It helps if one can view Cimarron (1931) in the context of its era. It had, at the time, the largest budget for an RKO picture - a whopping $1,433,000 (remember, filming began in 1930, the era of the Great Depression) and the production values for the day were tremendous. For example, producer William LeBaron hired action expert B. Reeves Eason to engineer the Oklahoma run sequence. Eason had conducted the terrific chariot race for Ben-Hur (1925) and the scope of material he needed to achieve this sequence was quite something for its time: over 5000 extras, 47 cameramen, an army of assorted technicians and livestock covering more than 40 acres!
The casting of Richard Dix in the part of Yancey was a crucial factor in the film's success. Dix was a popular and unmistakably American actor of the late 1920's and RKO reportedly purchased the rights to the novel specifically for Dix, whom they had under contract. Dix's strong rugged features, determined yet kindly, made him the perfect pioneer archetype. The choosing of Irene Dunne as Sabra was much more intriguing. Broadway star Fay Bainter was considered for the lead role, but fell out of favor with the producer, William LeBaron. Irene Dunne's determination to get the role is best exemplified by a cheeky maneuver she pulled one Saturday afternoon. She asked make-up artist Ernest Westmore, and cameraman Ernest Bracken to devote that day to helping her make a series of photographs that would age her convincingly from 16 to 56. The photos were placed on LeBaron's desk the next morning with a note from Westmore, "This is Irene Dunne, the girl who should play the lead in Cimarron." This, coupled with Dix's insistence that Dunne be his co-star (Dix had a reputation for helping relative unknowns get parts in his pictures), prompted LeBaron to order a screen test of Dunne and she got the part.
It's true that the film has dated somewhat. Once Dunne mentioned it as one of her favorite films but later deemed Cimarron "rather hammy" after a 1975 viewing. And it severely lacks political correctness. One character's stutter is exploited for comic relief and the black servant boy Isaiah (Eugene Jackson) and the Jewish tailor Levy are painful stereotypes. However, Cimarron does champion some progressive attitudes. Sabra is clearly a woman of independent means (she is a newly elected congresswoman at the movie's close), and her son Cimarron is married to an Indian princess (a first sign of miscegenation, during the pre-code era) and eventually the theme of racial and religious tolerance does comes across.
The film premiered at the Globe Theater in New York on January 26, 1931 and received unanimous praise by all the major publications including the New York Times and Variety and received Oscar wins for Best Picture, Story (Howard Estabrook) and Art Direction (Max Ree). It also proved that RKO, then considered a small studio, was capable of big budget epics and moved them into the big leagues, where they remained for a long time.
Producer: William LeBaron, Wesley Ruggles
Director: Wesley Ruggles
Screenplay: Edna Ferber (novel), Howard Estabrook
Cinematography: Edward Cronjager
Costume Design: Max Ree
Film Editing: William Hamilton
Original Music: Max Steiner
Cast: Richard Dix (Yancey Cravat), Irene Dunne (Sabra Cravat), Estelle Taylor (Dixie Lee), Nance O'Neil (Felice Venable), William Collier Jr. (The Kid)
BW-124m. Closed captioning.
by Michael Toole