Tag Archives: Oscar Winners

Cimarron (1931)

Nicholas Chennault ~ December 14, 2013

Cimarron—Richard Dix, Irene Dunne, Edna May Oliver, Estelle Taylor (1931; Dir:  Wesley Ruggles, uncredited)


The first western to win the Academy Award for Best Picture (or any Academy Award, for that matter), and the last for 60 years until 1990’s Dances With Wolves.  By modern standards, this epic based on Edna Ferber’s 1929 best-seller seems dated:  the quality of the sound in the early days of talkies was not great; long-haired leading man Richard Dix, playing Yancey Cravat, has the looks and dramatic style of an earlier sort of matinee idol (reminiscent of Francis X. Bushman); and the existing print (as shown on TCM, which has pretty high standards generally) is not in great shape.  The racial attitudes may make modern audiences cringe, but if you watch carefully, you realize that is one of the points the movie is making.  So its social attitudes would be progressive for its time. Irene Dunne, in one of her earlier starring roles (just her second movie, in fact) as Yancey’s wife Sabra, is quite watchable still.  Edna May Oliver is Mrs. Tracy Wyatt, embodying prissy attitudes of the more respectable parts of the community in quasi-comic form.  She’s the most memorable of the supporting cast, just as she was in Drums Along the Mohawk..

cimarronDunneDix Irene Dunne, Richard Dix

Handsome lawyer-newspaper editor Yancey Cravat is afflicted with wanderlust, which takes him away from his young family in Wichita to become one of the Oklahoma Sooners in the land rush of 1889.  He has some kind of mysterious background on the range, and is good with guns, of which he wears two.  His friends include the outlaws led by the Kid (William Collier, Jr.).  When he loses out on the quarter-section of land he wanted due to the good-natured trickery of a lady of easy virtue, he returns to Wichita and brings his wife Sabra and four-year-old son Cim to the new town of Osage, Oklahoma, where he becomes a community leader by his guns and his newspaper. 

cimarronRush1889: The Land Rush is on!

In Osage he shoots it out with undesirables, including Lon Yountis (Stanley Fields) and eventually with the Kid and his gang.  He advocates and embodies progressive social attitudes, befriending a Jewish peddler and Dixie Lee (played by Estelle Taylor, Jack Dempsey’s former wife), the young woman with a lurid past who beat him to the land he wanted.  Just as his family is becoming prosperous in 1893, Yancey disappears to join yet another land rush to the new Cherokee Strip farther west, and his family doesn’t hear from him for five years.  Sabra runs the newspaper he founded, the Oklahoma Wigwam (cringe again), and does well. 

Yancey reappears in 1898 in the uniform of a Rough Rider, just in time to defend Dixie Lee in court from charges brought by, among others, Sabra.  Dixie Lee is acquitted.  Yancey stays until statehood and has dreams of running for governor when Oklahoma reaches statehood in 1907, which are scotched when he publishes an editorial advocating rights for Indians.  When Cim wants to marry an Osage Indian, Sabra is horrified but Yancey sides with Cim. 

cimarronDix Dominating the meeting.

He soon disappears again, more or less for good this time.  Sabra hears rumors of him being spotted in the fighting in World War I at Chateau Thierry, although he would have been close to 60 at the time.  She keeps his name on the masthead as editor and publisher, and time vindicates many of his social stands.  Sabra prospers on her own and in 1929 is herself elected to Congress.  After a party celebrating her new status, she is touring a new oil field when an accident to an old worker (Ol’ Yance, he’s called) leaves him dying in the mud.  It is indeed a bearded Yancey, and it’s not clear why he never came home again even though it seems like Sabra would have welcomed him.  He dies in her arms.  The movie ends with that, and she presumably goes off to Congress.

Yes, it now seems old-fashioned, both the story and the manner of its presentation.  But it’s still a good story and is quite watchable, although seldom seen these days.  It’s long for its time, at more than two hours (131 minutes, to be exact).  Spanning more than 40 years, it gives its actors the opportunity to play their characters at different ages.  Dunne does it best, partly because Yancey isn’t around to age much.  Irene Dunne received a Best Actress nomination for her work here, the first of five nominations for her.  Cimarron was remade in color almost 30 years later with Glenn Ford and Maria Schell in the principal roles; the remake doesn’t work quite as well as this original.  Some of the Oklahoma land rush story was told again in Ron Howard’s Far and Away of 1992.


Supposedly the Yancey character is based on Sam Houston’s gun-toting lawyer son Temple Houston.  One of the extras was Nino Cochise, a grandson of the famous Apache chief, along with his friend Apache Bill Russell.  The land rush scene took a week to film, using 5,000 extras, 28 cameramen, 6 still photographers and 27 camera assistants.  The movie lost $565,000 on a budget of $1.433 million.  It was re-released in 1935 and the red ink mostly disappeared off RKO’s books.  In black and white, except for the posters–those are in vivid color.  The movie might be more than 80 years old now, but those are really great posters (see above).

