Cimarron (1931)

by Glenn Erickson Aug 22, 2023

“Terrific as all Creation!”  Wesley Ruggles’s film adaptation of Edna Ferber’s epic novel won the Oscar for Best Picture, helping to establish the RKO studio. Noble Richard Dix and beautiful Irene Dunne’s complex characters span 40 years of Oklahoma history — the oil wells arrive, the wild west fades, and Dix’s heroic Yancey Cravat never settles down. Things get patchy in the second half, but Ferber’s critique of racial prejudice and bigotry is retained. The film’s Oklahoma Land Rush was long considered the biggest action scene this side of the Ben-Hur chariot race. The digital restoration makes the show look and sound brand-new.

Warner Archive Collection
1931 / B&W / 1.20 Movietone / 124 131 min. / Available at MovieZyng / Street Date July 25, 2023 / 21.99
Starring: Richard Dix, Irene Dunne, Estelle Taylor, Edna May Oliver, George E. Stone, Stanley Fields, William Collier Jr., Eugene Jackson, Edith Fellows.
Cinematography: Edward Cronjager
Scenery: Max Rée
Film Editor: William Hamilton
Original Music: Max Steiner
Special Effects: Lloyd Knechtel
Second Unit Director: B. Reeves Eason
Written by Howard Estabrook, A.B. MacDonald from a novel by Edna Ferber and descriptive passages from Hands Up by Fred E. Sutton
Produced by William LeBaron, Wesley Ruggles
Directed by
Wesley Ruggles

Older movies that take seriously the subject of ‘building America’ are always interesting. The aims can be noble and the general approach honorable, but the prejudices of its day will always show through.

A couple of months ago we reviewed Fox’s early talkie western The Big Trail, a massive epic that introduced John Wayne but wasn’t a hit despite its status as a massive epic. Just 9 months later the big-budget western Cimarron won the Best Picture Oscar for its studio, RKO. The reputation of both movies now lies somewhere between ‘primitive’ and ‘creaky,’ yet both will fascinate lovers of westerns. Cimarron has outlaws and gunfights but takes the form of an historical epic. The time span is 40 years, from 1889 to the ‘present day’: 1930.

The original Cimarron won the Best Picture Oscar for 1931, as well as for writing and art direction. It’s the first adaptation of an Edna Ferber best-seller in the sound era. Aspects of the show still creak loudly, mainly Richard Dix’s acting technique. We also do some justified eye-rolling at some of the dated characterizations.

The ‘building America’ theme is well-developed in Edna Ferber’s multi-generational epic novel. Ferber frames the history of the Oklahoma Territory as a lesson in social progress: the lawless West is tamed, but not the prejudices of the Westerners themselves. The noble hero Yancey Cravat embodies the ‘spirit of the West.’  As one of his friends remarks, Yancey makes history while everybody else just lives in it. He’s also the kind of restless adventurer that pulls up stakes and moves farther west every five years or so. Cravat believes in the myth of The Endless Frontier, even though the Census Bureau had deemed that every part of the country was now settled.


Attorney and newspaperman Yancey Cravat (Richard Dix) is also a ‘noble man of the West,’ quick with a gun and respected by all he meets. He leaves his wife Sabra (Irene Dunne) behind in Wichita to try to get a piece of the Oklahoma Land Rush of 1889. A competing woman rider Dixie Lee (Estelle Taylor) cheats in the race, and Yancey loses his bid for a free homestead on prime land. Undaunted, he moves to the new town of Osage, accompanied by Sabra (Irene Dunne) and their little son Cim. A stowaway in their Conestoga is Isaiah (Eugene Jackson), a servant’s son in Sabra’s mother’s house. Sabra is at first terrorized by the noise and violence of lawless Osage. Yancey thinks in Utopian terms, and tries to set a good example for his neighbors. He sets up his newspaper with the help of printer Jesse Rickey (Roscoe Ates).

