look upon him as something like a Western Hercules, capable of any feat of will or daring. And yet he frequently buggers off to the wild, leaving his family in the lurch completely. Sabra constantly argues with him about points that make complete sense—he refuses the vast reward money for killing The Kid when it would have set the family up for life. No, Yancey instead decides to stand on his principles…and then he leaves. He’s a big, blustery blowhard. Frankly, he comes off as sort of a douchebag.

The film also suffers from the sort of overacting common to films of the era. It’s plainly evident that a lot of these actors got their start in the silent era, since everything is played for its melodramatic best. It simply doesn’t play well to an audience more used to subtleties. In an effort to be as grand as the wide open spaces, it falls flat. And speaking of wide open spaces, with the exception of the opening land rush, this entire film takes place indoors, just about. The landscape certainly could have been used to great effect, but it’s almost entirely ignored.

The land rush is great, and more than anything, that scene is worth watching. The rest of it? Well, it’s not terrible, but it’s also not that fantastic. There’s a good reason that IMDB currently lists Cimarron as the Best Picture winner with the lowest rating. You could find a lot worse, but there’s certainly better out there, too.

Why to watch Cimarron: Well, it did win Best Picture.
Why not to watch: Yancey is a dick, and Sabra is dumb enough to keep taking him back.


  1. I agree that Dunne is the real lead of this movie. I think one of the reasons this film is low rated is because some people who only see things through their modern lenses consider it to be both racist and misogynist. In actuality it was very progressive for when it was made, and the time period it was set in (i.e. a woman running her own newspaper and getting elected to Congress, a black boy being loved and protected by the lead - which some people now see as racist because of the protective attitude).

    Do I think this is a great movie? No. I've never sat down to rank all the winners, but this would definitely be in my bottom half. It's possibly in my bottom third, but I'd have to do some ranking before I could say for sure.

    1. That is an excellent point, and one that went right over my head. In a way, it shows precisely how far we've come. A film that would have been socially forward-thinking in its time is now seen as misogynist and racist. That's a hell of a catch, and it actually softens my opinion on the film a bit. Not on Yancey Cravat, but on the film.

  2. Personally, I think Yancey had some Brokeback Mountain in him and that's why he disappeared for long periods of time. When I watched this film because I'd heard it won Best Picture I was shocked. Of course, they had a relatively weak field back then: Skippy, East Lynne (which I've never seen), Trader Horn, and The Front Page. Still, epics (western or not) seem to be a favorite with the Academy.

  3. I saw this last year. I don't think I've caught up with all the Best Picture winners yet but, of those I've seen, I thought this was the worst. I would also nominate Richard Dix as worst actor ever to be nominated for a Best Actor Academy award!

    This was based on an Edna Ferber novel and she was big on strong female characters who persevere despite the absence of their men. I agree it is Irene Dunne's movie. She does OK for a film debut but would get much, much better!

    1. @Kim--well, since it was the only Western to win until 1990, a part of me thinks it put the Academy off the genre until then. Of the other nominees, I've only seen The Front Page, and it was a weak, early version of the far superior His Girl Friday. As for Brokeback, it does put an entirely new spin on his disappearances.

      @Marie--Yancey is such a crap character. It doesn't surprise me he was played by a guy named Dick Dix. Worst ever nomination? Quite possible. At least I hope so, or there's some bad stuff coming in my future.

  4. I originally watched Cimarron in early 2010 and had forgotten the details of what I had written about it, although I do recall that it was a pretty melodramatic effort. Looking back at my review this morning, I was surprised to see that I also suggested that attempted to portray the betterment of social relations and the lessening of racism in America. Perhaps I need to go back and give this film another viewing?

    1. Or not. In its own way, Cimarron is progressive for its time, and Chip is absolutely right in that. And? Plenty of better films are progressive, too. There's a reason you don't remember Cimarron very well.