Release Date(s)1931 (July 25, 2023)
Studio(s)RKO Radio Pictures (Warner Archive Collection)
- Film/Program Grade: C
- Video Grade: A
- Audio Grade: A
- Extras Grade: B
Cimarron, an early Academy Award winner for Best Picture, is based on Edna Ferber’s novel about one family’s struggles during the settling of the West. The film has an epic quality, with a broad scope that spans the decades from the Oklahoma land rush in 1889 to the onset of the Great Depression in 1929.
The central character, Yancey Cravat (Richard Dix), is a rugged frontier Renaissance man of sorts—adventurer, man of action, social reformer, dreamer and family man. We first meet Cravat as he prepares for the Oklahoma land rush, the government program to populate the land by offering two million acres free for the taking. Settlers, adventurers, pioneers, lone men, families, and the rare lone woman ready themselves for the cannon boom that will open the race to stake a claim. In wagons, on horseback, even on bicycles, thousands upon thousands thunder across the plain.
Yancey has his eye on a particular spot, but through guile, a young woman named Dixie Lee (Estelle Taylor) reaches it first and stakes the land for herself. Without the farm they hoped to start, Yancey and his wife Sabra (Irene Duane) take over the local newspaper instead after the previous editor is assassinated.
Dixie’s independent nature gets her branded a “stain on womanhood” in the town. Championing an individual’s rights, Yancey speaks up for her despite the wrong she did him. He takes on bad guys without thinking twice about shooting them, delivers a sermon worthy of an ordained preacher, gives a voice to the oppressed, and isn’t timid about exposing corruption.
Though he’s become a pillar of the new community, Yancey never seems content, and leaves his family for extended periods to pursue his ideals while Sabra runs the newspaper. The years pass, the population grows, and Oklahoma experiences significant episodes in its history, including an oil boom, statehood, and Prohibition.
Dix is overblown in most of his scenes, often seeming to “play to the balcony,” a style of acting left over from silent days. He musters little chemistry with Dunne, who has a thankless role as the loving wife and mother. Dix’s artificial performance hurts the film significantly, since we’re observing the story from his character’s point of view. Yancey is often downright cruel, thoughtless, and obnoxiously self-righteous, and Dix’s performance does nothing to make him sympathetic. It’s tough to accept him as a hero.
The best supporting performance is turned in by sour-faced Edna May Oliver as Mrs. Tracy Wyatt, who traces her lineage back to Revolutionary times and will not hesitate to announce that fact to anyone. She adds some badly needed levity to a film that depends on melodrama and spectacle. A lack of solid character development gives the picture an unintended coldness. A scene stealer extraordinaire, Oliver makes a minor character memorable. No one else in the cast makes such an impression.
Modern audiences might be surprised at some of the themes in Cimarron. These include racism, anti-Semitism, women’s empowerment, interracial marriage, Native American rights, corruption, murder, marital abandonment, and greed. Yet seen today, the film seems terribly unenlightened. It was produced pre-Code, so some of its content likely would not have been included if it were made a few years later. A young Black character, Isaiah (Eugene Jackson), is unswervingly loyal and unfailingly subservient to Yancey and Sabra, even though the time period is more than twenty years after Emancipation. Gentle, prim Sabra refers to her Native American neighbors as “dirty filthy Indians.” Prevailing attitudes of the era are reflected throughout, many now inducing squirms.
Cimarron was one of the first sound films to focus on spectacle in telling a multi-year saga. Like Ferber’s Showboat, it centers on a couple and their trials and tribulations over decades. But the lead characters in Cimarron are not as interesting. Yancey often comes off as a loudmouth blowhard bully and Sabra as the dull, colorless spouse. Director Wesley Ruggles neglected to tone down Dix and give Dunne more to do. Dix’s speech quality is often pompous and theatrical. Even when Yancey speaks to Sabra, Dix’s delivery is stiff and formal. Dunne’s aging make-up makes her look like a man in drag with a wig of cotton balls.
Cimarron was shot by director of photography Edward Cronjager with spherical lenses on 35 mm black-and-white film and presented in the aspect ratio of 1.20:1. At a time when directors and cinematographers were still learning how to transition from silent to sound film production, the film is extraordinary in its scope. The Oklahoma land rush sequence is especially exciting and beautifully filmed, showing the perils of the mad race for free land. The sequence is covered from numerous vantage points so that we have close-up inserts among the long shots. Other scenes lack this flair and are photographed from stationery positions with little tracking. Director Wesley Ruggles does position his extras intelligently, so that there often seem to be more people on screen than there really are.
The soundtrack is English 2.0 DTS-HD Master Audio. Optional English SDH subtitles are available. The film’s soundtrack was recorded by the RCA Photophore system. Dialogue is clear throughout. Sound effects enhance the Oklahoma land rush sequence with thundering horses’ hooves, wagon wheels bouncing over rough terrain, screeching wagon brakes, and men shouting to make their horses move faster, all blending into a sound spectrum of wild fervor. Later in the film, the ominous sound of oil wells pumping black gold creates a continuous din. Crowds cheering the unveiling of a memorial statue dedicated to Oklahoma pioneers closes the film.
Bonus materials on the unrated Blu-ray from the Warner Archive Collection include the following:
- Lady, Play Your Mandolin (7:14)
- Red-Headed Baby (6:40)
- The Devil’s Cabaret (16:24)
Lady, Play Your Mandolin – This is the first Warner Bros. Merrie Melodies cartoon, released in August, 1931. It stars Foxy, a character who would appear in three 1931 shorts. Foxy is a gaucho who visits a saloon disguised as a cafe, reflecting that the cartoon was made when Prohibition was law. Liquor bottles have skull and crossbones labels.
Red-Headed Baby – Released in December, 1931, this was the first Merrrie Melodies cartoon to not feature a recurring character. All previous cartoons had featured Bosky, Foxy, or Piggy. Around Christmas Eve, a toymaker creates a red-headed doll who comes to life with the rest of the toys when the toymaker leaves. The doll sings the title song and meets a toy soldier who immediately falls for her.
The Devil’s Cabaret – This Colortone Novelty short, filmed in Technicolor in 1930, includes a ballet, scores of dancers, and impressive sets. Mr. Satan is upset because too many people are going up to Heaven rather than down to Hades. He gives his assistant the task of snagging more souls. In front of a nightclub, the assistant entices a crowd of people to come inside to the Devil’s Cabaret to be entertained. After they enjoy songs and dancing, the folks go willingly to Hades.
Cimarron was the first Western to win the Best Picture Academy Award. Another Western wouldn’t take that prize for another sixty years, when Dance With Wolves broke the streak. Cimarron also won the Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Art Direction Oscars. Cimarron does show its age but still impresses with its well-staged action sequences and elaborate sets, which show the development of the Oklahoma territory through the years. But none of that is sufficient to compensate for largely cardboard, unsympathetic characters and a histrionic acting style. In lists of the worst Best Picture winners, Cimarron often tops the bunch. Amazingly, some of the finest pictures of 1931 weren’t even nominated: The Public Enemy, City Lights, Dracula, Frankenstein, Little Caesar.
- Dennis Seuling