Richard Dix was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actor for his portrayal of Yancy Cravat in Cimarron (1931), a story of life in old Okahoma spread across the years 1889-1929. The RKO Radio film won 3 Oscars including Best Picture and was nominated for four more counting Dix's nomination. Cimarron premiered in January 1931. Dix appeared in a half dozen more films before the November 1932 premier of RKO Radio's The Conquerors, a story of life in old Nebraska spread across the years 1873-1929. The film received no Oscar nominations. The Conquerors is not only the more relevant film today, but I found it superior to Cimarron in just about every other aspect as well. Typically characterized a knock-off, that may be so, but that doesn't mean it wasn't an improvement as well.
The Conquerors reportedly cost $800,000 less than Cimarron to make, but Cimarron lost over twice as much money during its original release. The Oakland Tribune called The Conquerors "a reminder of the indomitable spirit of the American family." The Bluefield Daily Telegraph of West Virginia said "For the first time ... here is a motion picture that is bigger than a motion picture." The Galveston Daily News: "One emerges from the theater with a courage to face any task; an ambition to surmount any barrier and a faith to conquer any problem."
Mordaunt Hall of the New York Times tempers things a bit: "The Conquerors, has much that holds one's attention, even though the levity during certain interludes is overdone," singling out Edna May Oliver and Guy Kibbee as fine actors who lay it on a little thick throughout the film. Of Cimarron, not two years earlier, the same writer says that it's "a stupendous undertaking in view of the time that is covered and the hosts of persons in its scenes" and that "Although it is episodical, it holds one's attention and Mr. Dix gives a fine impersonation of Cravat." Now I know Elvis wasn't even born when these movies were first released, but here in 2010 I've got to say throughout Cimarron the one person Dix continually called to my mind was the King, from his hair to his smirks right down to his delivery. I do agree that the most embarrassing moments of The Conquerors typically involve Oliver and Kibbee, but both add more than they subtract from the production.
Far from being first and foremost a tale of the old West, The Conquerors is propaganda for American prosperity. Beginning in 1873, stopping over in 1893, and closing in 1929, the film rides out the roller coaster of the American economy throughout it's most tumultuous years, each time ringing in the prosperity through growing piles of money and cigar chomping bankers who practically drool as they watch the market rise. But when Dix, as grand old man Roger Standish, mumbles, "growing boy has burst its pants again," about America as it enters the last crash, I can only imagine that the original paying audience half hissing, half chuckling, all hoping, along with the old timer whom they had just watched see it all over and over again.
As each Panic and Crash is graphically illustrated through crashing piles of change, crumbling mountainsides, or those same cigar chomping faces melting across the screen, the dark period is heralded in by an anarchist, in the final case it's actually J. Carrol Naish onscreen for all of ten seconds: "Suuure, we've had panics before, BUT NEVER one like this! Our whole financial and economic structure is tottering. America, my friends, is through. FINISHED! Nothing left to be done except give the country back to the Indians." That's J. Carrol's entire bit in The Conquerors, yet it's safe to say he, or more accurately, what he represents is the villain of the piece.
The Conquerors exists in 1932 to show its not quite defeated audience that none of this is new. It's all been done before, and here in Dix's Roger Standish, his wife, Caroline, played by Ann Harding, are regular folk who have ridden the waves of the economy over time. Standish comes from nothing, builds a fortune and sees it topple every so often throughout his times. Does this feed you if you're hungry in 1932? Absolutely not, but you know what, if you can afford a theater ticket you're not starving, you're surviving, and here's a picture you want to enjoy because it's telling you things are bound to get better. Given the proper conditions The Conquerors can be inspiring, though certainly if you are actually suffering it's a bit too much. I could see by the end you might find Richard Dix just another old man preaching back in my day stories that you don't need to hear anymore, sure. I took the film in its intended spirit though, inspirational, and in my regard it succeeded largely because I liked the characters, especially the main pair, played by Dix and Ann Harding.
