Warner Bros. // 1931 // 124 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Steve Evans (Retired) // June 9th, 2006
Earth-shaking in its grandeur! A titanic canvas sprung to life!
Not quite earth-shaking, but this 1931 western did take the Oscar for Best Picture.
In 1889, President Benjamin Harrison opens the Oklahoma territory for settlement. Thousands of men, some with families, thunder across the state line to stake their claims on this unprecedented landfall. Yancey Cravat (Richard Dix, The Ghost Ship) grabs a share of free land to start a ranch, later moving his family from Kansas. The naturally dynamic Cravat practices law, preaches on Sundays, and publishes a newspaper the rest of the time in the boom town of Osage, OK, when he's not tending to his meek wife Sabra (Irene Dunne, A Guy named Joe).
Rustlers and ruffians still plague the Wild West, so Cravat is occasionally called upon to fight the scofflaws, including The Kid (William Collier Jr., Speed Demon), who's deadly with a six-shooter. Cravat and this outlaw were once friends, but since he turned bad, The Kid has held up the Wells Fargo Stagecoach so many times that the bank puts a $5,000 bounty on his head.
Later, with order restored and the town flourishing, Cravat decides to leave his family for a few years to make another land grab when the government opens new territories. His wife eventually proves her moxie as an independent woman.
This may be the only Best Picture winner to lose money on initial release in spite of generally positive reviews. One explanation could be unfortunate timing, as Cimarron came out during the depths of the Great Depression, when buying food became more important than a movie ticket. RKO Pictures re-released the film a few years later and recouped their investment.
Seen with contemporary eyes, the film is badly dated, slow moving, and pocked with racist caricatures. Some situations are simply unbelievable, such as Cravat's decision to leave his family for years in pursuit of fortune and glory -- much less his wife's tolerance for this behavior.
Looking beyond these narrative flaws, as an early epic Cimarron still has the power to thrill. The recreation of the great 1889 Oklahoma Land Rush remains an exciting spectacle. Witness 5,000 extras, their horses, carriages, and at least one high-wheel bicycle dashing across the open plains to claim their fortunes. Unfortunately, the film never manages to top this opening shot.
Ted Turner and Warner Brothers own the picture and hundreds more from the MGM vaults. While the Warner people do a sterling job of sprucing up films from their own studio, restoring and repairing acquired properties is a hit-or-miss proposition. With Cimmaron, they missed. The print is in bad shape, with deep scratches running through most of the picture. Audio is marginally better, though the soundtrack crackles with age.
Extras are limited to an ancient MGM cartoon, "Red-Headed Baby," and the bizarre musical short, "The Devil's Cabaret," which is among the oddest things I've seen on vintage DVD packages. Briefly, the devil's business needs a good jump start as there aren't enough souls making it down to hell. So an oily assistant and his sexy secretary (she sits on his lap to receive, um, dictation), decide to put on an elaborate musical show that might boost business. Far out. This short subject is also notable as an early example of the three-strip Technicolor process before it had been perfected. Colors oscillate between pale pastels and sharp images that cast an ethereal glow. This is a real curiosity that's worth having in the collection and might even be enough to push the disc into the buy column. The main feature can be played with three different sets of subtitles, including English, for those who keep rack of such things.
Heavy melodrama undercuts the spectacle of Cimarron, which grinds to a standstill when the action moves indoors. This was probably a limitation of early sound recording equipment -- dialogue is obviously required to advance the story, and the technology worked best inside, on a soundstage. To spice up the static indoor scenes, the director stages some unintentionally amusing action, such as Cravat shooting a killer in the middle of church services. Our hero hollers over the congregation for the coroner to haul away the body, then he decides to suspend his sermon and calls on his flock for a moment of prayer. Silly.
Historically significant as an early Hollywood epic, Cimarron also holds the distinction of being the first western to win Best Picture. The film just hasn't aged well.
Guilty of melodramatic tedium at the expense of epic storytelling.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono (English)
Running Time: 124 Minutes
Release Year: 1931
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Musical Short: The Devil's Cabaret
* Classic Cartoon: Red-Headed Baby