81 Days With Oscar And Me

Every Academy Award-Winning Movie, Back to Back, Starting With the First

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August 23rd, 2009 · 1 Comment · 1930-1931, Adaptation, Black and White, Cimarron, Clara Bow, Edna Ferber, Irene Dunne, RKO Radio, Stuttering, Western

CimarronI’m always amazed by what people used to be able to accomplish before the advent (and over use) of Computer-Generated Graphics.

Like All Quiet On the Western Front before it, Cimarron is vast. The opening scene of hundreds of people in covered wagons and on horseback screaming across the plain is priceless. It looked like a cast of thousands. I can’t even image what it was like to yell, “Action!” for a mob like that.

But that’s the way they used to make movies, which is probably why they’re still remembered and talked about some 70-80 years after they were made – when dreck like Transformers will be forgotten in a year or two.

History of the Academy Award WinnersThat prolific digger into Americana, the late Edna Ferber, wrote the novel on which Cimarron was based. The picture made from her sprawling, exciting best seller on Oklahoma, from its settlement by homesteaders to the time it becomes a State, is the only Western that ever won an Academy Award…The scene of masses of people racing crazily over millions of acres of rough terrain – in wagons, on horseback, and by shank’s mare – each out for a bit of land to call his own, was a standout, according to Nathalie Fredrik and Auriel Douglas in their book History of the Academy Award Winners.

In 1973, when their book was published, Fredrik and Douglas were correct. No Western had ever won an Academy Award. But, as we’ll see in a couple of months, Kevin Costner’s Dances With Wolves won top honors in 1990, two years later, Clint Eastwood’s Western Unforgiven received the Best Picture nod.

According to the book The Academy Awards: A Pictorial History, by Paul Michael, the fourth Academy Awards ceremony,

History of the Academy Award Winners…was definitely not the year for glamour at the Academy Awards presentations. No dashingly heroic, romantic leading man won acting honors; no ravishingly beautiful actress in luscious costumes garnered distaff laurels. Rather, it was the year of the character actor…From Edna Ferber’s thrilling novel of the men and women of the Old West and the land rush into Oklahoma, came “Cimarron,” the film named best production. This epic film, covering forty years in the lives of the settlers, which starred Richard Dix, Irene Dunne, and Edna May Oliver, won two other Awards. Howard Eastbrook was cited for best adaptation and Max Ree for best art direction

Oscar At the Academy AwardsBut what the ceremony lacked in glamour, it made up for in recognition – from the President of the United States. Once again, noted film historian Robert Osbourne, in his book Oscar At the Academy Awards, puts the awards ceremony in historical perspective:

By its fourth anniversary, the Academy and its awards had acquired national recognition and importance. From Washington, President Herbert Hoover sent Vice President Charles Curtis to bring his personal greetings ot this 1800 guests at the Biltmore Hotel banquet. Curtis, attending with his sister Mrs. Dolly Gann, was principal speaker of the evening. “I have come to you tonight,” he said, “from the capitol of our country to pay my respects to the creative minds of the world’s greatest and most influential enterprise – the motion picture.” Movies had been a great morale booster in 1931 – a year of widespread unemployment and national depression.

Gee, sounds familiar.

Cimarron, called “one of the weakest films to win the best picture Oscar” (Oscar A to Z, by Charles Matthews), stars Irene Dunne and Richard Dix. Dunne (1898-1990) is one of my favorite actors. (Actresses?) She later starred with Cary Grant in three movies: The Awful Truth (1937), My Favorite Wife (1940), and Penny Serenade (1941).

In a section titled “Oscarless,” Peter H. Brown, in his curmudgeonly book The Real Oscar: The Story Behind The Academy Awards, writes about Irene Dunne,

Irene DunneWith her abundance of natural talent, she was forced to choose between opera, musical comedy, and films. This was 1922, and she become discouraged after flunking (but with grace) an audition for the Metropolitan Opera. She went into a road company of Irene, then into Showboat as Magnolia. A studio contract followed and her first Oscar nomination came for 1931’s Cimarron. Other nominations were for Theodora Goes Wild, The Awful Truth, Love Affair, and I Remember Mama. Twice she was beaten by the maudlin overacting of Luise Rainer, the Viennese Teardrop. She naturally lost to Vivien Leigh in Gone With the Wind. The Oscar she deserved for Cimarron went to the hammish Marie Dressler. And Jane Wyman in Johnny Belinda was judged better than Dunne in I Remember Mama. She could easily have been nominated for The Mudlark, Penny Serenade, and Anna and the King of Siam.

