A review requested by Not Fenimore, with thanks to supporting Alternate Ending as a donor through Patreon.

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So here we are, face-to-face with the all-time worst winner of the Academy Award for Best Picture. That's hindsight talking; when Cimarron was first released in the early months of 1931, critics couldn't get over what a grand-scale masterwork of unimaginable, unprecedented bigness it was, bringing 40 years of history to life in such vivid detail as to prove the kinetic greatness of cinema. So whereas we all knew pretty much instantly that the Crash or Green Book wins were going to age horribly, I suppose that at the time, people must have felt good about this one.*

Well, it doesn't feel fucking good now. Even in '31, there was nothing actually unprecedented about Cimarron. Unquestionably, the Western had been a disreputable genre for B-movies, cheaply made and quickly forgotten, for most of its existence (already decades long by that point). But 1923's The Covered Wagon and 1924's The Iron Horse had long since done the "epic Western produced at an unimaginable scale and with an tremendously fussy attention to detail" thing to great acclaim, and Raoul Walsh's bold, recklessly ambitious The Big Trail was only months old when Cimarron premiered. But Cimarron does have a self-conscious weightiness that's all it's own, trying to capture in cinematic form a gulf between generations that was, in 1931, still a vibrant memory for many people alive. It's an early version of what would become one of the most standard Western film narratives: the Death of the Frontier, in which a crude, rough man helps the United States of America get a toehold in the lands west of the Appalachian Mountains/Mississippi River/Great Plains/Rocky Mountains, but then finds that the civilisation he's helped to birth has no space for him.

And in '31, that only needed going back as far as 12:00 PM on 22 April 1889, the day of the Oklahoma Land Rush, in which thousands of white settlers poured into what was then known as Indian Territory, establishing the settlements that would, 18 years later, become the state of Oklahoma. Cimarron, with its Oscar-winning script adapted by Howard Estabrook from Edna Ferber's 1930 novel, opens with this event before tracking the territory's evolution towards statehood, and then goes on to cover the oil boom of the early 1900s, eventually making it all the way to 1929, barely even a year and a half ago. Snark aside, I actually find this fairly heady to think about. We fairly talk about the astonishing social and cultural transformations of the 20th Century, but for Cimarron to connect something as mythically remote as the Old West with a time so contemporary you might as well call it "now" really does give it a sense of the modern world being carved right out of the bedrock of history in front of our very eyes. This kind of broad historical sweep, anchored by the story of a single family, was Ferber's "thing" (her best-known work, 1926's Show Boat, covered very nearly the same historical period of Cimarron), and that, at least, is something the film captures with all due heft and scope during its languid 123-minute running time (astonishingly long for '31).

The family in this case are a newly-married couple with a young son; in best Western tradition, her modestly well-to-do family thinks she's a fool for falling in with a  thrill-seeking adventurer with no respectable prospects. It is with profoundest regret that I tell you the name of this rough gentleman: he is known as Yancey Cravat, which would be terrific as the character that Groucho Marx played in a parody of an epic Western, but is completely unacceptable for something we're meant to take seriously. He is played by longtime Western star Richard Dix, who was presumably at least once during his 56 years on this Earth referred to as "Dick Dix", which is still a better name than "Yancey Cravat". Mr. Cravat's wife is named Sabra, and she's played by a successful Broadway star who'd only just made the transition to movies; this was her second film, in fact. This was the future legendary icon Irene Dunne, and it's fair to say that any interest that Cimarron still possesses is almost exclusively the result of her presence: how does a well-liked stage actress who would become one of her generation's most adored screen actresses make that leap?

Not tremendously well, I am sorry to say, though she acts rings around Dix's exhausting declamatory performance style; three years and change into the sound era, there's really no excuse for any actor to still be mixing fussily roaring line deliveries and stentorian silent-style poses. Dunne is merely unexceptional: the script calls upon her to be stalwart most of the time, stuffy and conservative some of the time, and loudly racist in a couple of scenes that, bless the movie's dear little heart, suggest that it imagines itself to be a progressive message movie about the treatment of Native Americans. She executes all of this with sufficient technique, but no inspiration, and she's totally incapable of selling the movie's 20-year jump to 1929, when she is saddled with some goofy-looking old-age makeup and the end point of a character arc that hasn't really been seeded anywhere else. Both Dunne and Dix were nominated for Oscars, incidentally; in fact, Cimarron set a record for nominations at the 4th Academy awards, with seven, making it the first of only two movies in history to receive an Oscar nomination in every single category for which it was eligible (Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is the other). It also tied the record for wins, with three: Picture, Adaptation, and Art Direction, the last being the only one it had any real business receiving.

