Dir. Wesley Ruggles
Oscars: Best Picture, Best Adapted Screenplay (Howard Estabrook), Best Art Direction (Max Rée)
Other nominees: East Lynne, The Front Page, Skippy, Trader Horn
Cimarron is one of our first Westerns, and was not only the first Western to win the Academy Award for Best Picture but the first to win an Academy Award, period. Released in 1931, it was one of the most expensive films ever made at the time of its release (with a $1.5 million budget) and despite critical acclaim and commercial success; it did not break even on its production budget during its original theatrical release. Much of the budget was spent on the film’s opening scene, a depiction of the Oklahoma Land Rush of 1889, a sequence that is now famous, which depicts a number of poor whites rushing westward at the command of Pres. Benjamin Harrison to claim whatever lands they pleased in the as of yet unincorporated “Unassigned Lands” of what is now Oklahoma. The film is distinctly grand in scope, pictorially, nationally, and ideologically, and though unsuccessful in many of its efforts at greatness, the modern viewer can understand the strength of the foundations it laid for future Westerns and the cinematic view of the American landscape.
Cimarron is based on the eponymous novel by Edna Ferber. Like her works Show Boat, Giant and So Big, the film tries to address issues of racism, classicism, and other discriminatory –isms and is not fully successful in its attempt. For example, the film starts with this:
Facepalm. But I digress. In 1889, wild frontiersman Yancey Cravat (Richard Dix, in prime chin thrusting form) who claims to never spend more than five years in one place and his impressionable bride, Sabra (Irene Dunn, serving some prim wide-eyed whispery realness) leave Wichita, which has become too pedestrian for their tastes, for the wilds of the Oklahoma territory, where they are tricked out of their claim by the wily “black-tighted” (read: prostitute) Dixie Lee (Estelle Taylor, serving blandness). They make their way to the newly established Osage, where Violet Weston, high on downers, spins around her living room while her three adult daughters uncover familial skeletons in the wake of the patriarch’s death a fledgling western town is being built.
Yancey starts a newspaper in provincial Osage and is soon heralded as the moral and civic leader of the town, due in large part to his do-gooder nature and assertion of his male priviledge moral character. Among the many hijinks that the town sees are a new-sheriff-in-town horseback invasion, a shoot-out at a revival meeting, the influx of lady’s balloon sleeves (“all the way from Chicago!”) and discrimination against blacks, Native Americans, Jews, and those with disabilities. In short, life in the West was hard. Yancey leaves town for a new land rush (he can’t stay put, remember?) and Sabra is left in charge of the newspaper, which she runs on her own for years. He eventually returns, defends the honor of Dixie in court (she only turned to prostitution as she had been dealt a shit hand in life) and publishes a radical editorial asking for citizenship and tolerance for Native Americans. The film continues on for several decades but I shall spare you, so as not to spoil the plot, save to tell you that Sabra is eventually elected to Congress. Yes, that Congress.
The film is, of course, ridiculous. Surely not all of these perils and adventures could happen to one family, let alone one town, but that is the nature of the Western! Yancey clearly represents the spirit of the American west, at least as it was interpreted in the early half of the twentieth century: untamable, always moving forward, and morally unquestionable. Our recent Westerns are much more pessimistic in outlook: look at Unforgiven, No Country for Old Men, or the recent The Homesman. The social politics of Cimarron are actually fairly progressive: not only is Sabra shown to be a competent wife, mother, businesswoman, and citizen, she is the most grounded character of the film. The film is unquestionably racist (in one scene a young African American boy is suspended above a dining room table fanning the white diners, and Charlie gasp-laughed so loudly that his cat jumped off the couch), but it does try to be progressive in its treatment of the Native Americans, whose lands are being ripped from them continuously throughout the film (during a collection at church, when asked why the Native American attendees had not contributed to the collection, Yancey replies: “A Cherokee is too smart to put anything in the contribution box of a race that’s robbed him of his birthright.”). Sabra, who ages about thirty-five years through the film, is shown with radically changing views of the Native Americans, at first calling them derogatory names but eventually proudly presenting her part-Native American grandchildren at her inauguration dinner.
Cimarron is just over two hours but feels like eight. Perhaps this is because so much happens in the film, we watch Oklahoma go from prairie to Western town to River City-esque Main Street paradise to state, and we watch two characters change profoundly over the course of their whole lives. The anti-racism fight that the film puts up is flawed (and largely futile), but it is not ill-advised. Indeed, the fighting-racism-while-displaying-it approach (perfected by the Logan-Hammerstein-Rodgers musical South Pacific fifteen years later) does seem unusually liberal for a mainstream entertainment, but then, this is based on Edna Ferber, an incredibly progressive author far ahead of her time. Indeed, when compared with her Show Boat (the original musical production and film of which also starred Irene Dunn), one can easily trace her efforts, however misconstrued, to address these issues central to our understanding of the American West and Plains states. And even if she got it wrong sometimes, at least she was trying.