For a significant part of the last century, the Western was the dominant form of entertainment, ruling the Hollywood roost on both the big and small screen. Some of moviedom’s most iconic sounds — galloping horses, trusty six shooters, Ennio Morricone’s best work, “In this world, there’s two kinds of people: those with loaded guns and those who dig” — have come from the genre. And it all started In Old Arizona.
The 1929 Fox film was one of the most groundbreaking and innovative motion pictures of its time. In Old Arizona was the first major Western to use the new sound technology, as well as the first “talkie” to be filmed outside the confines of a cozy studio lot. (Filming took place in Utah, California, but, ironically, not Arizona.) Star Warner Baxter won an Oscar for his portrayal of the charismatic Cisco Kid, a performance that served as an early prototype for the singing cowboy on film.
In Old Arizona is based on O. Henry’s 1907 short story, “The Caballero’s Way.” The Cisco Kid (Baxter) is a smooth, stagecoach-robbing bandit. He uses the money he steals to spoil his beloved, opportunistic Tonia Maria (newcomer Dorothy Burgess). When Army sergeant Mickey Dunn (Edmund Lowe) is tasked with tracking down and killing the Cisco Kid, Tonia Maria recognizes a chance to trade up and get her hands on some reward money. Will the Cisco Kid — who doesn’t even realize he’s in a love triangle — be able to outsmart his would-be captors and ride off into the sunset?
The movie is more than 80 years old, but I’m still not telling because I suspect a lot of you haven’t seen this influential film. (I hadn’t even heard of In Old Arizona, much less seen it.) In addition to Baxter’s Oscar, the film was nominated for four additional Academy Awards, including Best Picture. I’m always a bit wary when I sit down to watch a movie that is more notable for its place in film history than it is for actually being good. Fortunately, there are a few things to like In Old Arizona.
The scenes between Baxter and Lowe crackle, particularly a sequence at a barbershop where Sgt. Dunn has no idea he’s amiably chatting with the man he’s supposed to be hunting. Although they’re adversaries, the Cisco Kid and Sgt. Dunn are both presented as thoroughly charming men who could easily be the heroes of their own movies. (The Cisco Kid robs from banks, not individuals; he’s also bummed when he realizes he’ll probably have to kill Sgt. Dunn.) There’s also some amusing pre-Hays Code humor involving the Cisco Kid’s nickname, “Conejito”/“Little Rabbit” (“Little Rabbit, huh? Are you that fast?”), and a burning frying pan serving as a symbol for sexytime. Most importantly, the film’s climactic double cross results in a genuinely tense final sequence that is still very effective today.
Unfortunately, the film also has some of the problems you’d expect from any foray into uncharted cinematic territory. Directors Irving Cummings and Raoul Walsh appear to have instructed their cast to perform their roles in the style of silent films — to be fair, they probably didn’t know any other way — which resulted in unnecessarily broad work. The crew was also very clearly still trying to fine tune the art of sound design in motion pictures, which resulted in several wonky moments. (More on that in the Audio Section.)
However, the movie’s biggest problem has nothing to do with outdated technology: In Old Arizona drags way too much during its middle section. The O. Henry short story provides a decent foundation, but that foundation starts to collapse when it’s stretched to feature length. (The movie clocks in at 99 minutes.) After we’ve met the three major players, the film presents seemingly interminable scenes of the Cisco Kid telling Tonia Maria how beautiful she is and how he’s going to sweep her off her feet and take her to Portugal. These are followed by seemingly interminable scenes of Sgt. Dunn telling Tonia Maria how beautiful she is and how he’s going to sweep her off her feet and take her to New York. It goes on and on like this until the film’s exciting finish. Baxter and Lowe are very appealing on screen, but even they can’t keep this stuff interesting.
In Old Arizona is presented in its original full frame aspect ratio of 1.20:1. The 1080p image is arrived at with an AVC MPEG-4 codec at an average of 28 mbps. This transfer features some lush black & white desert photography, while remaining as grainy and scratchy as you’d expect from a film that’s more than 80 years old. Some medium shots look better than others and the image is understandably inconsistent overall. I also would’ve liked to have seen deeper black levels. Contrast, however, is good enough to the point that you can mostly discern the Cisco Kid and (especially) Tonia Maria are supposed to be darker than most of the other characters. This is far from a pristine restoration, but I appreciate that it’s faithful to the time it was made while remaining thoroughly watchable.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 1.0 restored track is similarly faithful, to the detriment of some clarity. As I mentioned earlier, sound in films was in its infancy and filmmakers were clearly still figuring things out in terms of synching and balancing dialogue with sound effects. As a result, some of the more crowded outdoor scenes — especially the opening sequence when passengers board a stagecoach — are hard to understand because there’s so much loud ambient noise drowning out the words. The filmmakers also couldn’t consistently decide when to use sound effects for certain scenes; so sometimes we’ll watch the Cisco Kid ride away in complete silence, while other times it’s accompanied by aggressive galloping sounds.
Subs accentuate the score by DeSylva, Brown & Henderson, which we first hear during the 1 minute, 25 second overture. The subs also creep in to punctuate certain sound effects, including gunshots and mooing cows. This being a 1.0 track, the rears are obviously a non-factor. You also have the option of listening to the historical, un-restored 1.0 track for comparison’s sake. The biggest difference is the perpetual hissing noise underlining every scene. On the other hand, this track is also louder, which occasionally helps with the dialogue.
There are no special features on this release, which is totally inexcusable considering the Blu-ray case brags about the film’s place in movie history. (Seriously, they couldn’t convince some random film historian to record a commentary track or rustle up a few Western aficionados to talk about this flick?!) It’s a shame because the film has a fascinating backstory; original director/star had to step down following an accident that eventually cost him an eye. Also, for all the actors you hear about whose careers were adversely affected by the emergence of “talkies”, Baxter actually became a bigger star, reprising his role as The Cisco Kid a few more times.
The lack of any bonus material is an especially distressing turn of events when you consider fellow cinematic trailblazer The Jazz Singer got such an extravagant Blu-ray release not that long ago. In Old Arizona is obviously dated, but still worth a look if you enjoy Westerns that don’t have a lot of action and old Hollywood films.