Sabra soon learns that her husband is known and respected by most everyone. But she doesn’t share his liberal values as concerns Indians and Dixie Lee. We see her scolding young Cim to stay away from ‘those dirty filthy Indians,’ and admonishing Yancey for talking to Dixie Lee in public. She eagerly forms a Women’s Club, one purpose of which seems to be the persecution of less enlightened frontier females. In this she’s aided by Mrs. Tracy Wyatt (Edna May Oliver). Oliver specialized in amusingly stuffy & opinionated Grand Dames. In this film she sometimes resembles Carol Burnett when lampooning Edna May Oliver.


While less principled newcomers earn big profits, Yancey becomes the conscience of the new community. He defends the Jewish peddler Sol Levy (George E. Stone) against the violent hooligan Lon Yountis (Stanley Fields), who murdered Osage’s first newspaperman. When Yountis shoots at Yancey, the bullet hole left in the very white Stetson is so low we’d have to think it went through Yancey’s head. Yancey is one of those walk-on-water heroes who can open fire in a crowd, and hit only his intended target. He shoots one villain down while preaching a Baptist service in a tent. Among the outlaws Yancey defeats is an old friend from his youth, ‘The Kid’ (William Collier Jr.).

In his fancy boots, with his gun at the ready, Yancey is a combination lawman and preacher. His editorials promote progress, especially for Indian rights. But he also has a bad case of wanderlust. In ’93 he tries to convince Sabra to pull up roots for the opening of the ‘Cherokee Strip.’  He then leaves home for years at a time, seeking fortunes in war and gold rushes. The less-enlightened but determined Sabra carries on Yancey’s newspaper alone. He comes home more than once, but is soon gone again on another crusade. Sabra and her growing children only hear rumors of his whereabouts. Osage eventually grows into a 20th-century metropolis.

In Yancey’s absence the storyline begins to get sketchy — Sabra never seems to understand why he’s left or why he stays away without so much as a letter. At least once she allows him to come back as if nothing has happened. Leaping into her arms, Yancey plants a big kiss on her lips before she can remember how angry she ought to be. He then proceeds to interfere with her life for a few days before moving on again. Ah, but Yancey is the Great Man, the kind who can write an editorial and proclaim that it will become an important document in the future. Certain of the power of his own will, Yancey embraces Sabra as if honoring a saint: “WIFE … and mother!”

Sabra must subscribe to a Biblical definition of marriage, as she stays faithful to the man who has wholly abandoned her. Or is Yancey that great of a kisser?


It’s often noted that Cimarron’s story structure is self-defeating. It opens with the spectacular Land Rush, and nothing that follows is as memorable. Silent-style intertitles intrude to let us know that three, five and ten-year intervals have passed, without preparing us or the characters. Irene Dunne and her growing family are re-introduced at least three times. If Yancey is too ashamed to face his failure to his family, to ‘the wife and mother,’ such feelings are never expressed. As in the Ferber book, we stay with Sabra in Osage, and see none of Yancey’s wanderings. By the time that Main Street Osage has five-story buildings, the Cravat kids are established adults. The core cast is in old-age makeup, talking about their lives in the past tense. The last reel or so drags on at a single commemorative luncheon.

The scenes that might explain Yancey are not given full emphasis. He risks his life for the civic good but rejects the massive reward because the outlaw was his friend. He chases adventurous dreams, instead of gaining security and the means to do more good deeds. He doesn’t want the permanence the money represents, even if it means Sabra will have to struggle on her own. Later on, Yancey’s incorruptiblity dooms any thought he has about public office. The first politicos that approach him offer a crooked deal, so he instead runs away, perhaps to fight in Cuba instead. Public nobility is measured in family hardship.

Edna Ferber — a historical West with an awareness of Civil Rights?

Cimarron will not please those triggered by Hollywood’s racial offenses. Other viewers will be intrigued to find Ferber’s story struggling with the 1929 equivalent of a Civil Rights appeal. As a pre-Code release, screenwriter Howard Estabrook didn’t have to jettison Ferber’s acknowledgement of social injustice. The movie respects its Jewish character Sol Levy (George E. Stone), even if it uses him as someone for Yancey to defend in public. In one odd scene, Sol ends up collapsed against a hitching rail, in a pose arranged to resembles a crucifixion.

