The Best Picture History Project continues with Cimarron, a Western that won Best Picture in 1931. There is no way I could describe how this film affected the American public at the time as well as Mordaunt Hall, a New York Times Critic who produced a thorough write up. Today, it is not likely that we’d look past a racial slur in the New York Times, but it was, sadly, a common way to refer to a Native American. Just as the Washington Football Team. Today. In 2022.
Cimarron is a film adaptation of the popular author Edna Ferber’s book of the same title. Her novels were epics about early American life, and were extremely popular at the time – selling hundreds of thousands of copies. If you’re a reader and interested in popular American novels as a representation of our history, you’re a complete nerd. Welcome to the club. You have found your people! I’ve got to read all of these books now. Like my to be read list has any room on it.
The 1930-1931 Academy Awards – November 10, 1931
Location: Sala D’Oro, Biltmore Hotel, Los Angeles.
Movies awarded were released between August 1, 1930 through July 31, 1931. This is considered the “1932” ceremony by the Academy. The reason for this was the rapidly moving technology from silent film to “talkies.”
Lawrence Grant hosted what was a poorly organized dinner, infamous all these years later for the awards presentation not even beginning until after midnight. The dinner started at 8:00, but a huge increase in attendance and the chaos of having the sitting Vice President of the United States, Charles Curtis as the guest of honor. Of course, this dinner occurred two years before the end of Prohibition, so most attendees cleared out during Vice President Curtis’s speech to sneak some Hooch in the lobby. Oh, to have been a fly on those walls!
Cimarron won best picture. This was the first win of RKO Studios, and cost $1.5 million dollars – a fortune as the Great Depression settled around Hollywood and her customers, the ticket buyers.
Other notable winners that night were the “Skippy” Director Norman Taurog’s win for Best Director. His Oscar came up for auction by the Nate D. Sanders auction house in 2012. The Oscar statue sold for $301,973.
The Cast of Cimarron Visits the White House, 1931
This photo shows Estelle Taylor (Dixie Lee), Richard Dix (Yancey Cravat), and entourage arriving at Coolidge’s White House in 1931. This image is in the archives of the Library of Congress but has never before been linked to the Cimarron film. Given that Dix and Taylor were prominent characters in Cimarron and it won the Best Picture in 1931, it wouldn’t surprise me that they were received at the White House sometime that year.
The Origins of Oklahoma
Cimarron begins on the day that the United States opened up the Oklahoma Territories to white settlers. I wanted to give a little context on the recent history of the land and how it came to be that there was an outright race for free land for white settlers in what had been federally granted lands to Native Americans.
Prior to Oklahoma territory being opened in 1889, the five largest Native American tribes had been forcibly relocated from their native lands east of the Mississippi River to “Indian Territory.” Indian Territory is what we refer to as Oklahoma today. The forced relocation, now known as the Trail of Tears, was brutal and led to drastic drops in population to the people relocated. The deaths were due to disease, the brutality of the march, and resulted in what was a genocide.
It’s difficult to explain or put into context how devastated the Native American populations were. The number of deaths do not account for the entirety of loss for these tribes because they also lost their way of life, their ability to grow and hunt for food. I’ve got a screenshot from Wikipedia that does a good job of describing the losses – please click through to the link and the sources – you will learn more than I can even illuminate here. I think it is important to know this information before reading and watching Cimarron. We must bear witness to what was done to create the world that hosts this story.
Once these tribes were resettled in “Indian Territory,” the land granted to them was then “reallocated” by The Dawes Act in 1887. Instead of having a large acreage of tribal land (albeit the least fertile and valuable land available), the Dawes Act required individual Native American families to stake claim to 40, 80, or 160 acres of their own land. This was antithetical to how the Native American people lived, sharing and conserving the land as a whole tribe. Those that did not make a claim were later displaced when Oklahoma Territory granted all Native American lands that had not been claimed by the Dawes Act to white settlers; first come, first serve.
In the 1930s, however, the Wild West had become America’s own fable of opportunity. The Cowboys fought the Indians and won, and the winners were thus entitled to the spoils of war. This is when Cimarron beings; a popular American classic novel by Edna Ferber, based on the rush that occurred to acquire land in Oklahoma when the United States Government opened the Oklahoma Territory to white settlement in 1889. Obviously, the way the early Oklahomans were presented is viewed completely differently through a modern lens.
Many of these old movies aren’t going to stand up against the test of time, but we can watch them from our modern perspective and bear witness to how far we have come as a people. In the 1930s, before WWII was even a thing, popular movies and culture were always presented as “WASP (White Anglo Saxon Protestant)” being the default culture. Any other peoples that were depicted in these movies were seen as “others,” either fighting against or serving under the WASPs. When modern populists dream of taking America back again, this is often one of the periods those nostalgic rose-colored glasses hearken us back to.
Just as English history focuses on royals only, forgoing the slaves and the poor and the women, so do early depictions of American life leave out people of color, Native Americans, poor women, and anyone other than the white Christian male landowners who were in charge and ran the government. Give these men credit for what they have done but note that they were running amidst a candidate pool that was very small and excluded most of the population. Looking forward, we as Americans should continue to fight for a seat at the table for every person of every color and religion. It’s not us vs. them like in the old movies. It’s us, collectively, moving forward with equality under the law and the goal of each person holding an equal vote in each election.
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