Thursday, February 18, 2021

Oscar Film Journal: Cimarron (1931)

What's goin' on everyone?  This is the start of something a little different here at, I'm calling it my Oscar Film Journal.  I decided that, even though I'm a dyed-in-the-wool film nerd, I have some holes in my game, most of them pre-1970s.  Among those are a sizable majority of the hundreds of Best Picture nominees throughout the decades (as of this writing I'm at 214 out of 563 films).  So I've set myself a loose goal of watching as many of these unseen films as I can before this year's ceremony.  I can't say for sure how far I'll get, but whatever's left at the end of April is fair game for next year's award's season... 

Anyway, the first entry I decided to tackle was the 1931 Western epic Cimarron, directed by Wesley Ruggles and starring Richard Dix and Irene Dunne as a married couple who were among the first settlers of the Oklahoma Territory in 1889.  Dix plays Yancey Cravat, an attorney and newspaper man who becomes one of the most revered citizens of the new town of Osage after killing a feared outlaw and starting the Oklahoma Wigwam newspaper.  His tireless journalistic efforts (most notably on behalf of Native American rights) and fearlessness in the face of danger (such as fending off a second gang of outlaws years later) elevate his status to near-legendary, and as the town grows into a proper center of industry (by the early 1900s it's teeming with oil producers), so does Yancey's stock among the people, even as he leaves for years at a time to settle new lands elsewhere.  His wife Sabra runs the newspaper in his absence and goes on to become Oklahoma's first female member of Congress, ultimately joining her husband in advancing pro-Native American legislation. 

Based on a 1929 novel, Cimarron deals heavily with the themes of American expansion and the entrepreneurial spirit, while also an early example of a film confronting the issue of racism; for years Sabra is fervently anti-Native American even as her husband publishes editorials arguing for their citizenship, but eventually she comes around to the right side of history.  Recent appraisals of the film rightly highlight its glaring racial stereotypes (not uncommon in the 1930s), and while the years haven't been kind to Cimarron in that regard, I did admire that its main protagonist was a vocal champion for Native American equality.  At least Cimarron ain't no Birth of a Nation....
The performances are 1930s hammy but pretty strong; Richard Dix is a charismatic, dashing central character, kind of an amalgam of the traditional Western hero and an idealistic political figure.  Irene Dunne as Sabra finds the right mix of the devoted wife who keeps things running while Yancey is away, and the plantation southerner stuck in the old ways in which she was raised.  Her gradual transformation into progressivism is an interesting arc.

Visually Cimarron is impressive; its most famous sequence is the opener, wherein over 5,000 extras recreated the Oklahoma Land Run, a scene that must've been simply spectacular at the time.  Osage is credibly depicted, evolving from frontier settlement to village to town to full-blown city over the story's 40 years.  Perhaps even more impressive for the time is the makeup, as the two leads and several supporting characters age from 20-somethings to 60-plus.  In a few cases, such as Roscoe Ates as Yancey's assistant Jesse Rickey, I had to look closely to make sure it was the same actor in the 1907 scenes as in the 1889 scenes.  

My biggest criticism of the film outside of the now-inappropriate stereotypes and its aural limitations (the earliest talkies had lots of muddiness and distortion on the soundtrack) is that the narrative is a bit choppy.  It feels like a film adapted from a much longer written work, where numerous scenes were excised.  1907 to 1928 for example is quite the flash-forward and it seemed like multiple chapters of the novel must have been left out of the screenplay.  The movie is a generous two hours but could maybe have used another fifteen to twenty minutes to fill in some of the gaps.

Overall though, Cimarron is a somewhat fascinating early-sound era epic, with some ambitious set pieces, strong performances, a fairly immersive, always evolving backdrop, and sociopolitical themes which weren't often tackled in that era.  It hasn't aged all that well, but it's certainly worth a watch for academic purposes.

I give the film *** out of ****.

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