20th Century Fox Studio Classics: ‘In Old Arizona’

In my ongoing quest to see as many early Oscar-winning films as possible, I have finally reached In Old Arizona, released by Fox in 1929, although made in 1928. Co-directed by Raoul Walsh and Irving Cimmings, the film is notable as the first sound Western made on location and outside of a studio. The film earned five Oscar nominations at the 2nd Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Director (which only cited Cummings). However, the only winner was Warner Baxter, who won Best Actor for his performance as The Cisco Kid.

in old arizona
from amazon.com

In all honesty, Baxter’s performance is really the only reason to watch this movie. The plot, based on O. Henry’s The Caballero’s Way and written by Tom Barry, boils down to a love triangle between outlaw The Cisco Kid; Sgt. Mickey Dunn (Edmund Lowe), who is assigned to catch him; and Tonia (Dorothy Burgess), The Cisco Kid’s only love. There’s no final duel between our two men, revealing that the standard of how Westerns should end wasn’t quite set in stone. The film’s finale is all about the Cisco Kid tricking Dunn.

I wish there was more to say about In Old Arizona, but there really isn’t. The film is achingly slow, despite running 99 minutes. The sound technology renders a lot of dialogue completely inaudible and the acting is about as bad as you’d expect from a really early talkie. In addition, Fox’s MovieTone process must have created a strip on the actual camera negative, so the film is even narrower than the typical 1.33:1 ratio. Instead, it is actually 1.20:1, similar to how Sunrise looks. (Fritz Lang’s M and Carl Th. Dreyer’s Vampyr are also this narrow.) This means that many of the compositions pack in characters close and, even though it is shot on location, there’s no particularly beautiful shot of canyons or desert.

Walsh probably didn’t have much of an impact on the final product. If he did, the film probably would have more action and less stagey talking scenes. Walsh did get to direct Fox’s first film in the 70mm Grandeur process, The Big Trail with John Wayne, so he was clearly the studio’s go-to guy for major technical leaps. It does make you wonder what In Old Arizona would be like if it was a solo Walsh effort.

Last year, Fox inexplicably released this film on Blu-ray. I have no idea how to justify this decision. The studio didn’t even ask a Western historian to record a commentary. There’s nothing on the disc other than the movie and Spanish and English subtitles (trust me, you’re going to need them). The film is in awful, awful shape. Trust me, I’m all for as many classic movies being available on Blu-ray as possible, but there’s no logical reason for this film’s Blu-ray release.

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