So there you have it. Likely more than you wanted to know about Irene Dunne. But information I found fascinating. Get your own web site and you can print what you want.

Three other tidbits about Cimarron:

1. Edna Ferber was born in Kalamazoo, Michigan, on 15 August 1887 and died 16 April 1968 in New York City.

2. Richard Dix (1893-1949) stands out in Cimarron but in a bad way. I once saw a high school production of Annie Get Your Gun and, to my mind, Richard Dix plays his role about the way I saw the kid in high school play Frank Butler – all hands-on-hips and head-thrown-bag bravado. With a booming voice that perpetually seemed just mere seconds away from saying, “Aw shucks, Ma’am.” Apparently, I wasn’t the only one who wasn’t enamored with Richard Dix. Matthews, in Oscar A to Z, writes:

Dix had been a very popular actor in the silent era, working primarily at Paramount. But except for Cimarron, his work in the sound era was undistinguished, and though his career lasted into the forties, it was mostly in B pictures. He died in 1947, aged fifty-five. (IMDB says Dix died in 1949 at the age of 56.)

Clara BowThe advent of the talkies killed many major movie stars, Clara Bow being one of the biggest. At the height of her popularity, in the late 1920s, she received some 30,000 fan letters per week. Her films packed theaters nationwide. But when talking pictures arrived, her Brooklyn accent didn’t match her alluring screen persona. After making nine talkies in quick succession from 1929 until 1933, she retired. The microphone reportedly made her too nervous, and the pressure she imposed on herself to get all the lines right – and to round out the rough edges of her New York accent – brought her career to a screeching halt. I’ve seen a couple of her talking pictures. And I don’t think they’re that bad. She sounds a bit like Mae West. So I think she could have continued.

Maybe Dix suffered the same fate. Maybe people liked his looks more than his voice. Who knows?

3. As in the movie The Broadway Melody, there’s a character in Cimarron who stutters. It seems odd that within a short three-year span, two Oscar winning movies would feature stuttering characters. Stuttering isn’t necessarily anything to laugh at. And, in a movie, it’s a downright irritating trait. Was stuttering funny in the late 1920s and early 1930s?

Probably about as funny as tuft-headed, wide-eyed black people who mimicked Stepin Fetchit‘s exaggerated “yassa” mannerisms from his movies in the 1920s and 1930s, movies that didn’t advance the cause of African-Americans any. In Cimarron, a young boy named Isaiah (played by Eugene Jackson, 1916-2001) is almost embarrassing to watch. I can’t believe black folks were portrayed that way. But, they were. And this movie is from that era. So it’s an interesting commentary on society and it should be watched.

Watch it I did.

Radio Pictures
Edna Ferber
Richard Dix
Irene Dunne
Produced by William LeBaron
Screen Version & Dialogue By
Howard Estabrook
Recorded By RCA Photophone System
Yancey Cravat…………………….Richard Dix
Sabra Cravat………………………Irene Dunne
Dixie Lee…………………………..Estelle Taylor
Felice Venable……………………Nance O’Neil
The Kid……………………………..William Collier, Jr.
Jesse Rickey……………………….Roscoe Ates
Sol Levy…………………………….George E. Stone
123 Minutes

Cimarron is too high-school Oklahoma! or Annie Get Your Gun for me. Irene Dunne is as grand as always. And the scope of some of the scenes are breathtaking. But the story is thin, the acting (with the exception of the aforementioned Dunne) is lightweight, and the dialogue is hokey.

And, doggone it, I just don’t like Dix’s character, Yancey Cravat. The man is a driven, self-righteous, ego-centric bastard. He left his wife and children to go in search of greater adventures in Indian country, keeping no contact with his family for five years. Then he returns, unexpectedly, and sticks his nose into a court case his wife, left to run his newspaper in his stead, has championed. Somehow, he becomes the woman-on-trial’s attorney, winning the case, humiliating his wife, then convincing her that what he did was for everyone’s one good. Shortly thereafter, he takes off again, is gone for years, and doesn’t communicate with anyone. What loving husband and father would do that? Is this a good character? Or a bad one?

Maybe both. But maybe the guy is just a pioneer bozo.

Cimarron isn’t a great movie. It’s barely a good one.

Still, there it is. The first Western to win an Academy Award (a record that held for 60 years).


One Comment so far ↓

  • Martha Alf

    I thought isahiah
    Food out in cimmaron. He was regarded as amember of the family and was in many scenes with charming antics. Especially moving was his death scene. He stood out enough for me to research him. And he was a paid performer all his life

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