This Was the First Western To Win the Best Picture Oscar — and It’s Got Problems

The Big Picture

  • Cimarron, the first Western to win Best Picture, is praised for its time-spanning narrative and the escape it provided during the Great Depression.
  • The film’s portrayal of female characters is criticized for upholding unfavorable stereotypes and limiting their complexity.
  • Cimarron also receives backlash for its insensitive depictions of marginalized communities, including Black Americans and Native Americans.

At the 4th Academy Awards in 1931, Cimarron became the first movie of the Western genre to take home the prize for Outstanding Production, the award now better known as Best Picture. Directed by American actor and filmmaker Wesley Ruggles, Cimarron was hailed upon its release for its time-spanning narrative and expansive depiction of the “untamed” perimeters of the American West, prevailing as the only Best Picture-winning Western until 1990’s Dances with Wolves and Unforgiven two years later in 1992. Filmed and released during the early years of the Great Depression, Cimarron serves as an early Hollywood Western, conforming to the genre’s devotion to adventure and fate to provide an escape for audiences during a challenging period of America’s past. While Cimarron will forever be part of the Western genre’s long cinematic history, the film’s flaws can be more easily recognized through a modern-day perspective, particularly its damaging depictions of marginalized identities and the upholding of cultural and social stereotypes.

Starring Richard Dix, Irene Dunn, and Edna May Oliver, all notable figures of Hollywood’s Golden Age, Cimarron was adapted from a popular 1930 novel of the same name for the silver screen. Dix plays the movie’s (questionable in hindsight) hero, Yancey Cravat, a lawyer and businessman who leaves his comfortable life in Kansas to stake out a fresh beginning in the Oklahoma Territory during its land rush of 1889 when the U.S. government was giving away land plots in the area that had been formerly allotted to Native Americans. With his wife Sabra (Dunne) and young son in tow, Yancey heads to the Oklahoma settlement of Osage, an unruly, lawless town reminiscent of any traditional Wild West outpost. Quickly becoming a leader of Osage with the hopes of taming its population, Yancey creates a newspaper and takes on the responsibility of dealing with roughneck outlaws that strong-arm the area. Even with his influential efforts to bring “civilization” to Osage, Yancey can never entirely stave off the temptations of enterprise brought on by Manifest Destiny in the American West, leading to an epic 40-year spanning narrative in Cimarron as he and Sabra’s lives transform over time.

What ‘Cimarron’ Gets Wrong About the Female Experience

Cimarron - 1931
Image via RKO Radio Pictures

In terms of representation, Cimarron contains glaring flaws in its portraiture of the movie’s female characters, upholding the unfavorable stereotypes of women too commonly explored in the early traditions of the Western genre. In its female depictions, the film represents women as figures with little complexity, defining them within the black-and-white limits of the Freudian “Madonna-whore complex” as either good and pure or bad and immoral.

Yancey’s wife, Sabra, begins the film as an immature figure, nearly brought to hysterics by the debauchery and commotion of her new home in Osage. Her helplessness always requires her to be protected by the largely unreliable batch of men in her circle, which is only left behind as the town modernizes with the passage of time. Sabra holds a deep prejudice against the Native Americans in her community, never recognizing the prosperity her family has gained from infringing upon their lands. Although Cimarron includes a last-minute scene in which Sabra seems to have rethought her bigotry, there is no clear emotional understanding of her new wisdom, providing little growth for her moral transformation.

Estelle Taylor plays the role of Dixie Lee, one of Cimarron’s most thinly-written and enigmatic female characters. Dixie Lee first encounters Yancey at the film’s start when she slyly beats him to claim a plot of land in the Oklahoma Territory that he had been eyeing. With dark hair and eyes, always clad in black gowns, Dixie Lee is treated by the film as a take on the femme fatale, but for reasons never made clear in the movie’s screenplay. While a certain sexual tension is palpable between Yancey and Dixie Lee at first, this is never fleshed out, making it incomprehensible as to why the woman becomes an outcast in Osage for her existence alone. As Dixie Lee is ostracized by the community to the point of being formally charged as a nuisance to society, Cimarron makes zero effort to confront why this is happening, ultimately casting Dixie Lee off as a nonessential character with little care taken.