The story actually opens in New York with young Roger (Dix) romancing young Caroline (Harding) until her father, a powerful banker, catches them. He banishes Roger from his estate and takes away the entry level job he'd secured for him at his bank. Last laugh for Roger though as the Panic of '73 sets in along with The Conquerors first montage of economic crisis all culminating with the death of Mr. Ogden, Caroline's dad. While the Ogden estate is being auctioned off to a group including a mutton-chopped Robert Greig, Roger paces in front of Caroline in a somewhat private room where he wonders what people put in their situation should do. As Caroline watches him skulk back and forth in front of the huge map of America hanging on the wall she has a burst of inspiration and answers, "Just what you're doing now ... They go west."
Our young couple is next seen idyllically atop a boat being paddled slowly down a Nebraska river. Countless sheep move along the bordering land as Dix's biceps bulge while he swings the rudder. Harding gazes up at him as Dix asks the most popular lovestruck question of 30's romance: "Happy?" As soon as Caroline answers in the affirmative the newlyweds happiness is shattered in the first of a few shocking scenes weaved throughout The Conquerors. A group we soon come to know as the Slade gang swings down upon the boat from the treetops, sticking up everyone on board. When one of the gang makes the mistake of molesting Caroline, Dix's Roger unloads one of the best knockout blows you'll see on screen and sends the criminal tumbling over the side of the boat into the water. For a moment I thought the fellow with him was going to apologize for his fellow Slade boy's rude actions towards Caroline. Instead he shoots Roger point blank and sends he-man Dix tumbling to the deck below.
A group of men carry the unconscious Roger into Doc Blake's place where Caroline must first beg the help of the doctor's wife, Matilda, played by an initially stern Edna May Oliver. Caroline warms her heart by explaining that they're newlyweds and is escorted to the back room where husband Daniel has just drawn four Queens in a hand Matilda doesn't give him a chance to finish. The room cleared of the Doc's card cronies, Caroline and Roger are left with the great character actor pairing of Oliver and Guy Kibbee, our drunken doctor. Kibbee's Blake sterilizes both his tools and himself with some liquor before deciding to leave the bullet in and just seal up Roger for the time being, vowing to try and get that bullet out at a later date, when and if he's ever sober.
Following the outline of Cimarron the first act draws to a close with vengeance on the returning Slade gang. After the gang departs town having cleaned out just about everyone Matilda says the town could use a good vigilance committee. Caroline remarks that they need a bank. They get both.
Whereas Cimarron's first portion winds up with a two shot duel between Dix's Yancy and the villainous Lon Yountis (Stanley Fields) with bullets flying across a Church filled with parishioners, The Conquerors' bit of vengeance comes from the mind of director William Wellman and is bound to remind you of a very condensed version of his later classic, The Ox-Bow Incident (1943).
A fire burns amongst a large group of men who rise and approach from the distance carrying ropes. All at once they swing them high over a branch and while other members of the crew down below hold one end in place the first group of men walk their end of the rope over to their horses and tie it tight to their saddles. Mounting their steeds they advance slowly as the camera shifts back to the branch where slowly rising are the entire Slade gang, nooses around their necks, bodies convulsing as they rise, their feet kicking with a bit of pre-code violence that shows us the entire lengths of their bodies being pulled up to the peak of their gallows. While it was obvious what was happening it seemed so unbelievable that it occurred to me for a moment they might just be using the rope to raise one side of the new bank. Nope, it was an all out mass lynching, in vivid detail. The moment is handled from enough of a distance to keep from being totally tasteless, I mean, we don't get a close-up on any of the men's gasping faces, but it's still a shocker. One of a few moments in The Conquerors where if you're familiar with Wellman's work you wouldn't need to be told this is a Wellman film!
