Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Pre-Code Parade: IN OLD ARIZONA (1928)

In December 1928 Fox Film sold In Old Arizona as the latest technological breakthrough: an all-talking film shot on location. It was meant as proof that synchronized sound would not confine film to soundstages, that talkies could be more than a musical novelty. Harold Lloyd testified to its impact. Taking in a screening, he noted how audiences thrilled just to hear the sound of food frying in a pan. That experience supposedly inspired him to reshoot a completed silent comedy, Welcome Danger, and make it a talking film. In Old Arizona shows up on TV occasionally and earned a DVD release because it earned Warner Baxter the first Best Actor Oscar for a talking picture -- in a role original director Raoul Walsh intended for himself before an accident cost him an eye and curtailed his participation in the project -- and established O. Henry's Cisco Kid in the modern pop-culture canon. And here the confusion begins.

In Old Arizona is an expansive adaptation of O. Henry's 1907 short story "The Caballero's Way," which was recently reprinted in the Big Book of Adventure Stories anthology from Vintage's admirable Black Lizard imprint. Editor Otto Penzler notes the obvious, that in his original appearance the beloved Cisco Kid is a villain, and goes on to relate that In Old Arizona turned Cisco into a "hero who captures outlaws and rescues damsels in distress." Penzler may be an expert on pulp fiction, but he clearly hasn't seen this movie. Screenwriter Tom Barry's Cisco Kid does differ from the original, but the changes only shift the tone from O. Henry's grim irony to Walsh and official co-director Irving Cummings's black comedy.
In the story, a Lt. Sandridge of the Texas Rangers is tasked with tracking down the Cisco Kid, who has killed at least eighteen men. Sandridge's best chance to nab the elusive bandit is to seduce his girlfriend Tonia and convince her to betray him. The Kid himself may not even be a Mexican; one character believes his real name to be Goodall. As for whether Sandridge's stratagem succeeds, I'll explain later.

In the movie, Sandridge become Sgt. Mickey Dunn of the U.S. Army (Edmund Lowe) and gets more of a backstory, Lowe being a bigger star than Baxter. Dunn is an amiable oaf from the East of wavering loyalty to the girl he left behind, whose Coney Island gag picture he carries as a memento. Like many of the men the Cisco Kid encounters, Dunn is full of clueless bravado. The tone is set after we've been introduced to the Kid robbing a stage. TCM allows us to see him in action.

The bandit goes into town to spend his loot, and viewers share his amusement as various people brag or bluster about what they'd do to the Cisco Kid if they had a chance without realizing that their best chance is right in front of him. Dunn does most of the boasting during an extended scene in a barbershop -- the scene that goes furthest toward making the Kid a likable if not sympathetic character. The Italian barber is furious that he's lost the money he'd saved to send to his family in the old country and wishes he could cut the Kid's throat with his razor for robbing that stage. The incognito Kid plainly pities the man and promises to give him a big tip to make up for his losses -- he claims to have struck gold somewhere -- if the barber will draw him a warm bath. He finally gives the barber $100 for his trouble after a bath and friendly banter with Dunn, who knows him only as El Conecito -- the "Little Rabbit." "Are you really that fast?" Dunn asks salaciously.  It's only after they've shaken hands and Dunn has seen his new friend off that a blacksmith informs the sergeant that he's just met the Cisco Kid. This Kid is an almost benign sort of cartoon trickster, having the same sort of mild fun Bugs Bunny might have with various saps, but without having to bellow at the last moment, "By the way, confidentially -- I AM the Cisco Kid!!!"

Eventually, the plot of "The Caballero's Way" kicks in as Dunn makes his move on Tonia (Dorothy Burgess). In an interesting self-referential touch for an early talkie, and one that definitely seems to have come from Walsh, Tonia has an early cylinder-style record player. The film itself is set in 1898 -- there are references to the Spanish-American War -- and we seem almost to be in the same world as Walsh's Bowery movie. Dunn even teaches Tonia the traditional "Bowery" song. The story may have seemed closer to the present day for 1929 audiences than the original story, which doesn't date its events, may have seemed to 1907 readers. All these details certainly give In Old Arizona a nostalgic charm that conceals the sting in its tail.
People today probably still know O. Henry as the master of the twist ending, and "The Caballero's Way" has a particularly harsh one. Interestingly, and perhaps inevitably, Barry, Walsh and Cummings restructure the ending, sacrificing the shock of the twist in order to build suspense toward a finish that arguably makes the Kid an even worse heel than in the story. You'll see the difference if I break things down, first for the story, then for the film.

