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Oscars’ Westerns on TCM: North America’s Brutal Wide Open Spaces

Oscars Westerns: Cimarron Irene Dunne Richard DixCimarron with Richard Dix and Irene Dunne: Oscars’ Westerns on TCM. A silent era star, Dix was a Best Actor nominee; a recent Broadway import, Dunne received her first of five nominations (next: Theodora Goes Wild, 1936; The Awful Truth, 1937; Love Affair, 1939; I Remember Mama, 1948).
  • “31 Days of Oscar”: Turner Classic Movies’ Academy Award-themed series continues with 11 Westerns, including one Best Picture winner (Cimarron) and four nominees (Viva Villa!, Stagecoach, Giant, How the West Was Won).
  • Not into Westerns? That’s okay. Although set among North America’s wide open spaces, these Oscar Westerns aren’t just about White Hat vs. Black Hat, or Palefaces vs. Redskins. Topics covered include family dysfunction (Giant, Hud), history (Cimarron, Viva Villa!, How the West Was Won), social prejudices (Stagecoach), and hip banditry (Cat Ballou).

‘31 Days of Oscar’: TCM is presenting 11 Westerns, ranging from John Ford’s revered Stagecoach to the so-called Worst Best Picture Winner Ever

Ramon Novarro biography Beyond Paradise

Turner Classic Movies’ “31 Days of Oscar” series continues on Saturday, March 18, with 11 movies showcasing the – violent, racist, corrupt – wide opens spaces of the North American West. (See full schedule further below.) These Westerns – all of them prestige Hollywood productions, directed by big names and featuring major stars – include titles from the early 1930s to the mid-1960s, with both “classic” and modern-day settings.

Not a fan of Westerns?

No problem. These Oscar Westerns have something for everyone.

Are you into Mexican history (while being okay with “artistic liberties”)?

Then check out Jack Conway’s Viva Villa!, starring Academy Award winner Wallace Beery (The Champ, 1931–32; officially tied with Fredric March for Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde) as the legendary Mexican revolutionary Pancho Villa. (Beery had previously played Villa in the anti-Mexican, anti-Japanese serial Patria.)

Are you into Oklahoma history (again, while being okay with “artistic liberties”)?

Then check out Wesley Ruggles’ Cimarron, which in some quarters has the (undeserved) reputation of being the very worst Best Picture Academy Award winner ever.

Do you enjoy watching family members at war with themselves?

Then check out George StevensGiant and Martin Ritt’s Hud, both with a modern-era setting.

Do you appreciate first-rate acting?

Then, again, both Giant (Oscar nominee Rock Hudson and the unfairly bypassed Elizabeth Taylor) and Hud (Oscar winners Patricia Neal and Melvyn Douglas) are a must.

Do Indian attacks give you goosebumps?

If so, a) you must check out John Ford’s Stagecoach b) go look for a good psychiatrist.

Are Western comedies with a 1960s vibe your thing?

Then Elliot Silverstein’s sleeper box office hit Cat Ballou is the movie for you.

Below are brief notes on four of TCM’s Oscar Westerns: Cimarron, Stagecoach, How the West Was Won, and Cat Ballou.

Cimarron (1931)

Based on Edna Ferber’s sweeping 1930 novel about the development of what became the state of Oklahoma (following the theft of land belonging to the Cherokee and other Native American tribes), Wesley Ruggles’ Cimarron made Academy Award history in several ways:

  • It was the first RKO movie to win Best Picture/Best Production (for the period 1930–31; it would be followed by only one other title: The Samuel Goldwyn-produced, RKO-released The Best Years of Our Lives, 1946).
  • It was the first Western to win Best Picture. (To date, there have been only two other Best Picture-winning Westerns: Kevin Costner’s Dances with Wolves, 1990; and Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven, 1992. Or three, if you include Joel and Ethan Coen’s 1980s West Texas-set crime thriller No Country for Old Men, 2007.)
  • It was the first Best Picture winner to also receive nominations in the Best Actor and Best Actress categories (for Richard Dix [his one and only] and Irene Dunne [her first of five]).
  • It was the first Best Picture winner to lose in both the Best Actor and Best Actress categories. (The winners were Lionel Barrymore for A Free Soul and Marie Dressler for Min and Bill.)
  • It was the first Best Picture winner to lose money ($565,000 in the red; budget: A hefty – for the time – $1.4 million).

