Just as a foreword, this is part of my new series in which I pick a year, and study several influential, successful, or otherwise controversial films from that year, and then essentially summarize it as a whole afterwards. Our starting year is 1931, as I take at look at RKO’s literature based juggernaut Cimmaron (1931). Cimmaron is a very capitalistic look at the western, ultimately painting it as a land of prosperity and opportunity. It stems from Edna Ferber’s 1929 novel of the same name. RKO highly pushed the film, granting it a contextually large budget of 1.5 million dollars. Given inflation, the state of the industry, and the influence of the great depression, the sum is actually incredibly large for a film.
The film focuses on the incredibly flamboyant and ambitious Yancy Cravat (Richard Dix) as he leads the small settlement of Osage through the years. He’s a lawyer, and newspaper publisher who sets up shop in the newly occupational land that we now know as Oklahoma. The film is well known for it’s depiction of the land rush of 1891. In contrast to societies views of poverty and the great depression at the time of release, the film tried to bestow quite positive ideas of ambition and prosperity, reinforcing that old stereotype of the ‘American dream’. Yancy has to leave town again to go aid the strip, as he leaves his wife on her own once again, to fend for herself with their child.
For such a big epic and opulent film, the script is underdeveloped. A lot of characters don’t particularly have a purpose, and the whole direction of the film feels more like a motif than a message or narrative of sorts. Generally I think Cimmaron is more about the atmosphere than anything else. After all it’s often hard to capture the entire ideals of a book within a narrow 2 hours of cinema. It does depict the scenery and the time span accurately if nothing else. However it’s often said that Werber was very pleased with the adaption, regardless of the book rights being used again in 1960 for the same purpose. Cimmaron isn’t particularly special by any means, often devalued by it’s very ‘goofy’ cast of actors so it’s been said. However it’s definitely useful as a pinpoint for the Sevolution of the grand epic, and where that kind of ambition in cinema stems from.
Right, now to context. Many people often claim that Cimmaron is one of the most undeserving Academy Award winners there is in the history of the Oscar. But the thing is, it was crowned with the award of Outstanding Production (Best Picture) in only it’s 4th ceremony when none of the candidates were particularly fantastic or outstanding in themselves. It competed against Skippy, Trader Horn, East Lynne, and the Front Page, which were all received as ‘fine’ productions they didn’t have that big impact that Cimmaron did just because of the sheer grand spectacle it provided for audiences in 1931. Interestingly Cimmaron is technically an economic flop as it brought back $30,000 short of it’s budget, but that’s fairly successful considering the ludicrous figure of 1.5 million sunk into it.
It was a fairly slow year for the oscars, with Cimmaron being nominated for 7 awards (every category) with it receiving 3. In addition we can see that directors and producers clearly had big ambitions but the economy at the time had other ideas. Clearly it wasn’t wise for RKO to produce Cimmaron but they did to critical acclaim regardless of the economical turnout. We also see the western creep in the title of Best Picture considering the only other western to do that is Dances With Wolves in 1990. Anyway, i’ll end the history lesson here, and hope you join me next time as I take a look at one of the most iconic horror films ever made, Frankenstein.
(Unfortunately I couldn’t get my own images for this article, as my edition of Cimmaron was being faulty).