"The Caballero's Way"
1. Sandridge and Tonia conspire against the Kid, Tonia agreeing to send word secretly to Sandridge the next time the Kid comes to her so the Ranger will be waiting in ambush when the bandit departs. Neither one knows that the Kid is watching them.
2. The Kid returns to Tonia, pretending to be none the wiser.
3. Sandridge receives a note tipping him off that the Kid plans to leave disguised in women's clothes, wearing Tonia's own mantilla, while having Tonia wearing his clothes.
4. Sandridge intercepts the transvestite bandit and fires fatal shots.
5. He realizes to his horror that he's killed Tonia, not the Kid.
6. One of the locals explains to Sandridge, upon recognizing the handwriting, that the Cisco Kid wrote the letter.
In Old Arizona
1 and 2. As in the story.
3. We see the Kid intercept a messenger with an original letter from Tonia to Dunn.
4. We see the Kid rewrite the letter according to O.Henry's text.
5. The Kid goes back to Tonia and gives her the new mantilla.
6. Dunn shoots Tonia while the Kid rides away.

The movie has a stronger impact because we pass the last few minutes asking ourselves whether the Kid will actually carry out his terrible plan and send Tonia to her death for betraying him. The deed done, I wonder what the original audience thought of the Kid. They could believe that Tonia had it coming, but Edmund Lowe has done such a good job establishing Dunn as a likable oaf, and the directors have so successfully established a comic tone, that I have a hard time imagining the audiences desiring the finish they get, unless they accepted the Kid's neat trick and Tonia's arguably deserved demise as extensions of the established darkish comedy. But if anything, In Old Arizona closes on a note of pathos typical of the era, once more at odds with the story. O. Henry tells us that the Cisco Kid is a terrible singer, yet fond of gargling the one tune he knows -- "Don't you monkey with my Lulu girl/Or I'll tell you what I'll do." It's this he sings as he rides from the scene of the tragedy -- but in Old Arizona the song he sings is the inevitable would-be hit single attached to early talkies, the romantic but now bittersweet "My Tonia." That song, rather than any ultimate emoting from Baxter, gives us our last impression of the Cisco Kid and allows us to believe that he may have regretted what he did even as he hits the road like many a comic pilgrim in search of new adventures. But please, movie historians: this is not a good guy!

Warner Baxter eventually gave a great performance in 42nd Street, around four years later, Seeing his legendary turn in Old Arizona, I wondered why he got an Oscar for that but not for the musical. It seems like the Academy, as soon as it could honor a spoken performance, proved itself a sucker for accents. In his defense, Baxter's is a relatively restrained Mexican bandit, a cool customer rather than a stereotyped hothead. But he underplays sometimes almost to the point of muttering or mumbling, and Edmund Lowe practically steals the film from him in a much more easygoing, comfortable and funny performance. The film as a whole most likely lived up to its hype as far as original audiences were concerned; the best proof is Baxter and Lowe's reunion for a sequel in 1931. I haven't seen very many 1929 talkies -- Alibi, The Broadway Melody, The Coconuts, The Great Gabbo and Lloyd's revamped Welcome Danger come to mind -- but In Old Arizona is more pictorially proficient and smoothly told than all of them. It looks the least old-fashioned, even compared to Walsh's own The Big Trail from 1930, which was arguably hobbled by further experimentation with the widescreen Grandeur process but also aimed for an archaic epic tone that it largely realized on its own terms. Arizona's tone may also seem somewhat more modern to today's viewers, though it remains a mildly black comedy apart from its grim finish. We might not be sure what to make of its overall tone, but that's exactly what makes it interesting both as a film and a document of film history.

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