It’s hard to believe in the same year “Dracula” and “Frankenstein” were released; Wesley Ruggle’s “Cimarron” won Best Picture. This film is not a great movie, and by no means an essential Western. The picture is a relic, imprisoned forever by the era of its release. Unlike the horror classics that came out in 1931, it fails to transcend its limitations. Instead it plods along, an epic only in run time.
“Cimarron,” tells the story of Yancey Cravat (seriously that’s his name) played by Richard Dix, a newspaper editor who settles in Osage, Oklahoma with his wife Sabra (Irene Dunne). The film chronicles the Cravats’ 40-year saga as Oklahoma goes from cowboy filled Indian territory to oil rich state. At the heart of the story is conflict between Yancey and Sabra. Yancey’s wanderlust drives him to seek out new frontiers and adventures, while Sabra is forced to stay behind and build a community. As the 19th century turns into the 20th the couple face the challenges of a changing America.
“Cimarron” is a monument to half measures. On the one hand it discusses the issues of Native Americans, anti-Semitism, and women’s rights. On the other it propagates stereotypical representations of black people and idolizes a juvenile man-child who abandons his family to pursue his own interests. The film’s greatest crime is that it follows the wrong character. We focus on Yancey who walks in and out of the story without consequence. Yet the true heart of the narrative is Sabra. Hiding behind her husband’s flamboyant personality, Sabra slowly transforms the town into a thriving metropolis. She runs the newspaper, puts her children through college, and becomes a congresswoman. Sabra brings civilization to the West, which is what every great Western is about. She is the film’s true protagonist. And while she plays a prominent role in the film, she falls into the background as Yancey’s charisma suffocates the story.
If they were to remake this film again (there’s a 1960 version starring Glenn Ford) I would like to see it focus more on Sabra. It’s her story that’s captivating, her story we’re drawn to. I would like to see more films about the women who had to actually stick around and civilize the West. “Cimarron” missed an opportunity to tell a compelling story. Even though it won Best Picture it fades into history as another mediocre Western about a strapping man of action instead of focusing on the real force of change. Trailer