Cimarron (1931)

Synopsis:

Forty years — from 1880s to 1920s — of Oklahoma history. The story is told from the perspective of a lawyer and newspaper editor, Yancey Cravat (Richard Dix, The Ghost Ship) and his wife, Sabra (Irene Dunne, I Remember Mama).

Reaction & Thoughts:

“If we all took root and squatted, there would never be any new country.”

Cimarron entered the history books as the very first western to win an Oscar for Best Picture. It isn’t a western in the classic tradition, though. It’s essentially a two-generation melodrama based on Edna Ferber’s best-selling novel of the same name. Today, Cimarron is more of a curiosity than anything else. It’s a grandly filmed but creaky epic with stilted acting, whose highest card is the then innovative use of sound.

It’s hard for me to be too critical of an early sound movie. I’m sure the filmmakers did their best under the circumstances. One must be willing to be transported to another era, when sound was considered a gimmick and shooting outdoors was extremely difficult. You also have to be lenient with the film’s stereotypes.

Cimarron‘s best scenes are at the beginning of the movie. The Oklahoma Land Rush of 19889 was spectacularly filmed. The early scenes of chaos and lawlessness are good too. Cimarron loses its “mojo” halfway through it. The film feels rushed, especially during the last third. Many things are left unexplained.

That said, the politics in the film are fascinating. The husband treats minorities with respect. He also comes to the defense of a woman (Estelle Taylor, The Southerner) with a shady past. On the other hand, the traditional-minded wife is a staunch supporter of the status quo. It’s interesting to see the man, not the woman, as an agent of social change (after all, the book was written by a woman). But neither one has much common sense, which makes them very frustrating characters.

This brings me to my main issue with the film: the two main characters are so unlikable! We see the evolution of Oklahoma through the eyes of a morally-questionable couple and that tainted the experience for me. The husband is selfish and flaky. His wife is racist and pretentious. They are supposed to be the founders of the state of Oklahoma, and deliberately or not, you feel that the territory was built by awful people.

The acting of the two leading actors has not aged well. Richard Dix, in particular, is still in silent mode. I’ve seen him in other movies and he’s a good actor — Dix eventually learned to tone it down for the cameras. The actor does look the part, and that helps a bit.

This isn’t one of Irene Dunne’s best performances either. As far as I’m concerned, Taylor gives the best performance in the film. The inimitable Edna May Oliver (Drums Along the Mohawk), as usual, steals many scenes as a snotty old maid. Also starring Stanley Fields (Island of Lost Souls) as Lon Yountis and William Collier Jr. (Little Caesar) as The Kid. Dennis O’Keefe (The Leopard Man) has a bit part.

Conclusions & Final Thoughts:

Is Cimarron a must-see film? Not really. Is Cimarron a watchable movie? Definitely. Although time has not been kind to the film (it’s one of Academy’s weakest choices for Best Picture), it is by no means a waste of time. Produced at the dawn of sound, the film was instrumental in convincing Hollywood insiders of the commercial viability of sound. Remade in 1960. B&W, 125 minutes, Not Rated.

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