Edna Ferber all but champions the issue of Native American rights. More than once, Yancey talks about the land stolen from the Indians, and speaks of the Osage tribe with respect. Of course, all the whites are keen to snap up the cheap or free Oklahoma land being ‘vacated’ by Native Americans.

To its credit, the movie doesn’t whitewash Sabra’s prejudice — more than once she refers to Indians as filthy savages. Her change of heart isn’t dramatized — across one of those ten-year gaps, we discover that she’s learned to accept the marriage of her adult son Cim (Don Dillaway, uncredited) to her household maid, Osage princess Ruby Big Elk (Dolores Brown, uncredited). Married Ruby appears only once, in full ceremonial costume at a gala luncheon. She still seems a total ‘other,’ even if the movie records no reaction from the white guests.

Two wars and 24 years later, George Stevens’ production of Edna Ferber’s Giant spends much more time with the intermarried Mexican-American spouse Juana Benedict (Elsa Cárdenas). It’s the dawn of the Civil Rights Era — bigotry and prejudice is Stevens’ primary focus.

 For many, Cimarron’s PC deal-breaker will be Eugene Jackson’s Isaiah, a black houseboy who stows away with the Cravats. Jackson is as cute as an Our Gang kid, but is also directed to be unintelligent and overly emotional. Isaiah calls Yancey ‘master’ and knocks himself out to serve the family. The Cravats’ response is amused affection. When Yancey says “You can’t buy that kind of loyalty with money,”  we suspect that it really means that the family has found itself an unpaid menial servant, who can be counted on to put his white employers’ safety ahead of his own.

Don’t worry, in three years the Production Code will see to it that even problematic supporting roles for blacks will disappear, save for servants, musical talent and a few comedians.


Act BIG, Mr. Dix! . . . no, BIGGER!

Is Richard Dix’s performance a tough sell?  Yes. Dix’s he-man ‘noble-assertive’ style went out of fashion almost immediately. Yancey looks great, posing with his white hat and guns, but he too frequently speaks in ‘pronouncement fashion,’ whether preaching in a new church or defending Dixie Lee to a hanging jury. It’s as if he’s already posing for the statue we see at the finish. Dix is actually good in his domestic scenes, but Yancey’s long absences leave a hole in the character. The original book stayed in Osage as well, fixating on the woman who holds the family fort together on her own. Storywise, the construction falls apart at the finish, with a rushed epilogue that brings Yancey back just long enough for a fleeting noble farewell. He ends up a bigger hero than ever, a dreamer whose decency and public spirit got in the way of material success.

Lovers of actress Irene Dunne might not recognize her in this show. Dunne worked steadily in films from 1930 or so, but most viewers pick up her trail of greatness around 1935 or so, with the musicals Roberta and Show Boat, her hilarious screwball comedies and affecting romantic dramas.

Dunne was already 30 when shooting commenced. Maybe she hadn’t yet settled on a particular hairstyle or makeup look, but it’s also likely that she’s not asserting her own personality in the role. Sabra Cravat is only pieces of a full character. She feels terrorized by wide-open Osage, she’s vocally intolerant toward Indians, and she remains in awe of Yancey. She soon stops complaining about his habit of playing The Great Man at the expense of his family. During one of Yancey’s’ lofty orations about his higher principles, Sabra just sits patiently, as if waiting for him to finish.

Actually, that’s an accurate snapshot of what a virtuous wife of 1930 was supposed to be.

Sabra is the one to attain the material success that eluded her husband. We’re told that she entered national politics. Did she somehow avoid the corruption that convinced Yancey to run away?  The Sabra character is missing some connective tissue. In real-life terms, her acceptance of Yancey’s desertion is believable enough. Many of us come from families in which, one or two generations back, marriage was forever no matter what abuses went on.


Wesley Ruggles delivers an epic for RKO.

