Oscar Vault Monday – In Old Arizona, 1928 (dir. Irving Cummings)
This film was advertised as “100% All-Talking” and its tagline was “You Hear What You See While Enjoying In Old Arizona.” This film was a real game-changer in several aspects. It was the first major studio western to use sound technology and the first talkie to be filmed outdoors. They filmed it in Bryce Canyon National Park and Zion National Park in Utah and the San Fernando Mission and the Mojave Desert. I’ve got several beautiful shots from it that I will share later on. Also, Raoul Walsh was supposed to direct and star in this film, but a jackrabbit jumped through a windshield of a vehicle he was driving, Walsh lost an eye and had to abandon the project. I always wanted to know why Walsh wore an eye-patch. A jackrabbit in the eye is kind of fantastic. I wonder if those Monty Python boys knew about that? In Old Arizona was nominated for five Academy Awards, winning one: Best Writing, Best Cinematography, Best Actor Warner Baxter (won), Best Director and Best Picture. The other films nominated for Best Picture that year were: Alibi, The Hollywood Revue of 1929, The Patriot (this Ernst Lubitsch film is considered a lost film) and winner The Broadway Melody. I must point out, however, that at this ceremony, the 2nd ever, there were no official nominees announced, just the winners. Research by AMPAS has resulted in an unofficial list of nominees based on records of which films were evaluated by the judges. It’s also the only year where no movie won more than one Oscar.
Recently I’ve found myself falling in love with Westerns. I think I wrote about this in my July or August 2011-in-film monthly wrap up. There are so many great westerns out there and they are so much more than “cowboys vs. indians.” Westerns deal with betrayal and loyalty and “no man is an island” and all kinds of universal themes in, often, unique ways. By unique ways, I mean with the characters. Yes, occasionally, you get “stock” characters. But in the really great westerns (of which there are many), you get unique individuals, often trying to hold on to some ideal, some vague romanticized notion that maybe we all feel and is personified perfectly by the “west.” I could go on for ages about what I love about westerns, but that’s not the point of this piece. I will say that, while In Old Arizona may not be the greatest of the classic westerns, it’s much greater than I think it’s given credit.
Warner Baxter, whose turn as ailing theatre director Julian Marsh in 42 Street is one of my favorite performances ever, won his only Oscar (his only nomination, even) for his lead role as the outlaw known as The Cisco Kid. He’s charming and he’s suave and he never robs individuals. The Cisco Kid was a creation of short story master O. Henry, and although I haven’t read the story he’s from, I think this cinematic version must be pretty close to what O. Henry created. Baxter doesn’t just play with The Cisco Kid’s charm, he’s also quite heartbreaking at times. He’s a one-woman guy, who always brings his lady a gift from wherever he’s been. This all changes when his lady turns out to be less than true herself. When he finally comes to this realization his behavior is not what I expected for the supposed “villain” of the film. But I guess that’s because he isn’t really the “villain”; he’s the anti-hero. An anti-hero in 1928? The more I think about it, the more I think this film was way ahead of its time.
Which brings me to Edmund Lowe as the bumbling braggart Sergeant Mickey Dunn, who is in charge of capturing The Cisco Kid. Dunn is “the law”, but he is not very bright; he has a shave and a laugh with The Cisco Kid, not realizing who he’s with. Eventually he meets The Cisco Kid’s lady and I think you can probably figure out what happens after that. He’s a ladies man, whose loyal to one woman – at a time. But when he meets Tonia, things change. He tries to lie to even himself what he feels for Tonia, but the two of them are drawn to each other for reasons beyond what even they can understand. Lowe’s performance is genius; you hate him, but you love to hate him. You also understand why he is the way he is. There’s no black and white.
The last lead in the film is Dorothy Burgess, who has perhaps the hardest role to play, not just because of Tonia’s nature, but also because of the stereotyped characterization of her. At first I felt like Burgess went a little too far with her accent and with her demeanor, but the more I think on it, the more I think it’s just right. This isn’t “realism” and these characters, though they feel like “real” people, live in another world; the romanticized west. I think really, if there’s a “villain” in this film it’s Tonia, who manipulates the men around her. Really though, she’s just doing what she has to do to survive. Again, there is no black and white.
There is, however, gorgeous black and white cinematography done by Arthur Edeson, who shot his first film in 1914 and whose later credits include James Whale’s Frankenstein and Waterloo Bridge, Walsh’s They Drive By Night, and John Huston’s The Maltese Falcon. Edeson was nominated for his work on this film, as well as Best Picture winners All Quiet On The Western Front and Casablanca, though he never won. Mostly, I am just in awe of how gorgeous these shots are.
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Posted on October 31, 2011, in Oscar Vault Monday and tagged 1928, Arthur Edeson, Dorothy Burgess, Edmund Lowe, In Old Arizona, Irving Cummings, Raoul Walsh, Warner Baxter. Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.