If Dunne's performance is above all things functional, this is more than can be said for the film containing it. For a movie whose big selling point was its epic scale and sense of vastness, this is not by any means very inspired, visually. Director Wesley Ruggles was never an especially exciting director, and his work here feels at least ten years out of date: a lot of static camera set-ups that show entire rooms, where event the shot/reverse-shot and cutaways seem to have a proscenium stage in mind. The one shining exception is the land rush at the start, a thrilling montage of kinetic movement and startling angles that demonstrate the chaos of the rush and the excitement of spilling into new territory and trying like all hell to get to the best plots of land sooner than anybody else. Snip out those seven minutes and you could easily convince a person that Cimarron is one of the most visceral, forward-looking films of the early '30s; in context, it almost makes me dislike the film even more, since it demonstrates that somebody involved in making this knew what they were doing, and simply chose not to bother.

But it's as a story that Cimarron truly falls apart. I have not read Ferber's novel, and perhaps the problems with the script were baked in; perhaps they played better on the page. As a movie narrative, though, this is garbage. The strain of compressing 40 years of personal and political history into two hours defeated Estabrook, who doesn't end up creating any sort of overall arc to the material; instead, this plays as several vignettes scattered across the decades, vaguely unified by themes of how legal structures impose themselves upon the frontier, and how Yancey Cravat finds himself desperate to go out and explore the vanishing frontier while it still exists in some form. But there is certainly no development of this theme across multiple vignettes. Subplots bubble up and pop after having done their bit to slow down the momentum, and there's little rhyme or reason to how the characters are treated; Sabra, in particular, veers from a source of domestic wisdom to an unlikable prig based largely on what will give Dix the best monologue. It's generally most successful in the early going, as it watches the fictional town of Osage coalesce out of nothing, and then sees the crude and bold personalities of the West find their own way towards an approximation of Eastern politics; the oil boom is uninteresting and tacked-on, and the 1929 finale is utterly deadly, puking out unearned eulogies and turning the matter of the family drama into outright kitsch.

"Most successful" is a relative claim. The non-Cravat characters are smudgy caricatures, with Edna May Oliver's smarmy matron Mrs. Tracy Wyatt and the excruciating racial caricature of Isaiah (Eugene Jackson), the African-American boy who snuck into Oklahoma with the Cravats, being much the worst; it is no coincidence that these are also two of the overtly comic figures. Scenes that start out with a nugget of interest choke and die; I am thinking perhaps first and foremost of Osage's very first religious ceremony, which emphasises the lack of tradition and melting-pot nature of the society rising out of the dust, before devolving into Dix delivering line after line after line of meandering nonsense or patronising nods to Native Americans, and devolving further into an endless bit of hymn singing.

Now, am I being uncharitable? Do I not consider it the job of the critic and cinephile alike to situate a film in its proper context? And wasn't Cimarron trying to do something bold and new, as attested to by its rapturous reception in 1931? Sure, whatever - it fails, is the point. It has slack, ugly staging and some of the worst sound recording and mixing you will ever encounter in a film of this vintage; I might have accepted the illegible crowd scenes or abrupt drop-out of ambient noise or overall blanket of crackling in a 1928 production, but by '31, this was all solved twice over. All Quiet on the Western Front had just picked up its own Best Picture Oscar the year prior, in no small part owing to its own complex, devastating sound design, still impressive after ninety years. Cimarron feels like ridiculous amateur-hour nonsense, something that only barely deserved to be released commercially at all in the state we're able to receive it. I'm glad that the long-dead tastemakers of 90 years ago found something exciting and transporting in this bland, scattershot slog; they are welcome to keep it.




*For what it's worth, the 1930/'31 Oscars had an unusually bad slate of Best Picture nominees, certainly one of the very worst years in that category's history. The only one of the five that's even good, I'd say, is The Front Page, a film best-known for having a much better remake.




†For the sake of comparison: not one single event depicted in Cimarron was as remote from 1931 as the entirety of Once Upon a Time ...in Hollywood is from 2019.