The Best Picture Winners: Cimarron (1930-31)

| September 15, 2017

Oscar’s 90th birthday is just around the corner and to celebrate, every other day from now through March 4th, I will be taking a look at each and every film selected for his top award – the good, the bad and the sometimes not-so deserving.

The 1930s began with a flurry of bad news, and not just at the movies.  Just nine weeks before the 1920s came to a close the stock market crashed and threw the country into a depression from which it would not recover for 15 years.  Still, Americans went to the movies as they did in times of joy and sorrow, and in 1930 the magic that had vanished from the landscape of the good old USA was still ever-present at the movies.

Unfortunately, none of that magic was present among the roster of Best Picture nominees.  The new decade began with one of the worst lists of Best Picture hopefuls that you can imagine (I oughta know, I’ve seen them all).  Aside from Lewis Milestone’s brilliant adaptation of The Front Page, the choices for Hollywood’s first official “Best Picture” were pious, respectable prestige films that were completely unworthy of award consideration.  Does anyone remember Skippy?  East LynneTrader Horn?   Me neither.

The worst of the lot sadly walked away with the year’s top award.  Cimarron was an interminable, dusty old piece of western prairie chips pried from the pages of Edna Ferber’s popular novel about the evolution of the Oklahoma frontier as seen through the eyes of a dreamy married couple played by Richard Dix and Irene Dunne.

This movie is as much fun as a dead fish.  Its too long; the narrative is is a mess; the performances are wooden; the story is cornball; It has an appalling attitude toward both African-Americans and Native Americans.  You can admire the much-hailed look of the western landscape, photographed by Edward Cronjager, but there have been so many westerns that have come along since that have made much better use of outdoor photography (see Red River) that it seems pointless to single out this one.

The win is something of a mystery too.  Cimarron received glowing critical acclaim and would receive two other Oscars for the script and the art direction, but it was a box office flop, furthering the suspicion that the win was an inside job.

I’ve seen the film only once.  It is one of those movies that gives you a headache.  Whenever I saw it, I kept persistently asking myself why I’m not watching better films from 1930 like City Lights or The Front Page or Morocco or The Public Enemy.  Those are films to be treasured.  Cimarron should line the bottom of a birdcage.

About the Author:

Jerry Roberts is a film critic and operator of two websites, Armchair Cinema and Armchair Oscars.