AND THE WINNER IS... CIMARRON
Updated: Feb 20
THE FIRST WESTERN BEST PICTURE
The fourth film to win Best Picture honors is Cimarron – from 1930 and 1931.
The film premiered at the RKO Palace on Broadway - January 26th 1931. It was the first film to be nominated in every major category.
Produced by William LaBaron for RKO – Cimarron cost $1.4 million to make, and returned $1.38 million at the box office – never quite recouping its production cost – likely because it was released in the middle of the great depression.
The script was written by Howard Estabrook and Louis Sarecky, and is based on Edna Ferber’s novel of the same name.
Photographed by William Cronjager, Cimarron was directed by Wesley Ruggles – though he’s only credited as a Wesley Ruggles Production.
In his day Ruggles was a big deal, beginning his career in 1915 as an actor - with roles in several Charlie Chaplin films.
He made the transition to director in 1917, directing more than 50 movies, before his final film – London Town in 1946, but Cimarron was the film that won Ruggles wide acclaim.
CIMARRON – MEANS WILD, SAVAGE, & UNRULY
Ruggles had a specific vision of the big west. To communicate that to screen - the land rush scenes used more than two dozen cameras, and 5000 extras in wagons and period costume. All this production value – made Cimarron the most expensive film RKO had ever made – to that point – a distinction it would hold until Gunga Din in 1939.
To assist production, RKO also bought 89 acres in Encino – where they built the boomtown set – and a three-block modern (for 1930) main street. These sets became the backbone of the RKO Movie Ranch where countless films were shot for decades.
RKO STUDIOS - REBEL WITHOUT A PROFIT
RKO - an acronym of "Radio-Keith-Orpheum" was a merger between the Radio Corporation of America (RCA), the Keith Albee Orpheum Theater chain (KAO), and American Pathe' Productions.
RKO was founded in 1928 and only lasted for 29 years - ceasing film production operations in 1957. The company - and its iconic radio tower logo - was created at the dawn of the talking picture era - using RCA's Photophone audio process. Sound was clearly the future in the business in 1928, but the fact that RKO had no experience in silent film, also mean they didn't have the expertise to know what would make money, and what wouldn't. That inexperience led them to spend less time making B movies - the bread and butter of the Hollywood system.
B Movies/program films - that second picture on a double feature bill - were inexpensive - often shooting out in a week or less. They used contract talent, that the studio was already paying for. As a result - costs were low and profit margins were high. RKO, on the other hand, often went for the big budget, high quality pictures that usually lost money. Cimarron - for example - a huge spectacle and Best Picture winner - didn't recoup its costs in the initial release. Another factor contributing to RKO's profit problem - there was never a "movie mogul," at the helm of the studio. In the 29 years the company operated they had eight production bosses. From William LeBaron, to David O . Selznick, to Dore Schary to Howard Hughes - RKO changed bosses every three and a half years on average. Selznick only stayed fifteen months.
The leadership they did have though was incredibly creative. RKO was never afraid to take a chance, didn't see quality as anathema to profit, and avoided being stereotyped like their competitors. MGM was know for their musicals. Warner known for noir pics. RKO - by contrast - did it all.
Along with Howard Hawks, Katherine Hepburn and Cary Grant - RKO invented the screwball comedy with Bringing Up Baby.
They re-invented the movie musical. Instead of revealing character through singing as was the traditional method - Pan Berman, Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers used dance to show exposition, and they did it with the best music in the world - using scores by Irving Berlin, The Gershwins, and Jerome Kern among others. RKO single handedly created the monster movie genre with King Kong. They regularly put strong women out front. Irene Dunne in Cimarron, is the strongest character in the story. Hepburn in Bringing Up Baby, has all the power in the romance. Even Ginger Rogers was arguably the dominant character in the dance films - doing everything Astaire did - as she put famously put it "backwards - in high heels."
Many of the best films of all time including the Astaire and Rogers fare, King Kong, Bringing Up Baby, Notorious, It's A wonderful Life, Gunga Din, and what many consider the best film ever made - Citizen Kane, came out of RKO.