From there the Standish Bank gets built with Roger in charge and the pace picks up on the story. The next generation of Standish's are born and suddenly grown. With a dish inspired by familiar fare from Delmonico's back home Caroline talks an important New Yorker into steering the railroad through Fort Allen. As the first train pulls into town it brings tragedy but Fort Allen continues to grow as well. Daughter Frances Standish grows up into Julie Haydon, a fine Ann Harding lookalike to represent the younger generation as Harding and Dix are made up a generation older. Frances marries Warren Lennox (Donald Cook). The Panic of '93 comes along and the family we're following are greeted by birth and death just one room away from another within a split second. Roger's grandson and namesake Roger Lennox is shown growing with America. A newsreel takes us into the 20th Century with Teddy Roosevelt and the Wright Brothers, not to mention the moving pictures themselves. War breaks out and younger Roger is just the right age to morph into Wild Bill Wellman and serve in the Lafayette Escadrille. Victory, back home the entire family looks for Roger in the parade and we the audience are thrilled to see young Roger Lennox is played by ... Richard Dix. The 20's Roar and leading up to the big crash we're treated to Dix in the same scenes twice, as elder Roger probably around 80 and younger Roger, Dix's true age, and now in charge of the bank. The financial cycles repeat.
Watching Cimarron I actually could not believe Dix received an Oscar nomination for his performance. His delivery was awful with emphasis placed in all the wrong spots, really no actual human being would ever speak the way he did in that picture. His only saving grace was the good stern look he carried throughout as he was much more action hero than actor. Now I'm not saying he should have been nominated for The Conquerors, but his improvement is astonishing. My best guess is this can be chalked up to another year and a half of talkie experience for the former silent leading man.
Newspaper articles from the time mention that Dix needed over 200 different treatments of make-up throughout The Conquerors, no surprise in that he ages 56 years throughout the movie. The older Dix gets the more charming Roger Standish becomes. My favorite moment for the character was during his mid-1910's phase when the newspapers report his grandson's heroism in war. Beaming, grandfather Dix wears a wide smile under his gray mustache as he reads young Roger's exploits aloud from the newspaper to the family. He punctuates the article by nodding his head in affirmation and then crams a big cigar in his mouth and beams some more.
Ann Harding actually shines best in her part as the younger Caroline though perhaps that's mostly due to playing most scenes alongside the improved but nonetheless inferior Dix. She also matters a little more early on as companion to Dix's lead, her husband, Roger. Roger Standish remains important throughout, but as the couple age Julie Haydon's Frances begins to take over some of the scenes which would have previously belonged to Harding's Caroline, a necessary move since it's Frances' son who is going to grow up to be Richard Dix with all of the aging make-up peeled off. Harding ages with great grace and gives a strong account of herself throughout. Haydon does a fine job in her brief part as basically a Harding stand-in, but Harding herself is not to be forgotten, especially in her heart wrenching final scene.
Sadly the Times was more right than wrong about Guy Kibbee and Edna Mae Oliver, but I've seen Kibbee bumble way worse than this and his Daniel Blake does get to show off some touches of humanity in The Conquerors as well. Oliver does send the occasional shudder down your spine with her typical high pitched calls, but she's more or less her usual character in The Conquerors, rigid on the outside but quite warm when the situation calls for it. If you come into the film already with an affinity for Guy Kibbee or Edna May Oliver, then you'll enjoy them as much as usual in The Conquerors.
In the only other part worth a mention Donald Cook has the pretty thankless task of shifting quickly from a character we suspect will stand shoulder to shoulder with Dix into a spineless coward who almost breaks the bank through his incompetence.
Like Cimarron the bulk of time spent in The Conquerors comes in the first section. It's a half an hour before the Standish Bank is up, 40 minutes before Fort Allen grows into a worthwhile place to live, and 57 minutes into the 86 minute film before we even reach the 1893 Panic. From there we have but a half an hour to move through the next 37 years. That final sweep moves fast, but manages to be complete without a feel of leaving any missing details. The first hour or so introduces us to characters we like, and every time the movie threatens to drag it manages to weave in some of those more surprising moments referenced above to at least quicken the heartbeat if not the overall pace.
The Conquerors, RKO Radio Pictures, 1932. 86 minutes. Executive Producer: David O. Selznick, Director: William Wellman. Screenplay by Robert Lord based on a story by Howard Estabrook. Starring: Richard Dix, Ann Harding, Edna May Oliver, Guy Kibbee, Julie Haydon, Donald Cook.