Cimarron (1931): Oscar Winning Western

Only three of the 80 Oscar-winning films have been Westerns: “Cimarron” in 1930-1, Kevin Costner’s “Dances With Wolves” in 1990, and Clint Eastwood’s “Unforgiven,” in 1992.

Directed by Wesley Ruggles, “Cimarron” is based on Edna Ferber’s best-selling book about the opening of the Oklahoma frontier, from the late 1890s to 1940.

Facing hard financial times, RKO took a gamble with “Cimarron,” which covers four decades in the Cravat family and recreates the Oklahoma land rush circa 1888. Aiming for the epic and visual sweep of silent films, “Cimarron” made movie stars out of its two leads: Richard Dix, a handsome silent hero, and Irene Dunne, who began her career on Broadway in “Show Boat.”

Richard Dix was well cast as the chivalrous adventurer, Yancey Cravat, the dashing, gallant, incorrigible romantic who must always be moving on, amazed to find out that he actually had lived in one place for five years A vagrant romantic with passion was for new and open spaces, Yancey always disappeared toward new horizons, an idealistic fighter for unpopular causes, courageous editor, shrewd lawyer, faithful lover of his wife. A unique character, Yancey is periodically attacked with wanderlust, nonchalance, and impulsiveness.

Referring to the Oklahoma Land Rush, Cravat states: “Creation. That took six days.  This was done in one.  History made in an hour. Why, it’s like a miracle out of the Old Testament.”  Religion is evoked again, when Cravat talks about the new newspaper: “”The Oklahoma Wigham prints all the news all the time, knowing no law except the law of God and the government of the United States.” 

Irene Dunne plays the indomitable Sabra Cravat, Yancey’s sterling wife, who sticks to the newspaper, the Oklahoma Wigwam that he had started. Sabra starts as a fragile wife, but after being deserted by Yancey, she learns to carry on valiantly, editing the local paper in his place and becoming a congresswoman. It’s Sabra who enlists our sympathy, particularly after Yancey deserts the family and goes to the Cherokee Strip. When he returns, five years later, Yancey asks his wife if she had missed him!

That Cravat is a mythical, not entirely understood, figure, is expressed by Sol Levy (George E. Stone), talking to Sabra, who has not heard from her husband in five years.  He says: “They will always talk about Yancey. He’s going to be part of the history of the great Southwest. It’s men like him that build the world. The rest of them, like me, we just come along and live in it.” 

There are changes in character and scenery as the community grows into a hustling modern town. The Cravats’ level of tolerance is tested, when their son Crim becomes enamored of an Indian girl and marries her. Yancey’s editorial is in favor of the Indians, and though frowned upon at first by his wife, it’s eventually reprinted on every anniversary of its appearance.


“Cimarron” won three Oscars, Best Picture, Writing Adaptation (Howard Estabrook) and Interior Decoration (Max Ree), and received nominations for actors Dix and Dunne, director Ruggles, and cinematographer Edward Cronjager.

Oscar Nominations: 7


Best Picture, produced by William LeBaron

Director: Wesley Ruggles

Adaptation: Howard Estabrook

Actor: Richard Dix

Actress: Irene Dunne

Cinematography: Edward Cronjager

Interior decoration: Max Ree


Oscar Awards: 3




Interior Decoration


Oscar Context:


The other four Best Picture nominees for 1930-1931 were: “East Lynne,” “The Front Page,” “Skippy,” and “Trader Horn.” 

Norman Taurog won the Director Oscar for “Skippy”; Lionel Barrymore the Actor Oscar for “A Free Soul”; Marie Dressler the Actress Oscar for “Min and Bill”; Floyd Crosby the Cinematography Oscar for “Tabu.”

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