The production certainly has an epic scope. The Land Rush is an enormous, dangerous-looking spectacle. It was the first rock-bottom year of the Depression, and the new company RKO definitely needed to make a noise with the movie. They must have hired every cowboy in Hollywood who could ride a horse or drive a wagon. Sixty-one cameraman worked on the scene, which took a week to film. The entire outfit had to be transported to a distant location out near Bakersfield.

 Excellent matte work shows the development of Osage from a row of shacks to the eventual ‘Main Street USA’ look of 1929. The art direction won an Oscar as well — the evolving storefronts dramatize the passage of time better than would dialogue about the Titanic sinking or the Teapot Dome Scandal. The  attention to detail extends to changing fashions (puffy sleeves in dresses) and a brief look at a curious old-fashioned cash register. Osage is forever a work in progress. In a gunfight, outlaws take cover in trenches being dug for new water mains and sewers.

A newly-rich Oklahoman shows off his new horseless carriage, which comes with a chauffeur. He gives a ride to the status-conscious Mrs. Wyatt, a moment that shows how the upper crust takes hold, even if everyone started in poverty. These scenes remind us somewhat of the noveau riche Coloradans of The Unsinkable Molly Brown, whose wealth came from mining. Prejudice doesn’t fade between generations — young Donna Cravat (Judith Barrett) inherits her mother’s distaste for Native Americans.


Seven or eight characters undergo 40 years’ worth of aging makeup, in stages. Roscoe Ates & George E. Stone age rather well — Ates’ character even partly outgrows his signature stutter. Ates is funny and Stone is soulful, but by that last civic luncheon both have become completely sentimentalized. All remain respectful of the memory of Yancey Cravat, who may be the original westerner to ‘outlive his time and outlive his kind.’  The bigger-than life Yancey belongs back with the bandits Lon Yountis and The Kid. He something apart from a Hero with Feet of Clay. He just couldn’t abide civilization’s restraints — business greed, political corruption . . . and family responsibilities. That’s Ms. Ferber’s real thesis.

. . . and it was all sold to MGM.

Hollywood would return time and again to Edna Ferber’s sprawling tales, starting with So Big and embracing generations of American empire-builders: Come and Get It, Show Boat, Giant, Ice Palace. We were surprised to learn that Cimarron wasn’t considered a box office winner — it was expensive to make and theaters were affected by the Depression as well. But its Oscars earned the new all-talkie studio RKO some much-needed respect. The show didn’t earn its money back until the 1940s, when it was sold to MGM for the remake rights.

The 1960 remake of Cimarron was begun as an outsized Road Show project, like MGM’s 1959 Ben-Hur. Its Yancey and Sabra are the well-cast Glenn Ford and Maria Schell, married actors that reportedly carried on a discreet affair during the entire production. Director Anthony Mann’s step up to epic filmmaking had a rough start. He was fired from Spartacus by its powerful producer-star. The epic Cimarron project would seem the perfect choice for mann, as western with a ‘dynasty’ aspect.

But MGM got cold feet after production started, reducing the film to a standard release and not allowing Mann to carry his cut to the finish. This time Mann reportedly walked away, to go to Spain and take charge of Samuel Bronston’s El Cid. The entire second half of the Cimarron remake looks patched together, as if entire scenes were dropped and new material was tossed in to yield a minimal continuity. Utility director Charles Walters reportedly shot the additional connective scenes.

The differences between versions show Anthony Mann’s influence. Writer Arnold Schulman builds up anticipation for the Land Rush scene, which is much more elaborate. The casting choices are excellent — Anne Baxter as Dixie Lee, and Mercedes McCambridge as Mrs. Wyatt. Played by Robert Keith, Osage’s newsman Mr. Pegler is alive when this version of the movie begins, given a wife (Aline McMahon of Mann’s The Man from Laramie), he’s killed with some very Anthony Mann-like violence. Yancey doesn’t haul his own printing press to Osage, but takes over Pegler’s outfit. David Opatashu is Sol Levy, and Harry Morgan is the printer Jesse Rickey. Mann’ excellent roster of villains includes Charles McGraw and Vic Morrow. MGM star Russ Tamblyn is excellent as the William Bonney clone that Yancey must gun down, Pat Garrett-style.

