This is one of those movies that has to be taken in context. It traces the history of the development of the American West through the life of one man, from the first Oklahoma Land Rush up through the present day. Thus, the first piece of context that must be taken into account is that “the present day” means “the Hoover administration”.
Much of the rest of the necessary context concerns the fact that Cimarron keeps trying to be progressive, but goes about it in the most flailing, inadvertently offensive manner possible. Our hero courts controversy by boldly asserting that Native Americans are mostly like humans, black people have their uses, and hookers aren’t all bad because some of them have hearts of gold and tragic backstories. The sentiments involved are basically good, but all a modern viewer can do is wince and mutter “Ehhhhh… partial credit.”
It doesn’t help that this hero demonstrates his bold pioneer spirit by repeatedly abandoning his wife and kids (in fact, abandoning the film) for years or decades at a time. By halfway through the movie I couldn’t help shouting “JUST DUMP HIS ASS ALREADY!” at the screen. Sadly, she never does. This would make sense if there was something compellingly lovable about the guy, but if there is, we never see it. The result is that his wife, who we actually spend a lot of our screen time with, comes off as a real chump.
All that said, there’s a lot to like here. The opening sequence is incredibly bold, cinematically, with some genuinely rousing action setpieces. The hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold is lively and fun, and frankly, the hero’s defense of her is a braver defense of sex work than you see in most movies, from 1930 or otherwise. Most of all, it does what it sets out to do: seeing the town it’s set in start out as a random collection of tents and shanties in the middle of nowhere, and end up as a bustling city with skyscrapers and a self-congratulatory city council, really is a compelling journey.
What did this beat?
East Lynne, Skippy, Trader Horn, and The Front Page. I’m forced to admit that The Front Page is the only one I’ve even heard of. Of more interest to me is that gangster classics The Public Enemy and Little Caesar both came out this year, but neither was nominated for Best Picture.