Directed by Wesley Ruggles
Starring: Richard Dix, Irene Dunn, Estelle Taylor
This 1931 film became the first western to win Best Picture at the Academy Awards. In addition to Best picture the film also won for Best Adaptation and Best Art Direction.This film stars Richard Dix, Irene Dunn, and Estelle Taylor. Dix would earn his only Oscar nomination for his work on this movie. Dunn would go on to have a long career in films like Love Affair (1939) which earned her one of five Oscar nominations that she would receive. Estelle Taylor was a familiar face in the films of the twenties and thirties.
This film was directed by Wesley Ruggles who was not even credited for the work. The movie was taken from the novel of the same name written by Edna Ferber. The novel would also inspire a 1960 film version starring Glenn Ford, Maria Schell, and Anne Baxter.
Yancey Cravat (Dix) is a newspaper man caught up in the land grab in the Oklahoma territory in 1889. When he relocates his young wife (Dunn) and son to Osage they experience the settlement and modernization of the land over forty years. This comes with personal triumphs and disasters as well as the strife of their growing community. As the town grows the cravat family are right in the center of the change. Their paper capturing every change and event.
This movie is a look back at the early days of studio film making. The visual aspects of the film often feel like a silent film, with harsh lighting and dramatic stage makeup. This is combined with huge sets and amazing stunt work, especially the 1889 land race. It’s as though the film not only shows the advances in society over forty years, but also the advances in film over the previous five.
One surprise for me was the quality of the sound. Most films this old don’t seem to have such a decent sound quality to them. I’m not sure what restoration took place, but the sound quality was pretty good.
The acting in the film is anchored by the main characters, the rest of the cast are stereotypes of the people of the early western United States. Dix does a good job with his role, playing the heroic husband and crusader. Opposite him is the wonderful Irene Dunn, who does a great job with her role. She’s asked to play the brave and sacrificing pioneer woman.
This isn’t your typical western. It’s an early western with a dark twist in the story. In some ways it feels like a precursor to the Anthony Mann westerns of the fifties. (Bend of the River, The Naked Spur) I really enjoyed this movie despite the fact that it hasn’t aged that well. This is a film that casual watchers might enjoy less than people who know and love the history of films. I give this one 3.0 out of 5 stars.
Frankly, I hate this movie. Probably the worst Best Picture winner, and I’ve seen all but three so I feel safe saying that.
Maybe it’s because I saw – and really liked – Giant (1956) beforehand, which tells the same type of story much more confidently. Maybe it’s because some of the racial stereotypes are a bit tough to stomach. But I think it was really that I found it incredibly naive and the character of Yancey to be a major blowhard.
I suppose that the racism and all of that were common in those days of film making. That definitely doesn’t excuse it, but I took it all in as part of the history of the movie business.
I would have to agree that it’s surely one of my least favorite films among the Best Picture winners.