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In Old Arizona (Movie 1928): Landmark Amoral Western

In Old Arizona Warner BaxterIn Old Arizona movie with Warner Baxter: Fox’s Cisco Kid Western is notable as the first all-talking motion picture shot outdoors, for earning Warner Baxter the first Best Actor Academy Award for a performance in a talkie, and for its risqué Pre-Code sensibility.
  • In Old Arizona (movie 1928) review: Despite its technical and cinematic creakiness, Irving Cummings and Raoul Walsh’s racy, (to some extent) amoral early sound Western is a must not only for Cisco Kid fans and film history scholars but also for pre-Production Code era aficionados.
  • In Old Arizona synopsis: Sgt. Mickey Dunn (Edmund Lowe) is sent out to capture, dead or alive, the notorious Cisco Kid (Warner Baxter) – part gay caballero, part fearsome bandit. A duel of wits and the fateful seduction of the Kid’s girlfriend, Tonia Maria (Dorothy Burgess), ensue.
  • In Old Arizona won one Academy Award for the period 1928–29: Best Actor for Warner Baxter. Although there were no official nominees that year, the Western was a finalist in four other categories: Best Picture, Best Director (only Irving Cummings was listed), Best Writing (Tom Barry; also for The Valiant), and Best Cinematography (Arthur Edeson).

In Old Arizona (movie 1928) review: Academy Award winner Warner Baxter stars as the Cisco Kid in racy and historically significant Pre-Code Western

Ramon Novarro biography Beyond Paradise

Film History Question: What makes Irving Cummings and Raoul Walsh’s 1928 sound Western In Old Arizona worth a look decades after its hugely successful initial release?

Answer: Its historical importance and its unrelenting weirdness.

From a technical standpoint, the “first outdoor talking picture” – a Fox Film Corporation production about the exploits of the lawless Cisco Kid – is of interest solely as a museum piece. For in spite of the filmmakers’ use of the wide open spaces of the American Southwest as a background to the action, In Old Arizona is not that different from other slow-paced, statically framed, and poorly acted movies of the period.

From a thematic standpoint, however, this early talkie Western is a must-see because of its brazen pre-Production Code sensibility, which allows characters to deliver eyebrow-raising double entendres and for dastardly deeds – including murder – to go unpunished.

In Old Arizona plot: Cisco Kid, antihero

Adapted by Tom Barry[1] from O. Henry’s (a.k.a. William Sidney Porter) 1907 short story “The Caballero’s Way,” In Old Arizona has a flimsy plot:

The Cisco Kid (Warner Baxter) is a twisted Robin Hood of the arid American Southwest – western Texas in the story, Arizona in the movie – who robs the rich to help his poor, greedy self.

On the page, O. Henry’s bandit is a ruthless murderer: “He killed for the love of it – because he was quick-tempered – to avoid arrest – for his own amusement – any reason that came to his mind would suffice.” In Fox’s more audience-friendly version, the Cisco Kid is a childlike outlaw who likes to joke around with the guys, tease his pursuers, and make love to a spicy Mexican woman.

That last routine turns out to be dangerous, for the señorita in question, the trampy Tonia María (Dorothy Burgess), is nothing more than a heartless double-crosser. Regardless of all the expensive gifts the Kid brings her, the Mexican vixen can’t resist a man in uniform.

The catch: Tonia María’s man of the moment is Sergeant Mickey Dunn (top-billed Edmund Lowe), a U.S. cavalry officer whose goal is to capture the Cisco Kid dead or alive.

As to be expected, she decides to help the new object of her affection. But the Kid – code name: El Conejito (The Little Rabbit) – is ready with a few tricks of his own.

Risqué Pre-Code humor

Notwithstanding its dawn-of-the-talkie-era creakiness, In Old Arizona is compelling entertainment whenever its Pre-Code vibes take center stage.

In one humorous exchange, for instance, the Cisco Kid and Sgt. Dunn caress each other’s strategically placed guns while discussing their remarkable size and firepower. That sequence presumably left a lasting impression, as a – however toned-down – version of it could be found two decades later in Howard HawksRed River, with Montgomery Clift and John Ireland as the big gun devotees.

On the downside, some of In Old Arizona’s clever lines (“Anybody can make a mistake. That’s why they have rubbers on lead pencils”) and situations are lost in the translation from screenplay to screen due to the film’s three ineffectual leads.

Ramon Novarro biography Beyond Paradise
In Old Arizona Warner Baxter Dorothy BurgessIn Old Arizona with Warner Baxter and Dorothy Burgess: After In Old Arizona, Baxter would be back in The Cisco Kid (1931), also with Edmund Lowe, and Return of the Cisco Kid (1939). In addition, he played the title character in the variant The Arizona Kid (1930).

Rheumatic acting

Silent film veteran Edmund Lowe, whose previous credits included Raoul Walsh’s 1926 blockbuster What Price Glory and who would deliver several capable performances in the 1930s (e.g., Black Sheep, Seven Sinners), is the most wooden of the trio.

Besides making his lines less humorous than they would otherwise have been, Lowe’s blandness is particularly problematic as it damages the credibility of the story itself. How could viewers believe that Tonia María would give the dull sergeant a second look, let alone risk her life to assist him?

Pretty, stage-trained newcomer Dorothy Burgess, in brownface and sporting a grating Mexican accent, is nearly as much of a problem as Lowe. And never mind that Durango-born Dolores del Rio was seen in no less than three Fox releases of the period: The Loves of Carmen, The Gateway to the Moon, and The Red Dance.

If Tonia María was too small a role for del Rio, the studio could have easily beefed it up had they wanted a name actress who would have actually looked and sounded the part.

