Cimarron (1931)

(On Cable TV, March 2018) As one of the earliest Best Picture Oscar winners, Cimarron remains a quasi-mandatory viewing experience for film buffs, and comparative lists are quick to bury it to the bottom of the Best Picture winners. I went into the film with low expectations, and was surprised to find out that I rather liked much of the movie. My appreciation has its limits, of course—the film is casually racist, long, lopsided in its structure by accelerating toward the end and making the motivations of its characters increasingly nebulous … and so on. But there is a sweep and a scope to the film’s central premise (adapted from an epic novel): the development of a place (and a family) from the initial land rush to a then-modern city. It does start with an impressive sequence, a re-creation of the 1889 Oklahoma Land Rush in all of its crazy glory. Then we’re off to understand our putative protagonist, who ends up becoming a pillar of the community after being beaten to the plot of land he wanted for himself. Various episodic shenanigans take place until, in a bizarre third act, the protagonist disappears from the story and leaves his wife to fend off for herself. Spanning forty years, Cimarron is at its best when it portrays its characters civilizing their own community, banding together to create some peace and order. Alas, even in that most noble portrait, the film has some serious issues in bringing everything together and tightening up its story. At least the wild-west visuals are interesting, Richard Dix is fine as the protagonist, Estelle Taylor is still eye-catching decades later and Irene Dunne makes an impression as the dramatic burden of the film falls on her shoulders toward the end. Watching old movies can turn into an anthropologic expedition—especially during the tumultuous thirties, as movies acquired more or less the same basic cinematographic grammar used today but to portray a significantly different time. So it is that I’m rather happy to have seen Cimarron—It’s memorable, was made with high production values for the time and carries to the present day a time capsule of things both admirable and reprehensible about how American saw themselves back then.

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