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With the expansive historical western Arizona (1940), director Wesley Ruggles seemed determined to recapture the career high point he enjoyed with the venerable Cimarron (1931). While his meticulous attention to detail resulted in a leisurely paced narrative, and contributed to the budget overruns incurred in the project's notoriously troubled production schedule, the end result remains an impressive entry in the Western genre.
The story opens among the adobe huts and clapboard mercantile establishments that comprised the cityscape of Tucson in 1860. Carving out a settlement life there is suited only to the toughest of men, and one incredibly tough woman--Phoebe Titus (Jean Arthur); she is small but swaggering, and ready to draw on anyone who feels they can take advantage of her. Her boundless reserves of attitude, as well as her other attributes, soon capture the fancy of Peter Muncie (William Holden), a handsome young drifter traveling with a wagon train through the territory. Skeptical of his attempts at courtship, Phoebe very soon finds herself swapping her denims for ladies' finery. As much as he enjoys her company, his wanderlust gets the better of him, and he's soon pressing on for the California coast.
Disappointed but unbowed, Phoebe determinedly pursues her ambition of founding a freight line to service the town's burgeoning economy. Gentlemanly encouragement soon comes at the hand of mannered Confederate dandy Jefferson Carteret (Warren William). He has a hidden agenda, however, hoping to sabotage her and profit from her future failure via a covert partnership with the town's established shipper, the small-minded Lazarus Ward (Porter Hall). The conniving pair tries everything from slandering her business to the Union army to bribing the Apache to target her wagons. Just when defeat seems eminent, Peter returns to help Phoebe turn the tables on her enemies.
Jean Arthur was at the height of her prestige on the Columbia lot when Arizona went into production, and the role of Phoebe Titus-- proud, hard-edged, tough-talking, and capable of looking cute in crinoline-- made a custom fit for the spirited star. As for the male lead, Ruggles wanted Gary Cooper, and was ready to settle for Joel McCrea, but the encroaching budgetary restraints from Columbia forced him to look on the studio lot for a cost-efficient replacement. Holden, fresh off his screen debut with Golden Boy (1939), was only twenty-two (and thirteen years Arthur's junior) when the film was shot; still, he offered a mature and manly performance, one of the best from that early phase of his screen career. William and Hall are effective as the heavies, and the palate of supporting characters is rich, notably an early performance from Edgar Buchanan as the town's pompous justice of the peace.
Holden's hiring would be one of many compromises that Ruggles would make in bringing Arizona to the screen. The $2 million budget (up from an original allotment of $1.6 million) was extraordinarily lavish by Columbia's standards, and the studio wound up spending an additional $300,000 to finish the film. It wasn't long after the project was given the go-ahead in August 1939 that Hitler's tanks rolled into Poland, and Columbia boss Harry Cohn, afraid the investment couldn't be recouped with the loss of the European market, pulled the plug. With lobbying from Ruggles, and recognition of the $300,000 already sunk into the project, the studio relented by November 1939, but not without scaling back. Besides replacing McCrea, Ruggles' intent to shoot the film in Technicolor fell by the wayside.
If the world crisis was the set-up for Arizona's fiscal failure, the knockdown came as a result of the location filming at Pima County. Ruggles' crew diligently reconstructed Old Tucson on an open lot some fourteen miles outside of the city. The production delays pushed the start of filming to April 1940. Arizona's climate is unforgiving on a good day, and the elements contributed to a grueling four-month shoot. Temperatures would reach 140 degrees, and that, combined with flat summer light, made the mid-days unworkable. Eighteen days were lost either to dust storms or rain. Despite the efforts of an on-set medical welfare unit to monitor the water intake and diet of cast, crew, and 2,500 extras, Ruggles took ill. Their sweating was probably outpaced by that of Columbia's bookkeepers, as expenses of $20,000 a day ticked off.
Ultimately, Arizona opened to moderately enthusiastic notices, and didn't make back its money. The sole Oscar® nomination went to Lionel Banks and Robert Peterson for Best Black and White Art Direction. Columbia did ultimately get its share of mileage from Ruggles' elaborate prairie set pieces, as they provided stock footage for many of the studio's subsequent "B" oaters.
Producer: Wesley Ruggles
Director: Wesley Ruggles
Screenplay: Claude Binyon, Clarence Budington Kelland (story)
Cinematography: Fayte Browne
Film Editing: William A. Lyon, Otto Meyer
Art Direction: Lionel Banks, Robert Peterson
Music: Stephen Foster, Victor Young
Cast: Jean Arthur (Phoebe Titus), William Holden (Peter Muncie), Warren William (Jefferson Carteret), Porter Hall (Lazarus Ward), Edgar Buchanan (Judge Bogardus), Paul Harvey (Solomon Warner).
by Jay S. Steinberg