We are now entering the fourth week of my epic quest to watch every film to have won a Best Picture Oscar, and I’ve finally hit my first stumbling block. There is a lot to admire about Wesley Ruggles’ epic 1931 western Cimarron, not the least of which was its epic scope and grand construction (RKO built an entire village in the California desert to film it), but it’s the first of the Best Picture winners to be, well, of dubious quality.
The previous Best Picture winners I have seen (that’d be Wings, The Broadway Melody, and All Quiet on the Western Front) have been moving and dramatic, usually employing camerawork that is surprisingly dynamic for the time. Cimarron is relatively static and dull. There are a lot more flat angles, static shots, and dull utilitarian filmmaking. Sure, there is a certain kind of integrity to being straightforward, but I was hoping for a little more… panache, some creative flair to the material.
But even that may not have worked, as the material is also a little bit dramatically dubious. The lead character in the film, Yancey Cravat (Richard Dix), is supposed to be seen as a pure-hearted pioneering hero who helped build this country with his own two hands, when in actuality he was a miserable husband and father. Cimarron, however, doesn’t have the dark dramatic irony allowing us to see what a scoundrel Yancey really was. He is, I think, supposed to be seen as always in the right, even when he treats his wife badly, abandons her for years at a time, and shames her in public. Indeed, the film would play better if we were to see Yancey’s long-suffering wife Sabra (Irene Dunne) as the main character.
When Benjamin Harrison was president (remember him?), land in Oklahoma opened up to white settlers, who were allowed to claim whatever they wanted. Shanty towns sprung up all over the state, and were quickly populated by both enterprising businessmen and dangerous criminals. Sabra is dragged from Kansas to Oklahoma by her adventure-addict husband, who so loves the frontier, he named his son Cimarron. He starts a newspaper in fictional Osage County, becomes the local preacher, and even serves as an ersatz sheriff. Dix is noisy, brash, and bold. He declares all of his lines. He is an old-fashioned pulp hero. Then, after four years, he is overwhelmed by wanderlust, and splits without warning.
We then see Sabra taking over the reins of the newspaper, the local law, and other loose ends that Yancey left behind. But is she the hero? No. Yancey is the one who heroically returns from God knows where, only to defend the local madame in a court of law, shaming his wife. His children respect him. The people respect him. Everyone loves him. Over the course of years (Cimarron stretches from the 1890s until the present), poor Sabra sits at home like Penelope, waiting for Yancey to return, miserable and alone. It’s a good thing the final scene of the film settles on Sabra’s pain and accomplishments, and not Yancey’s heroism. It’s not until that final scene where we finally feel that Cimarron is playing fair. Yancey, we learn, can perhaps only be validated by the love of his neglected wife.
This film is stodgy, a mite sexist, and even a little racist; there is a black character named Isaiah (Eugene Jackson) who doesn’t really rise past the point of buffoon. What more, there is a character with a stammer, and the other characters make fun of him. This is the second (of four) Best Picture winner to have a funny stammering character (The Broadway Melody had one, too).
I can see the epic tragic scope that Cimarron was going for (the opening shot of thousands of extras gathered in a field is still impressive), and I can glean the dramatic irony inherent in the hugeness of it all, but it just doesn’t work. It’s a stiff, unengaging movie. The main character is a vague heroic avatar whose callousness is seen as a small quirk rather than a tragic flaw. A friend of mine, who is better versed in 1930s cinema than I, has assured me that, of the nominees that year, Cimarron was actually the best, as the others were even flatter, duller, and less engaging. Evidently, the 1930/1931 season was just a dud period for American feature films.
If you’re into corny, old-timey westerns, then I can recommend Cimarron. Otherwise, this one feels more like homework than a great movie.
Join me next week for Grand Hotel.