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|Written by Kevin Johns|
|Monday, 27 December 2010 00:00|
While I have referred to the films in the previous entries of the Oscars Project as "Best Pictures" winners, it wasn't technically accurate to do so.
Wings was recognized as "Most Outstanding Production" at the first Academy Awards ceremony, and The Broadway Melody and All Quiet on the Western Front both won "Best Production" in their respective ceremonies.
It was only at the 4th Academy Awards that the "Best Picture" category was finally officially recognized. As such, 1930-31 winner Cimarron, is -- technically speaking -- the first film to win a Best Picture Oscar.
This factoid is particularly ironic given that many critics feel it is the least deserving Best Picture winner of all time!
An RKO Pictures production, directed by Wesley Ruggles and adapted from Edna Ferber's popular novel, Cimarron chronicles the experiences of a settler family over the course of half a century in the developing state of Oklahoma.
It was the first Western to win Best Picture, and it would be another 60 years before another Western would win with 1990's Dances with Wolves.
The settler family is led by Sabra Cravat (Irene Dunne - fresh from a Broadway in an adaptation of another Feber novel, Show Boat) and her husband, Yancey Cravat. Yancey is played by Richard Dix in a truly bizarre performance that somehow earned him a nomination for Best Actor.
Dix delivers each line as though orating a speech to thousands. He spends much of the film with his fists on his hips, as though posing for the statue they would eventually build for him, or waving his hand in the air to theatrically emphasize a point. I would call his performance histrionic or over-acted, if it weren't so one-note; he uses the same self-assured and arrogant delivery throughout, regardless of the context of the scene. It's the type of performance James Dean's naturalism would thankfully wipe away a few decades later.
Yancey Cravat is a journalist, lawyer, impromptu spiritual leader, Victorian gentleman, crack gunfighter, political leader, heroic soldier, etc, etc, etc. Unfortunately, rather than coming off as a James Bond of the West, Cravat exudes a sort of self-centered arrogance that some might suggest characterizes America's worst trait.
Yet rather than serve as a mouthpiece for the sense of American manifest destiny that drives narrative, the film constantly emphasize Cravat's accepting and inclusive nature. When his wife calls Native Americans "filthy savages," Yancey expresses empathy for the Natives whose land has been stolen from them. (Of course, that doesn't stop him from settling it with vigour!). In fact, over the course of the film, Yancey makes friends with, protects, or helps a number of minority characters, including a young black servant, a stutterer, a persecuted prostitute, and an abused Jew.
Yet somehow rather than feel inclusive, Yancey's behaviour, and the film itself, play as disgustingly patronizing and downright condescending.
This is largely a result of the fact that most of the characters are stereotypes. The Jew is weak and cowardly but financially industrious; the black servant-boy is dull-witted comic relief hopelessly devoted to his master (he is, of course, killed off part way through the film); the Native Americans are all stoic and tragic; and the outlaws that Yancey engages in guns battles with all seem to be of Mexican descent.
One of the minority characters in the film states of Yancey, "It's men like him that build the world. The rest of them, like me, we just come along and live in it."
Cimarron depicts world where the land belongs to the smart, strong, industrious, well educated, romantic, adventuress, white, hetero men of America; the rest of the population is just living on it.
An especially annoying element of Cimarron's characterizations is the fact that despite featuring a narrative that covers half a century, the characters never change! Decade after decade they remain the same walking stereotypes.
If Cimarron is annoying its characterization and patronizing in its morality, where is does succeed is in its sweeping scope. Right from the opening sequences, in which thousands of settles rush across vast empty plains for the famous 1889 land grab, there is an epic grandeur to the film. As the story progresses the audience watches as those empty plains become an ad hoc town, then an established city, and finally a modern metropolis.
The performances and narrative are almost unwatchable today, but the film certainly succeeds on the technical side of things. The aging make-up and clothing used to communicate the passage of time, for example, is a rousing success, and rightfully earned an Oscar for Best Make-up.
Cimarron was a critical and commercial success in its day. That said, given the ongoing Great Depression and the film's budget being one the largest ever at the time, RKO failed to break even. Today, the film feels likes it is as big an artistic failure as it was a financial one at the time of its release. Its recognition as Best Picture, however, does hint at a trend in Academy preferences that will become more prominent as The Oscars Project continues.
Utter classics like Dracula and Frankenstein (horror), City Lights (comedy), and The Public Enemy and Little Caesar (gangster) were all released the same year as Cimarron. Shockingly all of these classic films failed to receive recognition of any kind from the Academy. Clearly, even 80 years ago, the Academy favored dramas (Cimarron is a melodrama as much as it is a Western) over genre pictures!
While that preference remains true to this very day, I doubt any modern Academy member today would prefer to watch Cimarron over any of the other films noted above.
Next up: We'll marvel at Joan Crawford and the all-star cast of Grand Hotel.
First Western to win Best Picture
Tags: arrogance, cimarron, cinema, condescending, infinite, least deserving, oklahoma!, oscars project, patronizing