We let this one sit for a while, truth be told. Sometimes the older Best Picture winners are harder for me to muster excitement over. Cimarron won the Oscar in 1931, and was also one of only a few Westerns to ever win an Academy Award. It focuses on the story of Yancey Cravat, an adventure-seeking man with a past who participates in the Oklahoma Land Rush of 1889. When he fails to grab the piece of land he wants and is outsmarted by a young woman Dixie Lee, he regroups and takes his young bride Sabra and their son Cim (nickname for Cimarron, a word which is also used to refer to the Wild) to Osage. They realize on the way that a black servant from their former home in Kansas has stowed away with them – Isaiah – but they allow him to stay.
Osage terrifies Sabra at first. The town is newly forming, and there is a lot of violence and gambling. She worries about raising their child there, but the family soldiers on. Yancey takes it upon himself to rid the town of its bad element and ends up shooting the outlaw Lon Yountis. He sets up shop with The Osage Wigwam, a town paper, helping the burgeoning area to progress. Yancey is bold and masculine and extroverted, and quickly becomes a local hero. In the midst of this, he and Sabra, who has begun to like Osage, have a second child – a daughter Donna.
The interesting thing about Cimarron is that, central to the story, is not so much a conflict between protagonist and antagonist, but rather the dichotomous tension between the two main characters. The story follows the fictionalized town of Osage as it changes through the passing of time, first as a lawless frontier settlement, then a growing town taking it’s place in the newly founded state of Oklahoma, and finally a modern city. Yancey is a true larger than life personality. He saunters into town literally as it is being built, he founds the church and newspaper and he shoots from the hip to protect the weak from town villains. Not only that, but he is a man of great principle. When propositioned with a scheme to cheat Indian groups, he sacrifices a potential political career by publishing editorials demanding Indians’ rights. Later he defies popular opinion by defending a maligned prostitute. But he also bores easily, disappearing from his family for years at a stretch. If Yancey is the spirit of adventure embodied, Sabra is the spirit of stability, acting as editor of the paper while raising the family during Yancey’s absences. Yancey is ahead of the curve; Sabra gets to the right place- eventually. Together they constitute the Yin and Yang of a society’s progress, the sail and the anchor, so to speak. By the film’s final sequence, in 1929, Sabra has become a pillar of the community, newly elected to the House of Representatives. Yancey has long since drifted on, but she never would have gotten there without him.
There are some other things I like about Cimarron. The opening credits are done tableau style wherein rather than a printed list, each actor poses alone and in character, outside the narrative, with the actor and character name shown. I’ve seen this done in earlier silents, but I can’t place it in any talkies (Wes Anderson excepted). I like that Continue reading