Tired in the saddle

Lastly, we get to eventual Best Actor Academy Award winner and future 42nd Street lead Warner Baxter[2], who, in Ruby Keeler-ish fashion, went out a mid-level leading man (The Great Gatsby, Aloma of the South Seas) and came back a star after Raoul Walsh, then directing In Old Arizona and playing the Cisco Kid, was sidelined following a road accident that resulted in his losing one eye.

Baxter stepped in as the Cisco Kid,[3] while behind the camera Fox replaced Walsh with Irving Cummings.

But no matter how much brown makeup got plastered on his face, Warner Baxter, hardly one of the most charismatic actors of the studio era, is badly miscast in a role – as delineated in the big-screen adaptation – fit to order for Mexican heartthrob Ramon Novarro, then at MGM, or, perhaps an even better casting choice, Gilbert Roland.

The issue is less the greasepaint than Baxter’s Cisco Kid coming across as a moth-eaten antihero – O. Henry’s Kid was 25 but looked 20; the actor playing him was 39 but looked 45 – whose Mexican accent is of the Jew are beeyouteefool variety. Since at one point the character claims he’s Portuguese, that makes Baxter’s fake Spanish/Mexican lilt not only irritating but also incongruous.

And never mind that in “The Caballero’s Way” it’s indicated that the Cisco Kid’s real name is the unMexican-, unPortuguese-sounding Goodall.

Warner Baxter, movie star

From today’s vantage point, it’s difficult to understand why Warner Baxter’s Cisco Kid portrayal received such high praise at the time.

Sure, acting styles were different back then, but it could also be that the more enthusiastic critics and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ voting committee were rewarding the actor for his perseverance.

After all, 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.

Ramon Novarro biography Beyond Paradise

No more flirting days

Now, even though time has not been kind to his Oscar-winning performance, In Old Arizona does provide Baxter with one brief but memorable Pre-Code moment.

That’s when the Cisco Kid, about to ride off into the desert night after seeing his beloved Tonia María one last time, delivers his final line with a mixture of heartache, resignation, and irony: “Her flirting days are over. She’s now ready to settle down.”

In Old Arizona (movie 1928) cast & crew

Directors: Raoul Walsh & Irving Cummings.

Screenplay: Tom Barry.
From O. Henry’s (a.k.a. William Sidney Porter) 1907 short story “The Caballero’s Way.”

Edmund Lowe … Sergeant Mickey Dunn
Warner Baxter … The Cisco Kid
Dorothy Burgess … Tonia Maria
J. Farrell MacDonald … Tad
Fred Warren … Piano player
Henry Armetta … Barber
Frank Campeau … Cowpuncher
Thomas Santschi (as Tom Santschi) … Cowpuncher
Pat Hartigan … Cowpuncher
Roy Stewart … Commandant
Soledad Jiménez … Tonita the Cook (uncredited)

Cinematography: Arthur Edeson.

Film Editing: Louis Loeffler.

Producer: The name of studio president William Fox is seen above the title, but it’s unclear whether he was the film’s de facto producer.

Song: “My Tonia,” by Lew Brown, B.G. DeSylva, and Ray Henderson.

Production Company & Distributor: Fox Film Corporation.

Running Time: 97 min.

Country: United States.

In Old Arizona (Movie 1928): Landmark Amoral Western” notes

Screenwriter Tom Barry

[1] One of the (unofficial) Best Writing Academy Award contenders – for both In Old Arizona and William K. Howard’s death-row drama The Valiant – playwright and screenwriter Tom Barry had his Hollywood career cut short when he was felled by a heart attack at age 46 (47 as per the New York Times) in November 1931.

Among Barry’s few big-screen credits are Raoul Walsh’s comedy blockbuster The Cock-Eyed World (1929), also featuring In Old Arizona’s Edmund Lowe, and Frank Lloyd’s romantic drama East Lynne (1931), a Best Picture Academy Award nominee starring Ann Harding, Clive Brook, and Conrad Nagel.

Highest-paid actor

[2] Although not as well remembered as some of his contemporaries, following In Old Arizona Warner Baxter went on to star in a number of well-regarded films.

Besides Lloyd Bacon’s Academy Award-nominated box office hit 42nd Street, titles include W.S. Van Dyke’s Penthouse (1933) and Frank Capra’s Broadway Bill (1934), both opposite Myrna Loy; and John Ford’s The Prisoner of Shark Island (1936).

In the mid-to-late 1930s, Baxter was consistently one of the highest-paid Hollywood stars, 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.

Co-directors Raoul Walsh & Irving Cummings

[3] Raoul Walsh, who that same year had directed and acted in the Gloria Swanson star vehicle Sadie Thompson, can be seen as the Cisco Kid in some of In Old Arizona’s long shots.

In later years, Walsh became associated as the director of Westerns and crimes dramas (Dark Command, High Sierra, Cheyenne, White Heat), while Irving Cummings, who had begun his movie career as an actor in 1910, is probably best remembered as the director of fluffy 20th Century Fox Technicolor musicals of the early 1940s (Down Argentine Way, That Night in Rio, My Gal Sal).

Curiously, only Irving Cummings is listed as a Best Director contender for In Old Arizona in the second year of the Academy Awards. (No official nominations were announced that season, which went from mid-1928 to mid-1929.) The eventual winner was Frank Lloyd for the historical/romantic drama The Divine Lady.

The Academy Film Archive preserved In Old Arizona in 2004.

In Old Arizona movie credits via the American Film Institute (AFI) Catalog website.

See also: ‘Latino Images’ on Film.

Dorothy Burgess and Warner Baxter In Old Arizona movie images: Fox Film Corporation.

In Old Arizona (Movie 1928): Landmark Amoral Western” last updated in May 2023.

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