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In Old Arizona

In Old Arizona(1929)

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Think of In Old Arizona as that old computer you buried in a corner of your garage and never looked at again. In other words, in its day it served its purpose, but it's of little value today, despite the 1929 western's new DVD release. It's very hard to believe Warner Baxter won a Best Actor Oscar® for his hammy portrayal of "charming" bandit The Cisco Kid, even in the early days of the awards, when the Academy's Central Board of Judges held sway over voting and made things even more political than they are now. But this dreary picture was also apparently a crowd-pleaser that spawned two sequels with Baxter reprising the role (The Cisco Kid and Return of the Cisco Kid).

Key to whatever appeal In Old Arizona might have had was its novelty factor, being the first studio talkie featuring lots of outdoor scenes. In addition to the fascination with sound that has characters informally sing every now and then - there's even a minute or so of song at the beginning and end of the movie, with black-screen visual accompaniment - the technical issues make for interestingly selective sound in the early going. In Old Arizona was obviously the sort of early talkie satirized in Singin' in the Rain, in which stationary microphones were hidden on the set where the cast was performing and little could be done to control what the mikes picked up. So the scene-setting early shots go from a street scene, where you get little more than loud ambient noise and struggle to hear the dialogue among a group of passengers boarding a stagecoach, to a shot of the stagecoach going through a canyon, which starts in silence, has a flash of loud sound as the coach passes the mike and then no sound again. Even on the "restored" audio soundtrack, it's hard to catch all the dialogue, and I ended up watching the disc with the subtitles on.

Not that there's much you'd want to catch. The clunky sound may be understandable, but the dislikable characters, laughable performances and general sluggishness of In Old Arizona are much less forgivable. If the premise is for The Cisco Kid to be a sort of Robin Hood of the southwest, the movie fails miserably. After The Kid robs the stagecoach of its Wells Fargo box full of money, he returns the savings lost in the robbery by a Sicilian barber (Henry Armetta, Central Casting's favorite over-gesticulating immigrant), but otherwise there's no hint The Kid is out for anyone but himself. If he's sympathetic at all, it's because he's a romantic who dreams of giving girlfriend Tonia (Dorothy Burgess) a better life, but even that is iffy, since he's such a cringingly stereotypical "Latin lover." That stagecoach robbery is one of only two scenes that come close to action, and most of the plot involves the love triangle between The Kid, Tonia (who runs around with other men whenever The Kid's away) and Mickey Dunn (Edmund Lowe), the U.S. Army sergeant assigned to hunt down The Kid. A menage a trois might have been racy for even a pre-code 1929 release, but it would have been fitting, because in this sweepstakes of distasteful characters, this trio really deserves each other. Burgess' "hot-blooded" Latina (played by a white woman, of course) and Lowe's dems-and-dose Brooklynite are every bit as stereotypical, cartoonish and irritating as Baxter's Kid. They're also as self-absorbed. I think at some point in the movie, each of the three leads talks to him- or herself about how great he or she is. That's entertainment?

Another background detail that's more interesting than the actual movie is the fact that director Raoul Walsh was also initially cast as The Cisco Kid. When he lost an eye in a car crash - the reason for the eye patch he wore the rest of his life - Baxter got the part. Walsh is credited as co-director with Irving Cummings, but my guess is that was just a courtesy, for two reasons. First, Cummings got a Best Director Oscar® nomination, not Walsh. Second, could Walsh, who made the much better The Big Trail just a year later and then such 1940s classics as High Sierra, The Man I Love, Pursued, Colorado Territory and White Heat, really make a movie this lifeless?

The In Old Arizona DVD has no extras. They wouldn't've helped.

For more information about In Old Arizona, visit Fox Home Entertainment. To order In Old Arizona, go to TCM Shopping.

By Paul Sherman