Sunday, March 28, 2010

Off to 'Arizona'

"In Old Arizona" is a curious one for film buffs who like the first wave of sound films. Released in 1929, its best asset today is Warner Baxter, who plays the Cisco Kid and won an early Oscar for it.

Much like "The Broadway Melody" was touted as the first all talking, all singing and all dancing movie, "In Old Arizona" is considered the first sound western. Considering how cumbersome early sound equipment was, confining scenes to small spaces in order to capture dialogue, the technology seems like a bad match to the western genre, which should be filled with sweeping vistas and outdoor action sequences.

"In Old Arizona" tries, but it ultimately is done in by this early technology, with too many static scenes and not enough action.

The Cisco Kid is a Robin Hood of the West, a man who will hold up stagecoaches but not hurt any civilians. He is wanted by those in charge but well-liked by the people. The story centers on Sgt. Mickey Dunn (Edmund Lowe) charged with finding the Cisco Kid, who hides out with his girlfriend Tonia Maria (Dorothy Burgess), unaware that she's willing to betray him for the reward money and the love of Sgt. Dunn.

As with "Alibi," an early gangster movie that I blogged about last year, "In Old Arizona" takes advantage of the new sound technology and throws in as much music and noise as possible. There's too much music here, but to audiences it must have been a treat. The same goes for the bits of humor -- perhaps the ability to verbalize comedy was considered on par with the addition of music, but it doesn't always fit into the story.

The film starts off promising, but it really gets bogged down by the lack of action and a shift in focus from the Cisco Kid to Tonia Maria's shenanigans. It doesn't help that she is an annoying character and Burgess' performance is equally annoying. Perhaps Burgess was better suited to the silent screen -- seen but not heard. She doesn't convince as Hispanic and she's not as alluring as the story wants us to believe.

So, what is there to recommend? First and foremost Warner Baxter. Raoul Walsh was to direct and star in the film but was in a terrible car accident when a jackrabbit went through the windshield and he lost an eye (or eyesight in an eye, depending on what you read). Baxter was tapped and made his talking film debut. What's great is that while his character can be oversized, the performance is not. It has a relaxed, modern feel to it, and he is convincing throughout. He apparently enjoyed playing this character tremendously and ended up doing so at least twice more -- "The Cisco Kid" in 1931 and "Return of the Cisco Kid" in 1939.

I also like some of the pre-code dialogue and the double-entendres, such as when the men are comparing the size of their "guns." It's definitely worth a chuckle.

"In Old Arizona" was popular with audiences and the Academy, which was only in its second year. The movie earned Oscar nods for best picture, actor, director, writing and cinematography. Considering there were only seven categories, that's pretty impressive. Baxter, the only winner from the film, would go on to have a productive career during the 1930s and star in a 1940s serial as the Crime Doctor.

5 comments:

  1. I believe this was the movie that director Raoul Walsh was making on location in Arizona when he was in his car accident and lost an eye.

    I think early sound pictures are fascinating. I'll have to check this one out.

    My favorite Cisco Kid portrayer is Gilbert Roland, who essayed the role in six Monogram B westerns in the mid-to-late 1940s. He's very appealing in the role and brings a touch of world weariness to it.

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  2. There was a followup of sorts, "The Arizona Kid," in which Carole Lombard -- who'd been a Fox starlet in the mid-twenties before an automobile accident -- played a villainess. You can see a 1930 Photoplay ad for the film at

    http://community.livejournal.com/carole_and_co/291439.html

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  3. Nice post as usual!
    I have given your blog an award my friend, check out mine to receive it.
    Rupert

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  4. Hi,

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  5. Hello all, I'm a little behind on my responses. Kevin, I think you'll enjoy Warner Baxter's performance. VP, always a pleasure to hear from you. Great poster! Rupert, thank you much! I will pass it forward. Thank you, 7tavern, for the kind words.

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