4. Cimarron (1930) Dir. Wesley Ruggles

Viewed on Saturday 18th March 2023

Rick Burin has written recently that if you want to see great cinema, you shouldn’t look to the Oscars for guidance. Fair point. And now, four movies into this project, we reach the film most often cited as the worst Best Picture of all time. It’s hard to argue against consensus. Maybe there’s worse on the way* but in 2028 when I eventually rank-order all the first 100 winners, I’ll be surprised if this one places above the bottom five.

Based on a novel by Edna Ferber, Cimarron covers an epic period, 1889-1929, exploring America’s growth from wild frontier to industrial civilisation through the fictional life of adventurer Yancey Cravat and his family. At time of writing it remains the first of only three westerns to win the top prize. Like the others (Dances With Wolves and Unforgiven) its genre position is ‘revisionist’, and its key character is an antihero. Unfortunately, the social justice comes with a side-order of racism, and Cravat, as played by the booming Richard Dix, is morally incoherent, self-absorbed and pompous.

When Dix leaves the stage about halfway through the narrative, handing over central character duties to Irene Dunne, as Cravat’s abandoned wife, Sabra, our relief is short-lived. The early scenes might have been silly and/or offensive, but at least they had scale and drama. In the second section, Dunne labours through a series of flat and predictable chamber pieces, in which her character learns Important Lessons About Life and Tolerance while waiting for her errant husband to return. She’s a subtler, more likeable actor than her costar, but the material is thin, didactic stuff and entertainment is scarce.

Cravat resurfaces twice. Once he pops home briefly to teach Sabra all about feminist solidarity. Then, at the end of the film, she happens to be inspecting an oilfield where he’s working incognito. He performs some offstage heroism before dying conveniently in her arms.

There’s been no restoration of Cimarron, so – like The Broadway Melody – we saw it on an imported South Korean DVD. The soundtrack was so degraded we had to have the English subtitles on throughout. There were no extras.  

Will I ever watch it again? Christ, no. Do I regret the couple of hours I spent with it? I do not. I’m in this to get a feel for the changing social temperature of the century from 1928 to (eventually) 2028; to sample the evolving zeitgeist through the faulty lens of the Academy’s annual top choice.

Along with its many other faults Cimarron is soured by both racism and sexism – yet we have the sense that its makers, the critics who lauded it, and the Academy when they gave it the prize, all thought they’d achieved peak cultural awareness, peak social justice. For those of us (like me) prone to considering themselves unassailably right on such topics, it’s worth reflecting on how often history has proved others horribly wrong about them.

4th Academy Awards 1931

Winner: Cimarron – RKO Radio

Also nominated:

East Lynne – Fox
The Front Page – The Caddo Company
Skippy – Paramount Publix
Trader Horn – Metro-Goldwyn Mayer

* Two weeks later we moved Cimarron off the bottom slot to make room for Cavalcade. Oh dear, oh dear.