Out of its seven Academy Award nominations – there were only nine categories that year – Cimarron topped Best Production, Best Adaptation (Howard Estabrook), and, deservedly, Best Art Direction (Max Rée).

Released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, directed by Anthony Mann (with some assistance from Charles Walters), and starring Glenn Ford, Maria Schell, and Anne Baxter, a costly – and ultimately money-losing ($3.6 million in the red) – remake came out in 1960. It received two Oscar nominations: Best Art Direction and Best Sound.

As for those who find Cimarron 1931 the worst Best Picture winner ever, have they not sat through Mel Gibson’s Braveheart and Ridley Scott’s Gladiator?

Stagecoach John Wayne George Bancroft Louise PlattStagecoach with John Wayne, George Bancroft, and Louise Platt: One of TCM’s Oscar Westerns, Stagecoach won two Academy Awards: Best Supporting Actor (Thomas Mitchell) and Best Music (Richard Hageman, W. Franke Harling, John Leipold, and Leo Shuken).

Stagecoach (1939)

For some, John Ford’s Best Picture Oscar nominee Stagecoach is not only the greatest Western ever made but also one of the greatest movies ever, regardless of genre.

Officially based on Ernest Haycox’s 1937 short story “The Stage to Lordsburg,” but with elements clearly ripped off from Guy de Maupassant’s 1880 story “Boule de Suif,” the narrative revolves around a group of strangers – a sex worker/dance-hall girl (Claire Trevor), an alcoholic doctor (Best Supporting Actor winner Thomas Mitchell), a whiskey salesman (Donald Meek), a fugitive from prison (John Wayne), etc. – who find themselves sharing the titular vehicle while on their way from the Arizona Territory to New Mexico.

Stagecoach’s best-known sequence is the climactic Apache attack, undeniably a feat of bravura filmmaking. On the ugly side, it’s just as undeniably a feat of unapologetic racism; as was usually the case in American movies of the period, the Indians are faceless, murderous hordes. Worse yet, the attack is also a proud display of animal abuse, as the horses suffer horrific falls. In all, that sequence is both a cinematic masterpiece and an appalling spectacle that stays in the mind long after it’s over, when we should be focusing instead on the ensuing human drama.

A less well-regarded 1966 all-star remake was directed by Gordon Douglas. In the cast: Alex Cord, Ann-Margret, Bing Crosby, Robert Cummings, Van Heflin, Mike Connors, Stefanie Powers, Red Buttons, and Keenan Wynn.

A more entertaining version of Boule de Suif is the straightforward 1945 adaptation directed by Christian-Jacque and starring Micheline Presle (who will be turning 101 next August) in top form as the titular sex worker.

* Fans of Ford’s 1956 Western The Searchers, also starring John Wayne, would disagree. And we’d offer instead George Stevens’ Shane, starring Alan Ladd. (Shane isn’t one of TCM’s Oscar Westerns notwithstanding its five nominations – including Best Picture – and one win [Best Color Cinematography for Loyal Griggs].)

How the West Was Won (1963)

These days, the Academy Awards have for the most part been honoring small movies – e.g., Best Picture nominees (at times winners) Amour, Whiplash, Room, Moonlight, Manchester by the Sea, Call Me by Your Name, Lady Bird, The Favorite, Parasite, Nomadland, Minari, The Father, Belfast, Drive My Car, CODA, Everything Everywhere All at Once.

In fact, in 2009 they had to expand the Best Picture category – from five to up to ten nominees – to give a better chance to the big movies.

Back in the 1960s, however, the situation was the exact opposite, as a significant percentage of Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences members believed that bigger = better. Or, if not “better,” then at least deserving of a Best Picture Nod for Effort (and Money Spent).

