Cimarron (1931)

Directed by Wesley Ruggles
Written by Howard Estabrook

A lot of the history of the west can be summed up in just a few concepts or phrases: pioneer, cowboys and indians, outlaws, wagon trains, etc. As a result, the type of Western story being told in any given film within the genre does not vary greatly. At the beginning of this marathon, I highlighted the seven different stories found within a Western film. So seven is not very many. With Cimarron, one of the earliest winners for Best Picture at the Academy Awards, we see many common themes we have already seen in this marathon, meaning that at this point it’s less about seeing what a new film can bring to the genre, but rather how well it is able to operate within the confines of the already defined genre (there will be some exceptions to this rule as filmmakers think more and more outside the box). But as a result, I was curious to see Cimarron, both as a Western and Best Picture winner with a rather poor reputation.

If one thinks about 3 Bad Men, one of the better entries within this marathon thus far, you recall the build up to the land rush in Oklahoma. In some ways, Cimarron picks up where 3 Bad Men left off. As Oklahoma is opened up, adventuring pioneer Yancey Cravat (Richard Dix) rushes to claim a good piece of land, only to be thwarted by an enterprising young woman named Dixie Lee (Estelle Taylor). The two meet again years later in Osage, Oklahoma, where Yancey has settled with his wife Sabra (Irene Dunne), who resents Yancey’s sense of adventure. As the years pass, Yancey becomes instrumental in the development and settlement of Oklahoma, bringing law and order to the land he loves with his work as a newspaper editor and later a congressman.

Cimarron tries with all its might to be an epic western tale about a great pioneer man. For all its effort, it leans quite heavily on lead actor Richard Dix, who fills the screen with charisma and commands the stage in every scene he is in. Dix really fuels the film to become slightly more than what it otherwise ought to be, which is a fairly drab and uneventful film. The narrative is mind-numbingly broad in every sense, painting both the Cravat’s and Oklahoma itself without the finest of details. And in lacking these details, the film becomes slightly unwieldy and boring. Yancey is a hero pioneer, and yet too much time is spent conversing about things with no action to prove his mettle, to showcase his adventure. The scenes of excitement are few and far between, and I was never truly sold on Yancey’s greatness.

Additionally, the romance factor felt spoiled a bit, as I never once felt sympathy for Sabra, with her husband and children’s father often away, pioneering and what not. Sabra always resented Yancey for what he was, and yet stood by him whenever a pivotal moment or turning point arose. By being unsympathetic, I was left to cheer for Yancey himself, who, despite Dix’s bravado, was just a macho man who cared more for his achievements and notoriety than his family. The film celebrates Yancey Cravat for all the wrong reasons. Fundamentally, the film fails to show us the hero that is Yancey Cravat in direct opposition with a man torn between his beliefs in Oklahoma with his duties as a husband and father. There is no struggle, there is no stigma, and that imbalance makes the film uneven more often than not as it tries to anoint  Cravat and show him without sin.

It tries to be epic, but fails. Cimarron is never as grand as it supposes itself to be. In some ways, it puts the cart before the horse, underdeveloping the sympathy necessary for these characters to be of enough interest for the viewer to follow the evolution of their lives through the developing years of Oklahoma. In what is a rather bland and unremarkable film, which also features rather low quality sound mixing, I will say that this is the first time I have seen character introductory slides at the beginning of the film. It’s a fun idea that we still see done today (though more often at the end of films now). Cimarron lacks the “it” factor though, muddling through the story and becoming a disappointing Best Picture winner. The idea of the film is noteworthy, which is why I can understand Academy voters selecting the film to win the award, but the execution is definitely lacking by today’s standards. There are much better Westerns yet to come.

** – Poor

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