At the multiplex, 3D is the gimmick du jour, but back in 1929, the big new thing was synchronized sound. Fox describes early sound film In Old Arizona as the first major Western in sound, and the first "talkie" to be shot on outdoor locations. One can occasionally feel the filmmakers showing off the technology, with close-ups of a crying baby or sizzling ham and eggs. There's also an inordinate amount of singing, from the opening pre-credits tune, "My Tonia," played to a black screen to scenes of a cowboy quartet singing "Daisy Bell" in four-part harmony (my favorite), a saloon pianist-singer, or the three principal actors singing a few bars here and there throughout the picture.
Suggested by "The Caballero's Way," a short story by O.Henry (a.k.a. William Sidney Porter), the movie veers very close to melodrama. Mexican bandito "The Cisco Kid" (Warner Baxter) has been disrupting stagecoaches and nabbing Wells Fargo shipments, but he's a gentleman thief, never robbing from an "individual," he tells the ladies. With a $5000 bounty on his head, the Kid becomes the target of a cavalry officer, Sergeant Mickey Dunn (Edmund Lowe). More than money, both men are concerned with the same woman, a Mexican femme fatale (Dorothy Burgess' Tonia) who ironically cares for neither but covets the reward. What saves this rather pokey picture from being pure melodrama is the way in which O. Henry's story has been softened to make The Cisco Kid a sympathetic character. The original story is leaner and meaner, but In Old Arizona gains a measure of complexity by showing the Kid's heartache along with his gallantry and criminal genius. And so, despite a Speedy Gonzales accent, Baxter won a Best Actor Oscar. (And though nominations weren't made official then, history tells us In Old Arizona was under consideration for Best Writing, Best Director, Best Cinematography, and Best Picture.)
The sympathy for the Kid gets an assist from the ostensible hero playing the fool. Nicknamed "Big Casino"—most probably by himself—Dunn is an erstwhile Bowery boy, and a philandering doofus who drops his girl for Tonia as quickly as he drops lines like "Fat dames are old fashioned." It's no wonder, then, that audiences took a shine to the Kid, playing by Baxter with a crafty edge and a charismatic panache. He would repeat his role in The Arizona Kid (1930), The Cisco Kid (1931) and Return of the Cisco Kid (1939), as well as in a 1931 Laurel and Hardy short ("The Stolen Jools"). Prior to Baxter, the character was featured in two silents, and The Cisco Kid went on to star on radio and in twenty more features. In subsequent films, he was played by Cesar Romero, Gilbert Roland, and Duncan Renaldo, who parlayed the role into a long-running 1950s TV series. Even Jimmy Smits played him in a one-off telefilm; it's only a matter of time until the character gets a big-screen reboot.
Fox brings another of its Studio Classics to Blu-ray with In Old Arizona. The picture quality has definitely improved since the previous DVD issue, but the image still suffers from a conspicuous vertical line that is a pretty persistent blight. There are other lines and dirt and dust, but these are to be expected of a film of this vintage that can't economically justify a pricy film or digital restoration. With this understanding, the presentation is otherwise solid: though the black level isn't as deep as one might hope, the picture certainly looks like film, and sharpness is quite good, better resolving the image than the murkier standard-def DVD. Audio options include lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 1.0 track and a “historical” unremastered Dolby Digital 1.0 sound mix. It's a bit of a coin toss there: the DTS track limits hiss, crackling, and pops, which are prominent in the Dolby Digital track. But the unrestored audio also offers somewhat clearer dialogue, which can take on a muffled sound in the lossless presentation. The disc inlcudes no bonus features, only a menu and scene search.
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