Cimarron (1931) - Award-winning western epic based on the book by Edna Ferber, from RKO and director Wesley Ruggles. Yancey Cravat (Richard Dix) is a newspaper publisher who participates in the Oklahoma land rush of 1893. Even though he gets cheated out of his hoped-for claim by prostitute Dixie Lee (Estelle Taylor), Yancey decides to bring his wife Sabra (Irene Dunne), young son Cimarron (Junior Johnston), and stowaway young black boy Isaiah (Eugene Jackson) out to the new boom-town of Osage, where he sets up a newspaper office. The story follows Yancey and Sabra through the decades and their various confrontations with outlaws, injustice, and bigotry. Also featuring Edna May Oliver, Roscoe Ates, William Collier Jr., Stanley Fields, Nance O'Neil, George E. Stone, Robert McWade, Judith Barrett, Edith Fellows, Otto Hoffman, Dennis O'Keefe, Helen Parrish, and Robert Mckenzie.
The western was one of the foundation genres of American cinema, although after the 1910's, it was often considered a B-level type of film. 1929's The Virginian proved to be a big hit, and it was thought that the western was primed for a major resurgence. But by the time Cimarron was released in early 1931, the genre was back out of fashion, and this proved to be a financial disappointment. That was bad news for RKO, which had made this their most expensive feature to date, and coupled with the Great Depression now blanketing the nation, they needed a hit. They had to settle for critical acclaim, instead, and the film garnered that in droves, although now the film's appeal seems to escape most critics and viewers, and this frequently ranks near the bottom of critical lists of Best Picture Oscar winners.
Watching movies in year proximity to one another helps one to appreciate how something that seems corny or cliched was regarded differently in comparison to others of its time, and that's true for me here. I've seen this two or three times before, but this time, in the midst of a lot of films from 1930/31, I see the film's qualities more clearly. Dix is still prone to some silent-film pantomime over exaggeration, but he cuts a striking figure for the most part, with his slightly-maniacal eyes, deep voice, and white hat. Dunne is more subtle, and she's good, showing real growth as a character over the 40+ years covered in the story. And there are a number of terrific character performers doing what they do best, including Edna May Oliver, Roscoe Ates, George E. Stone, and Stanley Fields. The sets, including an entire frontier town built from scratch, are terrific, and the land rush sequence is rightly applauded.
One aspect that turns off a lot of modern viewers is the racial stereotyping. But that's a little more complicated than usual here. While the Isaiah character is certainly saddled with a lot of cringe-worthy details, from his outfit, to the "Yas, Massah" speech, to watermelon jokes, his character is also considered part of the family, and his fate affects them as if he were a son. Some people also object to the lack of sympathy for the natives whose land is being given away left and right, but the Yancey character argues for native rights late in the film.
This was nominated for Oscars for Best Actor (Dix), Best Actress (Dunne), Best Director (Ruggles) and Best Cinematography (Edward Cronjager), and it won for Best Art Direction (Max Ree), Best Writing, Adaptation (Howard Estabrook), and Best Picture. 7/10
Source: Warners DVD, with a comedic short and an animated short included as extras.