Best Actor Academy Award winner Warner Baxter in In Old Arizona
TIRED IN THE SADDLE
What makes Irving Cummings and Raoul Walsh's In Old Arizona (barely) watchable decades after its highly successful initial release is its sheer bizarreness. Technically, the picture, billed as the first outdoor talkie, is of interest solely as a museum piece. Despite the use of the American Southwest's wide-open spaces as background, In Old Arizona is really not that different from other statically framed, slow-moving, and poorly acted films of the period. From a thematic standpoint, however, this racy Western is a must-see because of its in-your-face pre-Production Code sensibility, which allows murder to go unpunished and offers dialogue containing numerous risqué double entendres.
The plot itself, adapted by Tom Barry from O. Henry's short story “The Caballero's Way,” is quite simple:
The Cisco Kid (Warner Baxter) is a twisted Robin Hood of the Arizona desert who robs the rich to help his poor, greedy self. In this bowdlerized version of O. Henry's ruthless bandit of the American Southwest, the Kid also happens to be a childlike character who likes to joke around with the guys, tease his pursuers, and make love to a spicy Mexican woman. That last habit turns out to be quite dangerous, for the señorita in question, the trampy Tonia María (Dorothy Burgess), is nothing more than a heartless double-crosser.
Despite all the expensive gifts the Kid brings her, Tonia just can't resist a man in uniform. And really, who can blame her? The problem, however, is that Tonia María's man of the moment is Sergeant Mickey Dunn (Edmund Lowe), a cavalry officer who wants to capture the Kid dead or alive.
Not surprisingly, Tonia decides to help the new object of her affection. But the Kid – code name: El Conejito (Little Rabbit) – is ready with a few deadly tricks of his own.
As mentioned above, In Old Arizona is at its best when flaunting its pre-Code humor. For instance, in one curious exchange dripping with gay innuendo, Sgt. Dunn and the Cisco Kid caress each other's strategically placed guns while discussing their remarkable size. (A toned-down version of this sequence was later used in Howard Hawks' Red River.) But if some of the lines and situations are quite clever, most of them are lost in the translation from screenplay to screen thanks to the generally dismal performances of the three leads.
Despite fierce competition, top-billed silent film veteran Edmund Lowe is the most amateurish of the trio, with newcomer Dorothy Burgess and her grating pseudo-Mexican accent coming a close second. Lowe's overall blandness also badly damages the credibility of the story, since it's hard to believe that the saucy Tonia would give the dull Sgt. Dunn a second look, let alone risk her life to assist him. (I should add that either Lupe Velez or Raquel Torres would have been infinitely more believable as Tonia.)
To play the Cisco Kid, a role fit to order for the dashing and lighthearted Mexican heartthrob Ramon Novarro (then at MGM), Fox† replaced actor-director Raoul Walsh, who was seriously injured in a road accident during a location-scouting trip, with second-rank leading man Warner Baxter [photo, with Dorothy Burgess]. (Walsh, who lost an eye as a result of the accident, can be seen as the Kid in some of the long shots. Irving Cummings, the future director of several Technicolor 20th Century Fox musicals, replaced him behind the camera.)
But no matter how much brown make-up was plastered on his face, Baxter remains ridiculously miscast. His Cisco Kid is a tired-looking antihero – O. Henry's Kid was twenty-five but looked twenty; Baxter was thirty-nine but looked forty-five – whose Mexican accent is of the “Jew are beeyouteefullll” variety. Additionally, since his character says he's Portuguese, Baxter's Mexican lilt not only sounds phony but it's also incongruous with the part. (As an aside, in O. Henry's short story it is implied that the Cisco Kid's real name is the unMexican-, unPortuguese-sounding Goodall.)
From today's vantage point, it's difficult to understand why Baxter received such high critical praise at the time – even going on to win an Academy Award as Best Actor of the period 1928-29. Sure, acting styles were much different then, but it could also be that the critics and the Academy's voting committee were rewarding the actor for his perseverance. Baxter had been kicking about Hollywood, often on the verge of stardom but never quite there, since the early 1920s; with In Old Arizona, he had finally made it as a star of the first echelon.
Following the box office success of the film, Baxter would reprise his Cisco Kid role three more times: in The Arizona Kid (1930); The Cisco Kid (1931), once again opposite Edmund Lowe; and Return of the Cisco Kid (1939). After that, Cesar Romero took on the role in several cheap Westerns, followed by Gilbert Roland and Duncan Renaldo in the mid-1940s; Renaldo reprised the role a decade later in the television series The Cisco Kid. (A 1994 made-for-TV movie starred Jimmy Smits.)
The now mostly forgotten Baxter also went on to star in a number of highly regarded films of the 1930s, including Lloyd Bacon's Academy Award-nominated musical 42nd Street (1933), W. S. Van Dyke's risque Penthouse (1933), Frank Capra's Broadway Bill (1934), and John Ford's The Prisoner of Shark Island (1936).
At one point in the '30s, Baxter was the highest-paid male star in Hollywood, and as late as 1940 Variety estimated that with earnings of $279,907 he was the second-highest-paid show business personality in the United States after Claudette Colbert (and right ahead of Bing Crosby).
Now, even though time has not been kind to Baxter's Oscar-winning performance, the actor does have one brief but memorable moment. Before riding alone into the desert night, he delivers his last line with a mixture of sadness, resignation, and irony: “Her flirting days are over,” he says about his beloved Tonia. “She's now ready to settle down.” Sure she is. The dead don't cheat.
† Fox Film Corporation and 20th Century Pictures merged as 20th Century Fox in 1935.
IN OLD ARIZONA (1928). Dir.: Raoul Walsh and Irving Cummings. Cast: Edmund Lowe, Warner Baxter, Dorothy Burgess. Scr.: Tom Barry; from O. Henry's (a.k.a. William Sidney Porter) 1907 short story “The Caballero's Way"