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In Old Arizona

In Old Arizona(1929)

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In Old Arizona (1928) has the distinction of being the first all-talkie sound-on-film feature (as opposed to the Vitaphone sound-on-disc system that first revolutionized movies). It was a premise that would eventually become the basis for a popular B movie series and later a television show started out far more auspiciously with this picture. It was also the first successful all-talking film shot on location (in Bryce Canyon and Zion national parks in Utah and the Mojave Desert in California), no small feat for the days when early sound recording technology usually forced cameras to be locked down and actors to speak into conspicuously placed microphones. In Old Arizona was also recognized by the Motion Picture Academy, which nominated it for Best Picture, Best Cinematography, Best Director and Best Writing. As the Cisco Kid, Warner Baxter won a Best Actor Oscar®, even though the Ohio-born star was not remotely Mexican. Of course, this wasn't unusual for a time when ethnic characters were played by actors of decidedly WASP backgrounds, resulting in such practices as Swedish performers pretending to be Chinese.

Actually, in his initial print and screen incarnations, the Kid was not even clearly identified as Mexican; that would come later in the series. The character started life in a short story by O. Henry (William Sydney Porter), "The Caballero's Way," published in 1907. In that tale, the Kid was not the amiable Robin Hood of the Old West of movie and TV fame but a notorious desperado based in part on legends around Austin, Texas, of gambler and gunman Ben Thompson; the character's real name is revealed to be the decidedly non-Mexican Goodall. In this film version, Baxter is given thick curly hair and a dashing mustache over plenty of skin-darkening make-up, and he uses an excruciating fake Latino accent, but at one point he also claims to be Portuguese. In the film, as in the story, the Kid also does not have the humorous (and very stereotypical) sidekick who later would serve as his constant companion and comic relief.

The plot of In Old Arizona concerns the Kid's adventures as an amiable rogue in love with the fiery and untrustworthy Tonia Maria, giving rise to a love song that established early in sound pictures the tradition of the singing cowboy. Tonia Maria, however, soon has her head turned by Army Sgt. Mickey Dunn and joins him in a plot to capture the Kid.

Although the use of sound was innovative for its time, the technology's limits are still apparent in this production. Warner Brothers studio had ushered in the end of the silent era with The Jazz Singer (1927), and rival studio Fox, which had developed its own sound system, was eager to ride the crest of the wave. The film was started by director Raoul Walsh, who had a justified reputation for action sequences, but camera movements were still restricted by the demands of sound recording. As a result, there are just a handful of legitimate tracking shots, while the actors are required to deliver their lines in static camera set-ups. Tom Barry's nominated screenplay had plenty of zing and raunchy pre-Code dialogue, but the cast was apparently directed to deliver their words slowly and emphatically with odd spaces between lines to avoid any overlap.

Walsh was originally slated not only to direct but to play the Cisco Kid himself. Unfortunately, he lost both opportunities because of an accident early on in production: a jackrabbit jumped through the windshield of his car and cost him an eye (resulting in the eye patch with which he was so closely identified). Irving Cummings stepped in as director, and Buddy Roosevelt was then cast as the Kid, but he broke his leg before he even had a chance to step in front of the camera. Baxter managed to keep himself intact and complete a performance the Academy obviously found award-worthy. Walsh can reportedly be seen in some long shots, and he did get another big directing opportunity with The Big Trail (1930), an early John Wayne movie and Fox's bid to cash in further not only on the new possibilities in sound but also the burgeoning Western craze that was ushered in by In Old Arizona. That later 1930 film has the distinction of being the first feature shot on 70mm.

O. Henry's character had already appeared in early silent movies, also played by a non-Latino, William R. Dunn. Baxter played the role four more times. Eventually it was cast with Latino actors in the many follow-ups over the next two decades: Cesar Romero (an American of Cuban descent), Mexican Gilbert Roland, and Spaniard Duncan Renaldo, who then played the role in the popular 1950s television series. The most recent Kid was Jimmy Smits (half Puerto Rican) in a revisionist 1994 TV movie.

The rotund, food-obsessed comic sidekick, Pancho, did not appear in In Old Arizona or the other early films in the series, although there is a similar recurring character named Gordito ("Fatty"), played by Latino American actor Chris-Pin Martin who appears several times in the 1930s. The name Pancho was first used in Renaldo's initial foray into the series, The Cisco Kid Returns (1945). The character was played several times by Spanish-born actor Martin Garralaga, who also played several other characters in the Gilbert Roland Cisco films. Pancho was eventually played on film and the TV series by Leo Carillo, an American of Latin descent who, despite the number of stereotypical Hispanic roles he was saddled with throughout his career, was actually a sophisticated, cultured man from a well-respected Los Angeles family.

Director: Irving Cummings
Screenplay: Tom Barry, based on the story "The Caballero's Way" by O. Henry
Cinematography: Arthur Edeson
Editing: Louis Loeffler
Cast: Warner Baxter (The Cisco Kid), Edmund Lowe (Sergeant Mickey Dunn), Dorothy Burgess (Tonia Maria).

by Rob Nixon

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