Share on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterShare on Google+Pin on PinterestEmail this to someone

Dances With Wolves

Nicholas Chennault ~ August 7, 2013

Dances With Wolves—Kevin Costner, Graham Greene, Mary McDonnell (1990; Dir:  Kevin Costner)

This is the other western Best Picture Oscar winner from the early 1990s, one of the seven Academy Awards it won.  It also won a Best Director Oscar for star and director Kevin Costner.  It was a breath of fresh air when released, but over time it hasn’t worn as well as some others.  Unforgiven, for example, is as hard and bracing now as when it was released.  But perhaps Dances With Wolves depended for its initial effect on ideas new at the time, which are no longer quite so new.


The principal character is Lt. John Dunbar (Kevin Costner), a badly-wounded Civil War hero sent to be the sole occupant of a frontier outpost on the plains.  He fixes up the modest post and tries to learn about the country and its native inhabitants—a band of Lakota Sioux and a wolf who finds Dunbar intriguing.  Gingerly getting to know them bit by bit, he gradually becomes one of them in his way, even forming a relationship with a white woman (Mary McDonnell) who was captured by the Indians so long ago she barely speaks any English.  The Indians go from being inscrutable and savage “others” to being real characters with different personalities as Dunbar gets to know them.

This idyllic existence is only sullied by the eventual return of other soldiers to the post.  Unlike Dunbar, these other whites are completely nasty and unsympathetic, and Dunbar sides with the Sioux against them.

There are excellent performances in this film, including Costner’s, McDonnell’s and especially Graham Greene as Kicking Bird, leader of the Sioux.  Rodney A. Grant is good as Wind in His Hair;  Mary McDonell has one of her best roles ever as Stands with a Fist.  Costner basically has to carry the film, and he does a good job.  The Indians speak Sioux (with English subtitles) to give the movie more realism.  And they look like Indians, because most of them are.  Greene is an Oneida from Canada, and Rodney A. Grant is an Omaha.  These Indians are on screen a great deal and are treated with a strongly romantic sympathy, a new approach at the time.

Commercially, this movie was a gamble at the time of its release, because of its genre, the way it treated Indians, its healthy $18 million budget and its unusual length.  It went on to make $400 million at the box office, a very respectable figure.  In its initial theatrical release, it was three hours long—unheard of in 1990.  Since its release, varying extended cuts of the film have been released on video and DVD, some as long as four hours.

danceswolves1 Invitation to the Dance

Lurking in the background throughout the movie is our knowledge of how things are going to work out long-term.  The ultimate outcome can’t be good for the Indians, no matter how much we come to like these individual Lakotas.  Roger Ebert quite accurately characterized this film as a fantasy.  In his review he wrote, “In a sense, ‘Dances With Wolves’ is a sentimental fantasy, a ‘what if’ movie that imagines a world in which whites were genuinely interested in learning about a Native American culture that lived more closely in harmony with the natural world than any other before or since. But our knowledge of how things turned out – of how the Indians were driven from their lands by genocide and theft – casts a sad shadow over everything.”  Excellently made and eminently watchable, but with a whiff of the counter-historical about it.  For Kicking Bird and John Dunbar, we could wish history had worked out as the film depicts, even if it is romanticized.

According to Hal Herring in Field & Stream (May 2012), “…Beyond all the morality tales told, the psychology illuminated, the power struggles and genocidal impulses revealed, what Dances with Wolves is, at its essence, is a magnificent adventure story, richer than Shackleton’s Endurance, of much more historical power than any of the narratives or dramatizations of, say the journals of Lewis and Clark.  It’s a grand tale of the individual transcending the collective culture.  The overall nations–the Lakota and the European-Americans–are hopelessly, mortally, at odds.  But within that death struggle, individuals can become friends and hunting partners.  We all know how the story ends, both the movie, and the real history of the Plains Indians.  That knowledge makes the movie, with all its exuberance and adventure, also unbearably sad.”

dancewolves2 Graham Greene as Kicking Bird

Beautifully shot on location in South Dakota, the film remains very watchable after almost a quarter of a century.  The Best Cinematography Oscar for Dean Semler was more than justified.  It is not without a few minor historical faults.  From Herring:  “Buffalo were not slain by lances that are thrown–the lance is thrust, from horseback.  Dunbar’s woman, Stands-with-a-Fist, must be the only white woman for a thousand miles, and yet he stumbles upon her, and love ensues.  Everybody’s hair is bit too clean, and too fly-away late 80’s style.”

Looking at it in retrospect, it has two problems as cinematic storytelling:  First, the slow pacing sometimes seems indulgent, especially since that’s the director on which the camera focuses almost all the time.  It’s slow in getting off the ground and on to its real subject, and it is admittedly a pretty long and sometimes leisurely movie.  And secondly, all the Indians are so good, and all the whites other than Dunbar so unrelievedly bad, that it detracts from the overall balance and believability of the story and smacks of political correctness.  In a movie this long, couldn’t there have been one more decent white character, and perhaps just a little more (accurate) Indian savagery?  Still, it did start a new era of western movies, and it was the first large-scale movie to succeed in portraying Indians this sympathetically since A Man Called Horse and its sequels in the early 1970s.  And for more than 20 years, until the Coen brothers’ remake of True Grit, it was the highest-grossing western in film history.