Hence, among the Academy’s Top Five movies from 1960 to 1969 – in some instances, their very top choice – were titles like The Alamo, The Guns of Navarone, West Side Story, Lawrence of Arabia, The Longest Day, The Music Man, Mutiny on the Bounty, Cleopatra, My Fair Lady, Becket, Mary Poppins, The Sound of Music, Doctor Zhivago, The Sand Pebbles, Doctor Dolittle, The Lion in Winter, Funny Girl, Oliver!, Anne of the Thousand Days, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, and Hello, Dolly!.

That viewpoint is the best way to explain the inclusion of How the West Was Won among the five Best Picture nominees of 1963. (When the far superior – but far smaller in scale – Hud was bypassed.)

Cinerama feel

Shot in Cinerama, How the West Was Won had no less than three directors – Henry Hathaway, John Ford, and George Marshall – in addition to a whole array of big-name stars in front of the camera: Gregory Peck, Debbie Reynolds, James Stewart, Carroll Baker, Richard Widmark, Thelma Ritter, John Wayne, etc.

The mega-Western even boasts a two-time Best Actor Oscar winner as its narrator: Spencer Tracy (Captains Courageous, 1937; Boys Town, 1938).

If only its home studio, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, had taken as much care in creating a narrative less filled with boilerplate characters and situations.

Even so, How the West Was Won is a must-see. A feast for the eye, Turner Classic Movies’ restored print, which attempts to preserve the original Cinerama feel, is simply fantastic.

An aside about another restored print: Anthony Mann’s The Naked Spur (1953) is also being presented on Saturday. Starring James Stewart, Janet Leigh, Robert Ryan, Ralph Meeker, and Millard Mitchell, this Colorado Rockies-set Western is one of Mann’s most visually arresting productions.

Cat Ballou Jane FondaCat Ballou with Jane Fonda: Things look dire for the future two-time Best Actress Oscar winner (Klute, 1971; Coming Home, 1978) in what happens to be one of Hollywood’s most enjoyable comedy Westerns. Elliot Silverstein directed; Lee Marvin, Michael Callan, and Dwayne Hickman costar.

Cat Ballou (1965)

Long before James Cameron’s The Terminator, in which Linda Hamilton goes from klutzy waitress to fierce guerrilla fighter, there was Elliot Silverstein’s Cat Ballou, in which Jane Fonda goes from prim schoolteacher to convicted murderess.

Sounds grim?

Well, Cat Ballou is anything but.

A lively romp featuring musical “narration” by troubadours/Greek chorus Nat ‘King’ Cole and Stubby Kaye (including the Oscar-nominated “The Ballad of Cat Ballou”*), Jane Fonda (in a role initially offered to Ann-Margret) delivering what may well be her most effective comedic performance of the 1960s, personable costars Michael Callan (who died last year) and Dwayne Hickman (who does a great imitation of a drunken priest), and first-rate production values, Cat Ballou should be better remembered as one of Hollywood’s most entertaining Westerns.

The only cast member to be shortlisted for the Oscars was Lee Marvin, who, though in subordinate roles (the black-hat-wearing villain and his wasted brother), went on to win Best Actor. (His heavy-weight competition consisted of Laurence Olivier for Othello, Richard Burton for The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, Berlin Film Festival [1964]† winner Rod Steiger for The Pawnbroker, and New York Film Critics Circle winner Oskar Werner for Ship of Fools.)

Perhaps enough Academy members felt the actor – better known as a heavy in movies like The Big Heat, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, and The Killers – deserved some recognition for showing the world his humorous side. And yet, even though he has his moments, Marvin is Cat Ballou’s least effective link.

Immediately below is TCM’s March 18 schedule. Most titles will remain available for some time on the TCM app.

* Composed by Mack David and Jerry Livingston.

† Lee Marvin was the Berlin Film Festival’s Best Actor winner of 1965.

