In Old Arizona is a film with quite a bit of novelty to it, being the first all-talkie western, and the first sound film to be shot outdoors; these advances in the cinematic palette being the chief sell of the film, as evident by the talking points of the poster up there. I hadn’t really considered the novelty too much when I started the film, wanting to judge it on a more complete and finished level, but the novelty of it is made all too apparent for almost every second of this one’s running time. This one somehow tied with the now-lost The Patriot for the most nominations at the Oscars that year. I use the word “somehow” to emphasize just how incredulous I was after watching it for myself that this did in fact happen, and at how much novelty this one tries to cram into its scant hour-and-a-half length.
Warner Baxter stars as the Cisco Kid, a bandit in the Southwest who holds up stagecoaches without robbing the innocent passengers of their hard-earned goods; the American Robin Hood indeed. The film, I had assumed, would be the tale of his adventures and misdeeds, as the authorities are hot on his trail, but he always outwits them until the final showdown, yadda yadda, etc. Turns out this wasn’t the case; this didn’t really have a story, and only barely a narrative. What it was was mostly an excuse to get the actors to perform scenes together, despite and in some cases in direct affront to the concept of a narrative thread that should run through any fiction film. Each scene seemed so out of place with the rest of the film, with only certain pieces of dialogue tying the whole thing into what amounted to the story’s structure. For instance, the scene near the beginning with the Cisco Kid and the sergeant in the barbershop seemed to go on needlessly long, like the film were trying to milk as much so-called comedy from the idea that the two men, official enemies, were being unknown friends to each other as it possibly could, and then went further after that. It didn’t help that the acting was extremely stilted from just about everyone involved, especially the leads. Baxter’s accent and manner of gesturing every time he said anything was incredibly hammy at the beginning, so much so I began to wonder immensely how he had won the award for Best Actor, and I was a bit let down to discover that this hamminess didn’t fade the more the film went on. Indeed, everybody else seemed to be taking their cue from it, delivering each line very carefully and in a very precise manner, and it got extremely annoying whenever I would pick it out, which was all the time.
This film reminded me of a slightly more well-made Alibi, which is not a comparison a film should be making from me; it was very blocky in how it operated, filmed, and acted, though it benefited from the production value added by the external shooting locations. It was almost as if the film knew it was going to be the first all-talkie western and wanted to make sure that you and everyone who watches the film knows it, pointing its finger into your chest every time it did something to emphasize its own merits. Of course, knowing the studio heads of the time, this is likely exactly the case with this film, and it would take a few years before studio bosses started to outgrow this almost macho-esque posturing with the films they made, if only a little bit. Still, this exists as a relic, a fossil of how they used to make films at the advent of sound, and little more. Really, if it weren’t for the inexplicable Oscar nominations it garnered, I wouldn’t have been surprised if this had been forgotten in the annals of film history altogether. Oh well; one more for the books, I guess.
Arbitrary Rating: 5/10