Share on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterShare on Google+Pin on PinterestEmail this to someone


Nicholas Chennault ~ August 5, 2013

Unforgiven—Clint Eastwood, Morgan Freeman, Gene Hackman, Jaimz Woolvett, Richard Harris, Saul Rubinek (1992; Dir:  Clint Eastwood)

A bleak and unyielding western, one of the two westerns that won the Best Picture Oscar in the early 1990s—a period not otherwise noted for its production of westerns.  It’s a great western, but it’s not where you’d start if you weren’t already familiar with this genre.


This is the movie that established Clint Eastwood as one of the premier directors of his time, and not just of westerns.  Eastwood is said to have approached a script that had been kicking around Hollywood for 20 years, with the intention of making the last western.  It obviously wasn’t the last in a literal sense, but it feels like it has a note of grim finality.  And Eastwood himself hasn’t made or appeared in another western since.

unforgiven1  Eastwood as William Munny

Eastwood’s performance as reformed, then unreformed, gunman William Munny is the linchpin of the film, but Morgan Freeman and Gene Hackman are superb as well.  Hackman won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his role as sadistic sheriff Little Bill Daggett.

Farmer, widower, family man and former gunman William Munny is “a known thief and murderer, a man of notoriously vicious and intemperate disposition,” although you wouldn’t know it to see him initially in his role as a pig farmer.  He is reluctantly brought out of retirement by a young man who calls himself the Schofield Kid (Jaimz Woolvett) to collect the bounty a group of prostitutes have put on some cowboys who cut up the face of one of them in Big Whiskey, Wyoming.  Over the course of the movie Munny reverts more and more to his previously cold-blooded self, especially when his long-time sidekick Ned Logan (elegantly played by Morgan Freeman) is killed by the vicious Little Bill.  Ultimately, for Munny there is no going back to pig farming this time.  It’s a fascinating journey as the characters make their choices and play them out, their free will pitted against an increasing sense of grim inevitability.  The most moral character is probably Freeman’s, and he ends up dead.  For least admirable character, it’s kind of a toss-up between Eastwood and Hackman, and the winner is the one who’ll be the most ruthless.  It’s powerful stuff.  William Munny recognizes what he’s doing, but is relentless in doing it anyway.  “Hell of a thing, killing a man. You take away all he’s got and all he’s ever gonna have.”

There’s running commentary by Little Bill himself, as he kind of adopts nebbish scribe W.W. Beauchamp (Saul Rubinek) to explain his tactics and motivation in trying to maintain some kind of order in the violent town of Big Whiskey, while the bounty attracts all kinds of undesirables.  Among them is bounty hunter English Bob (Richard Harris), of whom Little Bill makes short work.  Beauchamp has come west in search of western stereotypes he thinks he knows, only to find that the real thing is a lot more daunting and dangerous.  Munny becomes more hard-bitten and even less verbal as the movie goes on, although he doesn’t seem to mind explaining himself to the writer, either, so far as there is an explanation other than “I’ve always been lucky when it comes to killin’ people.”  Finally, there’s a futility about it.  From the dying Little Bill:  “See you in hell, William Munny.”  “Yeah.”


For a movie whose subject is killing, with the cost of killing to both those killed and those doing the killing, this movie nevertheless carries quite a kick without anywhere near the body count of less gritty fare like Young Guns or, obviously, such classics as The Long Riders and The Wild Bunch.  For those who think of westerns as all action, beautiful horses, impressive landscapes, quick justice and the adventure of blazing guns with no introspection, this is kind of an antidote.  From Hal Herring:  “These are collisions set in motion on a grand scale that remain extremely human and comprehensible.  There has never been a set of characters so believable, yet so extreme, and, even with all of the cruelty, so likable.  You never know, exactly, who to root for.”

This is unsurprisingly rated R for violence and language.  It seems impossible to make a western with modern cinematic standards for gunfights without having an R rating, and this one is particularly grim.  This may not be a movie that one will love, but one has to see it if one loves westerns.  For the second time in three years (and only the third time ever), the Oscar for Best Picture went to a western when Unforgiven won it, and Eastwood won for Best Director.  With his respect for tradition, Eastwood dedicated the movie simply “To Don and Sergio”–his film-making mentors, Sergio Leone and Don Siegel (director of his Dirty Harry movies and Two Mules for Sister Sara).

This is the most recently-made of five westerns on the AFI’s list of the 100 greatest American movies, where it appears along with High Noon, The Searchers, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and The Wild Bunch.  (There are six if you count Treasure of the Sierra Madrehttp://www.afi.com/100years/movies10.aspx)

Note:  Don’t confuse this one with the overblown, John Huston-directed The Unforgiven from 1960, with Burt Lancaster, Audrey Hepburn (as an adopted Kiowa sister) and Audie Murphy.

Share on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterShare on Google+Pin on PinterestEmail this to someone