Oscars’ Westerns movie schedule

March 18, EDT

6:00 AM Viva Villa! (1934)
Director: Jack Conway.
Cast: Wallace Beery, Leo Carrillo, Fay Wray, Donald Cook, Stuart Erwin, Henry B. Walthall, Joseph Schildkraut, Katherine DeMille, George E. Stone, Francis X. Bushman Jr.

8:00 AM The Westerner (1940)
Director: William Wyler.
Cast: Gary Cooper, Walter Brennan, Doris Davenport, Forrest Tucker, Fred Stone, Dana Andrews.

10:00 AM Cimarron (1931)
Director: Wesley Ruggles.
Cast: Richard Dix, Irene Dunne, Estelle Taylor, George E. Stone, Nance O’Neil, William Collier Jr., Roscoe Ates, Edna May Oliver.

12:15 PM Stagecoach (1939)
Director: John Ford.
Cast: Claire Trevor, John Wayne, Andy Devine, John Carradine, Thomas Mitchell, Louise Platt, George Bancroft, Donald Meek, Berton Churchill, Tim Holt, Tom Tyler.

2:15 PM She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949)
Director: John Ford.
Cast: John Wayne, Joanne Dru, John Agar, Ben Johnson, Harry Carey Jr., Victor McLaglen, Mildred Natwick, George O’Brien, Arthur Shields, Tom Tyler, Noble Johnson.

4:15 PM Giant (1956)
Director: George Stevens.
Cast: Elizabeth Taylor, Rock Hudson, James Dean, Carroll Baker, Jane Withers, Chill Wills, Mercedes McCambridge, Dennis Hopper, Sal Mineo, Rod Taylor, Judith Evelyn, Earl Holliman, Elsa Cárdenas.

8:00 PM Hud (1963)
Director: Martin Ritt.
Cast: Paul Newman, Melvyn Douglas, Patricia Neal, Brandon De Wilde, Whit Bissell, Crahan Denton, John Ashley, Yvette Vickers.

10:00 PM How the West Was Won (1962)
Directors: Henry Hathaway, John Ford, George Marshall.
Cast: Carroll Baker, Lee J. Cobb, Henry Fonda, Carolyn Jones, Karl Malden, Gregory Peck, George Peppard, Robert Preston, Debbie Reynolds, James Stewart, Eli Wallach, John Wayne, Richard Widmark, Brigid Bazlen, Walter Brennan, David Brian, Andy Devine, Raymond Massey, Agnes Moorehead, Harry Morgan, Thelma Ritter, Mickey Shaughnessy, Russ Tamblyn.
Narrator: Spencer Tracy.

1:00 AM The Naked Spur (1953)
Director: Anthony Mann.
Cast: James Stewart, Janet Leigh, Robert Ryan, Ralph Meeker, Millard Mitchell.

2:45 AM Cat Ballou (1965)
Director: Elliot Silverstein.
Cast: Jane Fonda, Lee Marvin, Michael Callan, Dwayne Hickman, Nat ‘King’ Cole, Stubby Kaye, Tom Nardini, John Marley, Reginald Denny, Jay C. Flippen, Arthur Hunnicutt, Bruce Cabot.

4:30 AM The Big Sky (1952)
Director: Howard Hawks.
Cast: Kirk Douglas, Dewey Martin, Elizabeth Threatt, Arthur Hunnicutt, Buddy Baer, Steven Geray, Jim Davis.

“Oscars’ Westerns on TCM” notes

Movie schedule information via the TCM website.

Richard Dix and Irene Dunne Cimarron movie image: RKO Pictures.

George Bancroft, Louise Platt, and John Wayne Stagecoach movie image: United Artists.

Jane Fonda Cat Ballou movie image: Columbia Pictures.

See also: TCM’s Oscar comedies raise some important questions & Oscars’ war movies.

See also: George Clooney, Steven Spielberg, and Steven Soderbergh at the 2023 TCM Classic Film Festival.

“Oscars’ Westerns on TCM: North America’s Brutal Wide Open Spaces” last updated in March 2023.

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