By 1948 the Howard Hughes had acquired controlling interest in the studio. It didn't fare much better under the guidance of the world's richest man. By 1954 Hughes sold the company to General Tire - which had been buying media companies for several years. In 1957 the RKO studio lot ceased production operations and the lot was sold to two former RKO contract actors, Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz - as the new home to Desilu Studios.
CIMARRON - BEST SCREENPLAY
Howard Estabrook’s script is based on Edna Ferber’s novel. One of four of her novels to be made into a movie. The others being So Big, a silent film from 1924. Giant,”in 1956, and Show Boat, which became both a Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein musical in 1927 and then a 1951 film based on the play. The rights to Ferber’s book cost RKO a record $125,000.
Ferber was an interesting character. She was born in Kalamazoo Michigan 1885, never married, and as far as was ever reported - never had a relationship. She once claimed being an old maid was a bit like drowning – quite pleasant once you quit struggling.
She had a thick Yiddish accent – which earlier in her life led to verbal abuse and anti-Semitic taunts from school mates. It was also a gift. She believed her creativity came from – her Jewishness, and the trials and experiences of her people.
At age seventeen, Ferber stormed out of the house, quit school, and became a journalist in Michigan working eventually for United Press.
In 1909 she fell ill – and while she was recovering began submitting short stories to magazines. In 1911 she published her first novel, “Dawn O’Hara – The Girl Who Laughed.” In 1925, Ferber won a Pulitzer for her novel So Big, which she thought lacked plot, and was surprised when Doubleday bought it.
Nonetheless, she always seemed completely comfortable with her writing style, which was feminist, and multi-racial. She didn't care if it offended the fragile egos of the white, male, powers that be.
She claimed she wrote to please herself – if that was she pushing back on the limitations of race, gender, and the prevailing American view of history – so be it.
AN UN-ABASHED AMERICAN
Ferber is often criticized for her “un-abashed” Americanism, but her stance is more complicated than it seems.
She had a strong self-righteous, and superior streak.
Ferber was an early environmentalist. She didn’t think much of what she called “paper mill millionaires,” who destroyed the American forest. Ferber took pride in the fact that there were no Jewish names among those despoilers. The Jewish Women’s Archive said of her writing style -
“She chronicled the ‘American working people whose ethnic variety, linguistic idiosyncrasy, toughness, occasional sweetness, and resilience never ceased to fascinate her.’ (She) celebrated America, even as she exposed its shortcomings.”
Ferber often wrote about strong capable women who succeed in business, the characters in Cimarron are true to form.
CIMARRON MORE THAN A TYPICAL WESTERN
At a glance Cimarron appears to be the typical, male dominated western movie.
The only female character in the opening sequence is a wanton woman Dixie Lee, who nonetheless outwits male lead Yancy Cravat by stealing his land claim.
SPOILER ALERT - By the end of the story the women have all succeeded – even Dixie Lee. The men are mostly failures. It's probably not that big of a spoiler alert because you can see it coming from the first act. The leading male character, Yancy, is pompous, and self-aggrandizing. He says all the right things – but his actions contradict his words.
For example – he makes a point of defending Cherokee anger over having their land stolen. Yet is no longer concerned when he has the chance to seize some of that land for himself.
The character's attitude towards African Americans is no better. The family – Wichita transplants from Mississippi – still employ black servants and plantation institutions in 1889 - long after emancipation. Yancy's humor is cruel by today’s standards as well, coming mostly at the expense of a typesetter with a speech impediment.
The typesetter character - Sol Levy - is a Jewish immigrant, and seller of dry goods and clothing. Though Yancy's words defend Levy – the immigrant remains an outsider throughout the film.
One of the most fulfilling moments comes near the end - when the waspy town busybody – apologizes to Levy - explaining that he was left off the congressional committee because they had to consider family lineage – adding superciliously that she had an ancestor who signed the Declaration of Independence. Levy, replies without malice – “One of my ancestors was Moses, who wrote the ten commandments.”
FERBER’S EASTER EGGS
Ferber’s humor at its best, has the male lead in the film named Yancy Cravat. Yancy is a Native American word for Englishman and Cravat means ascot or necktie. He’s literally fancy-dress Englishman.
As a character - Yancy’s a one dimensional - single minded man - seeking adventure and empire - above all else. The character is reportedly based on Temple Houston – a real life gunfighting lawyer, and son of Sam Houston - of Alamo fame.