‘Cimarron’ Handles Its Non-white Characters With Total Insensitivity

Irene Dunne as Sabra and Richard Dix as Yancey in Cimarron (1931)
Image via RKO Radio Pictures

More so than its feeble depictions of women, Cimarron finds significant problems in its representations of marginalized communities through its non-white, non-Christian, and neurodivergent characters, which serve as the movie’s most controversial facets through a modern-day gaze. Insensitive and stereotypical, these portrayals were standard during Hollywood productions of the 1930s and have drastically changed for the better in the passing years and the newfound traditions of Revisionist Westerns of contemporary times.

Isaiah, portrayed by Eugene Jackson, is a young Black domestic worker for the Cravat family who sneaks in to join them on their journey to a new life in Osage. Depicted as a pure yet simple-minded figure, Isaiah’s character is a victim of racist stereotypes forced upon Black actors during the Golden Age of Hollywood. Included mainly in the narrative to provide comedic impact, Isaiah is problematically treated as the punch line to many jokes. He is a silly sidekick who worships the ground that Yancey walks on, even though he does not see the young Isaiah as an intellectual equal. Even in the biblical ties of his name, Isaiah is treated as the stereotype of the magical Black character, spiritual in nature and subservient to the aid of the film’s white protagonists. With modern eyes, it is uncomfortably cringe-worthy to see Jackson’s performance in Cimarron, especially considering that these roles were primarily the only ones available to Black actors during the time of the movie’s release.

While Cimarron finds its setting during the historic land grabs of the Oklahoma Territory in the last years of the 19th century, the movie does little to service the real-life accounts of the Native Americans who inhabited the area at the time. As previously mentioned, Sabra’s character frequently refers to the Native Americans of Osage by derogatory names, discounting their place within the community, which in reality contributed significantly to the growth and expansion of the area. Intriguingly, this facet of the film holds a connection to Martin Scorsese‘s upcoming The Killers of the Flower Moon, which is inspired by the actual accounts of the Osage Native Americans and the attacks on their people as they became increasingly more affluent from the discovery of oil on their plots of land in the Oklahoma Territory during the turn of the 20th century. Alas, Cimarron ignores this fascinating and tragic moment in Indigenous history to instead focus on its white characters and their road to success in the frontier lands of America. The only Native American in the movie with a speaking role is Ruby Big Elk, the childhood friend-turned-wife of the Cravat’s son. Ruby is depicted in traditional garb with broken English, a totally clichéd decision considering the intense force the U.S. government had used to assimilate Indigenous peoples for many years until that point. The film’s conclusion ultimately oversimplifies Ruby as an object of desire and little else.

RELATED: 10 Modern Westerns Destined to Become Classics

‘Cimarron’ Upholds Male Chauvinism

Richard Dix as Yancey and Irene Dunne as Sabra in Cimarron (1931)
Image via RKO Radio Pictures

Cimarron boasts too many exhausting concepts of male superiority, particularly through its deifying treatment of the central male character, Yancey. Somehow simultaneously a lawyer, makeshift preacher, war hero, and newspaper editor, Yancey walks into Osage with a total white savior complex, hellbent on cleaning up the chaos of the frontier settlement. Disappearing from town at multiple points in the film, Yancey cannot suppress his insatiably adventurous spirit and settle down to provide a stable life for his family, at one point leaving them behind for an extended five-year stint. Instead of condemning this behavior, the movie glorifies it, and its narrative supports his actions as “a man just being a man.” During a pivotal shootout scene that comes out of nowhere, Yancey feels guilt after killing a murderous outlaw known as “The Kid.” Yancey claims that he once rode with the delinquent out on the open range, harboring an irrational respect for a figure that has just released unwarranted violence on the population of Osage. As the cherry on top of a seriously misogynistic work, Cimarron‘s final scene features a massive bronze statue of Yancey in celebration of his inadequate contributions to Osage, with a much smaller figure of a Native American man standing in his shadow.

While Cimarron may have gone down in cinematic history as the first Western to win the Oscar for Best Picture, it does not mean that the film’s quality or messaging holds up from a modern perspective. Ruggles may have made a movie impressive enough to earn 6 Oscar nominations in 1931, but through a contemporary gaze, the film’s characterizations are undoubtedly debatable and unethical, making audiences question the moral essence of the work and its creators. Unfortunately for the Western, many of the stereotypes employed in Cimarron lived on in other examples of the genre for many years beyond the 1930s, only beginning to repair during the emergence of Revisionist Westerns during the 1970s and beyond. Today, the Western is used as a framework to criticize many myths of the American dream, subverting many of the concepts used in Cimarron to create a more lifelike and meaningful image of one of the country’s most captivating and troubling periods of history.

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