The 1931 Cimarron never really accounts for Sabra’s intolerance or Yancey’s terminal wanderlust, and asks us to accept them as they are. Somewhere along the line he decided to find work in a muddy oil field. We think Sabra would have preferred him to just come home, as a nation-builder or a bum.



The Warner Archive Collection Blu-ray of Cimarron is just what we hoped for, a thorough digital remaster of an Oscar winner that has languished in inferior film and video versions for at least half a century. The 1960 epic remake came in such a big year for Road Show pictures, that it was all but overlooked, leaving the ’31 original as the ‘classic,’ even if considered a creaky fossil.

The rejuvenation takes all the creak out of the visuals and the soundtrack. The images are as sharp as a tack, leaving us with well-directed exteriors and well-lit interiors. Richard Dix could come right out of Zane Grey, with that clump of unruly hair on his forehead. The spectacular Land Rush scene is barely two minutes in duration, but the shots are quite exacting.

The clear sound gives us a listen to an early film score by Max Steiner. The composer appears to have begun at RKO in 1929. If the IMDB is to be believed, he didn’t rate serious screen credit until 1931, 9 features after Cimarron. The music here is not organized into themes for characters, etc., as Steiner had not yet been let loose to revolutionize film scores. The features in which his magic breaks through are Bird of Paradise, The Most Dangerous Game and of course King Kong.

Warners gives us three amusing 1931 short subjects, two of them in remastered HD. Lady, Play Your Mandolin is the first of Leon Schlesinger’s ‘Merrie Melodies’ shorts. It stars Foxy, a vulgarized version of Mickey Mouse with pointed ears — the characterizations are close enough to make us think that Schlesinger is tempting Disney’s lawyers. The second Merrie Melodies entry Red-Headed Baby is one of those ToonTown- style headache-inducers wrapped around a pop tune, the kind of cartoon where characters and inanimate objects bop to the music as if they (or we) were on drugs.

Not in HD but just as interesting is The Devil’s Cabaret, a 2-color Technicolor musical oddity set in Hell. It is said to have been built around a musical number discarded from a feature, a ballet piece with music by Dimitri Tiomkin. Satan writes with a pen that sparks; we immediately recognize him as Charles Middleton, the future Ming the Merciless. A comic tempter says some startlingly raw jokes: when a scantily-clad Hell-steno girl sits on his lap, he grins, “You take it well!” Another character comes right out and shouts “Hooray for Sin!”  The IMDB says that future Busby Berkeley favorite Dorothy Coonan is the the chorus. We think we’ve spotted her, early on in a panning shot down the front row. Ann Dvorak is said to be the chorine in black, but we don’t get close enough to confirm the ID. Going unmentioned is a tuxedoed guy who slides down a chute and says, “I want a hot mama!”  We think him a dead ringer for actor Leslie Fenton (Public Enemy), future director and Ms. Dvorak’s soon-to-be husband.

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Blu-ray rates:
Movie: Very Good
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Merrie Melodies cartoons Lady, Play Your Mandolin and Red-Headed Baby
Musical short subject The Devil’s Cabaret.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)

Packaging: One Blu-ray in Keep case
August 20, 2023

Visit CineSavant’s Main Column Page
Glenn Erickson answers most reader mail:

Text © Copyright 2023 Glenn Erickson

About Glenn Erickson

Screen Shot 2015-08-24 at 6.51.08 PM

Glenn Erickson left a small town for UCLA film school, where his spooky student movie about a haunted window landed him a job on the CLOSE ENCOUNTERS effects crew. He’s a writer and a film editor experienced in features, TV commercials, Cannon movie trailers, special montages and disc docus. But he’s most proud of finding the lost ending for a famous film noir, that few people knew was missing. Glenn is grateful for Trailers From Hell’s generous offer of a guest reviewing haven for CineSavant.

5 4 votes
Article Rating
Notify of
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Would love your thoughts, please comment.x