The role of Yancy Cravat is played by Richard Dix and true to character his portrayal is as stiff as an early Disney prince.
Dix studied to become a surgeon but dropped out of The University of Minnesota to train as an actor.
He’s mostly remembered today as a western star. But his best known role at the time was in Cecil B Demille’s silent version of The Ten Commandments.
Dix was nominated for Best Actor in Cimarron – where he received top billing.
Richard Dix struggled with alcohol most of his life.
He had a heart attack while traveling by train from New York to L.A., and died a week later.
THE MAIN CHARACTER DIDN’T GET TOP BILLING
Irene Dunne who played Yancy’s wife Sabra, and arguably the film’s protagonist, received second billing.
Sabra - the name means Cactus Fruit in Hebrew - is a complete contrast to her husband Yancy.
Ferber's thing for names once again reflects the character of the person. Like the cacti of the southwest – the character Sabra is a survivor – who can live on very little nourishment. We first meet her as an antebellum socialite, wife and mother in Wichita, KS. After being transplanted to the frontier along with her husband, it takes Sabra a while to catch on. She begins with a highly prejudicial view of life. She shuns Dixie Lee – the town madam. She thinks Native Americans are savages, and is upset when her son marries a native princess.
Yet when her wonder lusting husband leaves on another empire building adventure, Sabra deftly takes over the family business – the town newspaper - and becomes editor in all but name. She keeps Yancy’s name on the masthead.
Yancy comes and goes through out the film, but Sabra overcomes her prejudices, grows into a rock of the community - eventually becoming the first woman elected to congress from Oklahoma.
Dunne’s performance as Sabra is quite good. Later in life she came to consider it a bit hammy – though she couldn't have thought it as hammy as Richard Dix performance.
Dunne was a huge star during Hollywood’s Golden Age.
Born in Kentucky – she dreamed of becoming an opera star. After the Met rejected her she turned to musicals on Broadway, where she was discovered by RKO scouts in a road company of Show Boat.
Irene Dunne made 42 movies in her career and was nominated for Best Actress five times – never winning.
Her final appearance was on the television show General Electric Theater – in 1962.
THE REAL PROTAGONIST OF CIMARRON?
Most reviews of the novel, and film, talk about the well-spoken, lawyer turned journalist Yancy Cravat, as the protagonist of Cimarron.
There is however a school of thinking - that the person who changes the most during a story is the hero – no matter the intentions.
On that basis Sabra is clearly the protagonist of this story. From Victorian era housewife - to frontier mother – to newspaper editor – to the halls of congress is one helluva journey.
Meanwhile Yancy Cravat never changes a bit. He’s the same one dimensional, adventure seeker at the end, that he was at the start.
By that measure the story is about Sabra - not Yancy, and it’s a much deeper story form that perspective. It’s fitting that Edna Ferber would create a female protagonist, hiding in plain view of the male dominated world.
Cimarron, wasn't the only time she used strong female characters. The protagonists in Show Boat are clearly defined females – albeit with added bigotry. You see the same in Giant – strong women in a man’s world.
A RARE WESTERN
Cimarron is one of only three westerns to ever win best picture. The others being Dances With Wolves, and Unforgiven, both in the early ‘90s.
THE LEGACY OF CIMARRON
In its original run Cimarron was a critical success, and would likely have turned a profit were it not released in the depths of the great depression. Today though, it has the lowest online ratings – of all best picture winners. Likely due to some unfortunate – even offensive stereotypes. (NOTE: It's much stronger than The Broadway Melody) The film takes a lot of hits for its storytelling, and editing technique. Films were still transitioning from the silent era, a time when filmmakers tended to show more - and tell less with dialogue. The balance hadn't quite been figured out yet. This results in some almost painfully slow transitions - by today’s standards.
But the storytelling in Cimarron is – for the moment anyway – just out of fashion. We still made deliberate movies like this well into the 1980s.
Maybe filmmakers should try thinking - and pacing - that way again. It’s just possible we need slow down a bit today – let stories breathe a moment before we bombard the audience with another 3d generated effect.
The bottom line about Cimarron - the basic bones of Ferber’s story are solid.
It’s worth a watch. Maybe two!