Cimarron: 1931 Oscar Winner Did Not Age Well

Irene Dunne and Richard Dix in Cimarron. © 1931 RKO Pictures/Warner Bros. Home Entertainment.

Cimarron made its way onto Blu-ray through the Warner Archive Collection but the Best Picture winner did not age well at all.

There are a few things to be said about this film. It is a film of its era. As such, there is a good amount of language that we don’t use today. Not to mention the racist stereotypes. But again, this is a film that was released back in 1931. Even not taking the racism into account, the film found itself struggling to keep my attention at about the hour mark. Films that lose me within the first 20 minutes just turn into a nap. With this one, I made myself finish watching. Either way, it’s never a good sign when an Oscar-winning Best Picture cannot keep my attention.

Attorney/newspaper editor Yancey Cravat (Richard Dix) and his wife, Sabra (Irene Dunne), journey from Kansas towards Osage, a boom town, during the historic 1899 Oklahoma Land Rush. While they start to settle down, Yancey kills Lon Yountis (Stanley Fields) and subsequently starts up the Oklahoma Wigwam as a way of making the town respectable. Yancey’s starts feeling guilt after killing The Kid (William Collier Jr.). He ends up deciding to leave and settle the Cherokee Strip in another land rush, only to return five years later. This leaves the newspaper duties in Sabra’s hands. Anyway, they frequently separate and reunite throughout the 2-hour-plus run time. For what it is worth, Yancey is progressive for his time as he supports giving citizenship rights to Native Americans.

One of the most impressive sequences of the film is the 1889 Oklahoma Land Rush early in the film. There are not many standout sequences that follow aside from admiring Dunne’s performance. Well, when her character is not being a racist. Sabra is anti-Native American but things change in the years after her son marries a Native American, Ruby Big Elk (Dolores Brown), and Sabra’s election to Congress. That Sabra shows growth during this time says something about her character. Moreover, a white person in a marriage to a Native American on screen is certainly big for its era. I’m assuming that Joseph Breen’s Production Code Administration would probably not allow such marriages.

On the casting front, fellow Louisville, Ky. native Irene Dunne became a star and rightfully so. Hold up, hold up. Did anyone else know that the actress was born in Louisville?!? I was Friday years old when I learned this bit of information and I usually know the big stars from my hometown! It’s funny though–I feel like I should have learned this when I watched Love Affair last year or even The Awful Truth years ago! Overall, she earned five Oscar nominations for Best Actress but never won for any of them. How she didn’t win is beyond me.

I can’t say that I’m as familiar with Richard Dix as I am with Dunne. He’s in the 1923 silent version of The Ten Commandments–included with an earlier Blu-ray of the 1956 flawed epic–but I haven’t seen any of his other sound films. Dix earned an Oscar nomination for Best Actor–the only Oscar nomination in his career. Anyway, he would fall off of the A-list because of being an alcoholic.

While I like that a Jewish actor, George E. Stone, portrays Sol Levy, I do not like how Levy is subjected to Jew-hatred, let alone Stone having to portray the character with stereotypes. How much of this is on Edna Ferber and how much of it is on the film’s screenwriter? Anyway, Levy isn’t the only one as Isaiah (Eugene Jackson) also comes off as a stereotype. On top of this, another character stutters and the film tries to obtain laughs as such.

Cimarron author Edna Ferber was Jewish but somewhat distanced herself in order to assimilate. Her own family history inspires Levy’s transition from peddler to merchant owner, like many immigrant Jews making their way to America. And yet, as one reads in the Chicago Jewish History pages, she refused to aid the likes of Ben Hecht and others during WWII. You can learn more about Hecht’s efforts in Against the Tide. Ferber’s turning her back at her fellow Jews in Europe is honestly shocking. But despite that, Ferber fell in love with Jerusalem during a 1934 visit. A later visit did not go so well with Ferber rejecting Ben Gurion’s idea of Diaspora Jewry settling in Israel.

The film earned seven Oscar nominations at the 4th Academy Awards ceremony, winning Best Picture, Adapted Screenplay, and Art Direction (Production Design). If not for RKO buying up 89 acres to build up the Osage set, the Oscar win for Art Direction would be very unlikely. It does feel somewhat weird to take home Best Picture without Wesley Ruggles taking home an Oscar for directing. What surprises me about the Best Picture win is not that it didn’t age well. No, it’s the fact that no Western would take home the big prize until Dances with Wolves. In a perfect world, it wouldn’t have happened until Unforgiven but that’ll be discussed when I review Goodfellas next year. Another Western win would follow with No Country for Old Men.

Behind the scenes, the film would mark a turning point in the career of Max Steiner. RKO spent so much money on the film that they barely had anything available for the film’s score, Even then, it was just for the main/end titles and any incidental music accompanying the film. That’s on top of a brass band appearing in the film. Despite the five minutes of music and it being his first full film score so to speak, Steiner’s name is nowhere in the opening credits. The film’s opening titles are rare for this era–we get a full montage of several actors appearing in the film, much like a sitcom’s opening title sequence. Steiner uses a number of marches in his scores and his introduction to Richard Dix uses the same major-note interval that many composers would utilize later on, including John Williams in scoring Star Wars.

Bonus Features

  • Classic Cartoons
    • Lady, Play Your Mandolin (1931 WB Cartoon)
    • Red-Headed Baby (1931 WB Cartoon)
  • Classic Short Subject
    • The Devil’s Cabaret (1931 MGM Short)

DIRECTOR: Wesley Ruggles
SCREENWRITERS: Howard Estabrook
CAST: Richard Dix, Irene Dunne, Estelle Taylor, Nance O’Neil, William Collier Jr., Roscoe Ates, George E. Stone, Stanley Fields, Robert McWade, Edna May Oliver, Judith Barrett, Eugene Jackson

RKO Radio Pictures released Cimarron in theaters on February 9, 1931. Grade: 2.5/5

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Danielle Solzman

Danielle Solzman is native of Louisville, KY, and holds a BA in Public Relations from Northern Kentucky University and a MA in Media Communications from Webster University. She roots for her beloved Kentucky Wildcats, St. Louis Cardinals, Indianapolis Colts, and Boston Celtics. Living less than a mile away from Wrigley Field in Chicago, she is an active reader (sports/entertainment/history/biographies/select fiction) and involved with the Chicago improv scene. She also sees many movies and reviews them. She has previously written for Redbird Rants, Wildcat Blue Nation, and Hidden Remote/Flicksided. From April 2016 through May 2017, her film reviews can be found on Creators.