Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Nothing But the Best: "Cimarron" (1931)

Scene from Cimarron
Welcome to the series Nothing But the Best in which I chronicle all of the Academy Award Best Picture winners as they celebrate their anniversaries. Instead of going in chronological order, this series will be presented on each film's anniversary and will feature personal opinions as well as facts regarding its legacy and behind the scenes information. The goal is to create an in depth essay for each film while looking not only how the medium progressed, but how the film is integral to pop culture. In some cases, it will be easy. Others not so much. Without further ado, let's start the show.

Background Information

Release Date: February 9, 1931
Director: Wesley Ruggles
Written By: Edna Ferber (Novel), Howard Estabrook (Screen Version & Dialogue), Louis Sarecky (Contributor)
Starring: Richard Dix, Irene Dunne, Estelle Taylor
Genre: Drama, Western
Running Time: 123 minutes

Oscar Wins: 3
-Best Picture
-Best Adapted Screenplay
-Best Art Direction

Oscar Nominations: 3
-Best Actress (Irene Dunne)
-Best Director
-Best Cinematography

Other Best Picture Nominees

-East Lynne
-The Front Page
-Trader Horn

And the winner is...

The reputation of director Wesley Ruggles' Cimarron is a challenging one, in that nobody really remembers it beyond the fact that it was the first western to win Best Picture. However, it was also an epic that spanned 40 years in the lives of one family, telling an impressive story that captured key points in the evolution of society from the Old West to then modern architecture. It's a film whose ambitions likely outweigh its actual quality. For that, it may be more dated than most of the 30's Best Picture winners out there. However, it's still an impressive achievement when considering its overall goals.

While film was still adjusting to its modern interpretation in 1931, it also had to deal with The Great Depression; one of the biggest economic tragedies in American history. With most families too poor to attend cinema and focused their energies more on scrapping together enough food to survive, it's hard to feel as enthusiastic for the films that were coming out around that time. That didn't stop RKO Radio Pictures from investing $1.5 million into a production of Edna Ferber's "Cimarron" novel, whose rights were sold for a then unprecedented $125,000. Contrary to everything else going on, the studio had high hopes for the film.

RKO purchased 89 acres in Encino, California in order to capture the look of the old western town. They built various buildings for the fake city of Osage, Oklahoma, including a few more modern sets for the film's finale. The sets would eventually go on to become part of RKO's movie ranch. The first scene was shot at Jasmine Queen Ranch in Los Angeles, CA where the famous land rush scene was shot. This scene took a week to film and resulted in 5,000 dressed extras being shot by 28 cameramen. Every shot was planned, with many moments being an homage to D.W. Griffith's epic from several years prior Intolerance

The film was released to glowing reviews. Most critics talked highly of Ruggles' direction and how impressive a feat it was for cinema. It was even the second highest-grossing movie of 1931 behind Frankenstein. If there was one catch, however, it was that Frankenstein had made $12 million compared to Cimarron's $1.3 million. RKO actually lost money on what was their then most expensive film until seven years later with Gunga Din. It is reported that the studio lost $565 million based on initial box office receipts. In fact, the film would remain in the hole until a rerelease in 1935, which finally helped them break even.

The box office bomb status didn't help or hurt Cimarron at The Oscars that year, as it broke new records. It became the first film to be nominated for six Academy Awards. It was also one of only two as of 2015 to be nominated in every applicable category (the other being Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?). It was also the first western to win Best Picture (of which there's only been two others: Dances With Wolves and Unforgiven). It remains the only in-house film for RKO to win the top honor as well. 

Cimarron is not necessarily a film that many people think of. If they do, they often think of the 1960 version with Glenn Ford and Anne Baxter. While this is common for most 1930's Best Picture winners, Cimarron has the unfortunate reputation of being very dated and slow - likely correlating with the decline of western movies as a popular genre. It doesn't help that it's a genre that's not well recognized at The Oscars. Among its other unfortunate honors is that it is the lowest rated Best Picture winner on IMDb. For the most part, the film remains largely forgotten not because of its box office bomb status, but because of how impressively directors like John Ford, Michael Curtiz, and Howard Hawks improved the western genre, making Cimarron seem obsolete within a decade. 

Yet Cimarron will likely never be forgotten, if just for the simple fact of its trivia-worthy status as the first western to win a Best Picture award. With solid performances and a challenging story, the film managed to be effective cinema for its time. However, the changing time and the evolution of cinema's narrative technique made everything about the film seem tedious. It is by no means a great film when compared to what would win Oscars later on, but it definitely helped to set a bar for what the award could be: singular, epic, ambitious, and visually stunning. Who knows how its legacy would've differed had it come out not during the Great Depression. We'll never know, though we do know that the film may never fully get the credit it deserves as an early and intriguing western.

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