Tuesday, April 9, 2024

Oscar Film Journal: In Old Arizona (1928)

Back with another entry in the Oscar Film Journal - can't stop, won't stop.  I'm almost at the halfway mark!

Today I'll be reviewing another early talkie, the 1928 Best Picture nominee In Old Arizona, based on one of O. Henry's Cisco Kid stories.  This particular tale involves an Army Sergeant who's been assigned to capture the Cisco Kid dead or alive, after the Kid robs a stagecoach.  The Kid's girlfriend Tonia Maria, who's been seeing numerous other men behind his back, gets involved with the Sergeant, who promises her the reward money if she helps him and runs to New York with him.  And well, that's kinda the plot.

For a Western film this movie plays out much more like a domestic drama, with very few scenes befitting the Western genre.  We witness the coach robbery, and later there's a brief shootout as some local cowboys try to ambush the Kid.  But the rest of the movie consists of drawn-out dialogue scenes, none of which is particularly gripping unfortunately.  The best exchange involves a barber lamenting that the money he'd sent to his mother was stolen in the coach heist.  Unbeknownst to him his customer is the Kid himself, who pledges to tip him the money he lost, from his nearby gold claim.  
As with many of the earliest talkies, the cameras are there simply to capture the performances and dialogue, usually in static, medium two-shots; the audio is the film's main selling point, complete with a handful of shoehorned singing moments.  And while Warner Baxter is charismatic and somewhat compelling as the lead character (though at 40 he's a little old to be playing the 25-year-old Cisco Kid), Dorothy Burgess as Tonia and especially Edmund Lowe as Sergeant Micky Dunn are pretty distractingly hammy.  Lowe seems wholly out of place in a Western, with his corny pronunciations of "goyl," and "soytainly," and Tin Man-esque facial expressions.  I didn't find him very believable at all as a sharpshooting military officer, and he gets a lot of screen time.  Nor did I find Dunn and Tonia's romance credible; they meet at a saloon and he rebuffs her advances, and then later he shows up on her front porch and they make googly eyes at each other.  It's later revealed that he knows who she is but he also tells one of his fellow soldiers his motives are both professional AND romantic, so we are expected to believe he's really into her.

I went into this film expecting a swashbuckler of a Western centered around a charming outlaw, but In Old Arizona is kind of a slog to sit through; there are a whole lot of empty conversations and precious little adventuring.  The Cisco Kid character feels like he would've been better utilized in a different movie (and perhaps he was - this was the first in a long line of films about him).  Warner Baxter won a Best Actor Oscar for this performance, and I don't disagree with that win, but I'm not sure why the film itself earned a Best Pic nod.  It's just sorta "there."

I give In Old Arizona ** out of ****.

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