Cimarron: Movie Review + Analysis, The 4th Academy Awards
While the 3rd Academy Awards were wrapping up in November of 1930, the next Best Picture winner was getting ready to be released in February of 1931. This film, the 4th Academy Award winner for Best Picture went to“Cimarron” directed by Wesley Ruggles and starring Richard Dix, Irene Dunne, Estelle Taylor, and Eugene Jackson. The film gained massive praise in early movie reviews including a Variety review that said the film was full of “action, sentiment, sympathy, thrills”.
The 4th Best Picture Winner
“Cimarron” is based on Edna Ferber’s novel of the same name that covers the 40 year history of Yancey Cravat (Dix) and his wife Sabra (Dunne) as they become pioneers in Oklahoma. Yancey participates in the Oklahoma land rush of 1889 where he is bested by the prostitute Dixie Lee (Taylor) when fighting over a plot of land. Yancey returns back to Oklahoma with his family to set up in the town of Osage. He operates the local newspaper “The Oklahoma Wigwam” and practices law. The film follows different moments of the Cravat’s pioneering life and Yancey’s constant strive to push the town forward.
The most notable and surface level aspect of the film was that it was the first western film to take home the top film prize of the year. While the film is not a spectacular western such as “The Good, The Bad and The Ugly” or “The Searchers”, it still had some elements that would’ve been unique at the time of the film’s release. Whether that is the opening land rush scene or the massive sets and production design that the filmmakers undertook to create an authentic Oklahoma.
Despite it winning Best Picture and being the first western to win, the film does not escape the awful social issues that it presents. What the audience is given in the final cut of the film is a racist agenda that is gut-wrenching to watch.
“Cimarron” does not hold back in its blatant racism towards Black people and Native Americans. The film’s lone Black character, a child named Isaiah played by Eugene Jackson, is a source of comedic reprieve for the so-called progressive white characters in the film. He is mocked with racist stereotypes of Black people enjoying watermelons and being praised for his “loyalty”, which is really just his institutionalized mindset in the post-slavery Jim Crow laws world.
Eugene Jackson deserves more praise than he gets for being able to work through such awful mistreatment as a child actor. We break down more about Eugene’s career in our 4th episiode of Worthy.
The film’s other racist downfall is through the treatment of Native Americans. The very first line of the film is of a white man scolding a curious Native American and calling him a “redskin”. It is this type of dialogue and behavior that is constant in many of the lead characters. For example, Yancey writes an article to defend Native American rights but yet still refers to them as the “red man”.
The saddest part about these consistently racist moments is the fact that there is little to no acknowledgement by the Academy itself. There is barely any mention of this film and it feels intentional when trying to learn more about its background and how people treat it today. It is not as well received by audiences today and the film currently holds a 25% audience score on Rotten Tomatoes, but yet a 52% by critics.
It is puzzling as to why this film took home the Best Picture Oscar at the 4th Academy Awards. One can point at the production design and how epic the film would feel based on the set design alone. One of the major themes of the film is the constant movement of time. This is shown in how the town of Osage expands from a settlement area to an actual city.
Others may point to the acting of Richard Dix, who does keep the film steady, but the character of Yancey himself is problematic. He is always on the move and leaves his family behind because there isn’t enough for him in Osage. He wants to keep expanding as a pioneer. He shows progressive values that would’ve been appropriate for 1931, not today. So overall, audiences would be attracted to the gun slinging, renaissance style, manly-man that Yancey seems to embody. Today though, his character would be broken down and ostracized by modern critics.
Up to this point, having only reviewed 4 Best Picture winners, there are still many questions that are left open and only more being added. It’s hard to truly determine why “Cimarron” was picked to be a part of the Best Picture group. Wesley Ruggles direction of the technical aspects furthered what Lewis Milestone did in “All Quiet On The Western Front”. However, the rest of the film is a racist agenda that would never see the light of day today. We have to keep talking about this film and not forget it in the zeitgeist of cinema because it is a reminder of where we were and where we have to go.
Was the movie Cimarron based on a true story?
No the film was not based on a true story. It is based on the 1930 novel by Edna Ferber of the same name.
Where was the movie Cimarron filmed?
Cimarron was filmed at Jasmin Quinn Ranch outside of Los Angeles, California. The production design was led by Max Rée, who won an Oscar for Best Art Direction at the 4th Academy Awards for his work.