This week I will review two Best Picture winners that had they been released in another year would not have stood a chance for the Academy’s top award. First is the 1931 winner Cimarron. This western about settling the Oklahoma territory is also the saga of a family confounded by the husband’s need to roam.
At the picture’s opening we meet Yancey Cravat (Richard Dix) who joins thousands of other settlers in making a run to claim portions of the Cherokee land that would become Oklahoma. He knows precisely where he wants to make his claim and nearly makes it there when a woman –Dixie Lee (Estelle Taylor)– falls with her horse into a ditch. Yancey stops to help her and loses the claim to Ms. Lee.
Yancey returns home to his son and wife and her family in Wichita, where he convinces his clan to move to a boom town in the newly settled land. There the man –already well known to many in the settlement of Osage– sets up a newspaper. He also helps to establish a church by holding a service in the only building big enough to hold all the townsfolk: the gambling hall. Trouble from an outlaw band leads to a standoff at the service, but Yancey manages to shoot the leader dead before he can make a similar move.
Yancey’s wife Sabra (Irene Dunne) has a second child while living in their now very nice home attached to the newspaper office. The girl Donna joins son “Cim”, whose name is short for Cimarron, meaning wild one. It also happens to be a rarely used nickname for Yancey.
Dixie Lee takes up residence in the town, having been driven off the land she stole from Yancey. The man has no hard feelings, however, and readily accepts a friendship with the woman of ill repute, who seems to lead a horde of prostitutes. Sabra is naturally offended by any association between the two.
Yancey next leaves home to settle a new strip of government-released land from the Cherokee without much consideration to his home responsibilities. During the multiple years he is away, Sabra maintains the newspaper with the help of the loyal printing assistant. The children grow while Yancey remains away with no word of his whereabouts. He returns at last, having served in the Spanish-American War, just in time to find Sabra preparing to print a story about the conviction of Dixie Lee as a public nuisance. Being a lawyer, Yancey immediately heads to court to defend the prostitute, winning the case for her.
Next in the history of the Cravat family is Yancey’s controversial editorial supporting citizenship for American Indians who have gained wealth as a result of the oil boom. Sabra opposes the opinion piece and Yancey disappears after its issuance.
Fast forward to the newspaper’s 40th anniversary when the town of Osage is a steel city and Sabra a newly elected Congresswoman for the region. She is given a congratulatory dinner where she talks about the paper and her family, saying her husband is out of town. In truth he has been missing for decades. Later, while visiting an oil drilling site, Sabra learns a man is badly injured only to find it is her long-lost husband.
Probably the largest problem with Cimarron is the unlikeability of the main character. Yancey might be kind to the down-and-out prostitute or American Indian, but he treats his wife atrociously through his repeated abandonment of her and his children. We come to like Sabra quite a bit through Dunne’s wonderful-as-usual performance, but even her tearful reunion with her husband at the close could draw no sympathy from me because the movie did a poor job with their romance. This was no case of lovers who just can’t seem to get their timing right. This was a story of a man too restless to stay in one place regardless of his responsibility to people or business.
Cimarron might hold interest as a story of the settling of a new town and the impact of oil developments in the Oklahoma region, but it fails as a story capable of drawing any emotion.