Tuesday, January 20, 2015

When the Western Went Talkie—With an Accent

On December 29, 1929 the western In Old Arizona opened up in wide release following a Christmas Day gala Hollywood premier.  Many things about this now all but forgotten film rivet the attention.  None more than the fact the less 15 months after Warner Bros. opened Al Jolson’s Jazz Singer, a mostly silent movie with brief sound segments employing the studio’s Vitaphone process, this oater was still one of only a handful of true all-talking feature films released by American studios.  It was also the first horse opera and was shot largely on location at Bryce Canyon National Park and Zion National Park in Utah and the San Fernando Mission and the Mojave Desert of California.  That meant it was the first sound feature to take the microphone out of the sound stage.
One of the problems with early sound films was that the cameras were so noisy that they had to be encased in sound-proof booths it order to keep the recording microphones from picking up the sound of them grinding away.  That made the cameras completely static and since they were so bulky and expensive, only one camera was used on a set, meaning all of the action had to be staged directly in front of it.  That ended the great fluidity of motion that characterized late Silent Era films and makes them still hypnotically watchable today.  Not that In Old Arizona completely escaped that.  Much of the early portions of the film were shot on interior sound stage sets and were just as talky and static as other films of the era.  But in stunning, action filled outdoor scenes, ways were found to muffle the cameras—mostly by throwing heavy blankets over the camera and its operator and placing the microphone at a considerable distance.   Audiences could hear the clop of horse hooves, gun shoots, whoops and shouts, the thunder of a rolling stage coach as well as some actual dialog.  Audiences had never seen or heard anything like it.  The movie was an enormous success.

The Cisco Kid robs the stage--on location and with sound.

The movie was the Fox Studio’s prestige picture of the year and meant to stake a claim for its Movietone sound-on-film system as the dominant sound technology.  It succeeded on both counts, Movietone and similar processes used by rival studios quickly made Warner’s Vitaphone sound-synced-to-recording process obsolete. 
Fox gave the film an unusually large budget to accommodate the extensive location shoot.  Outside filming of westerns was as old as storytelling movies themselves, including the very first, Edison’s The Great Train Robbery in 1903.  Westerns, among the most popular silent genres, were generally shot in outdoor locations near where ever the studio making them was located from New Jersey, to Chicago, to Florida, and eventually Southern California where some locations became very familiar to movie goers.  Distant location shooting like that planned for this movie was, if not unheard of, extremely rare.
William Fox entrusted his top director Raul Walsh to the project.  He was also scheduled to portray one of the three lead characters.  It was Walsh’s vision that propelled the location shooting.  But early in the production while on location, a jack rabbit jumped up and crashed through the windshield of the director’s car.  A shard of broken glass blinded him in one eye leading him to wear the eye patch which became a trademark for the rest of his long career. 
Walsh was forced to give up his acting roll to popular heart throb Edmund Lowe.  He never acted again.  And because of his obvious vision problems, Irving Cummings was brought on a co-director shooting from Walsh’s advice and notes.  Cummings is sometimes identified as the sole director of the film because he supervised most of the shooting.  Cummings was a rising younger director who would later make a name for himself mostly in musicals including some of Betty Grable’s Technicolor extravaganzas.
In Old Arizona was based on one of the popular Cisco Kid short stories by O Henry.  Those who only know Cisco from the old TV series starring Duncan Renaldo bedecked in a Charro outfit and riding on a silver mounted saddle will hardly recognize the Cisco who hewed closely to O Henry’s vision.  Instead of a sometime misunderstood knight errant roaming the countryside righting wrongs and helping out hapless local sheriffs, Cisco was an out-and-out no apologies given outlaw, albeit a charming one. 
O Henry—a/k/a Sydney Porter, who served time in a Texas prison from embezzling from the bank he worked for, had learned a thing or two about criminals.  He based the Kid on the legends of California highwayman Joaquin Murrieta who was killed in 1853 and was also said to be the inspiration for the character Zorro.  Porter updated the character to the late 19th Century also drew on Mexican bandits who he encountered in prison.  This version of Cisco, minus a comic sidekick, makes a specialty of robbing express strong boxes from stagecoaches.  Some of the rough edges of his banditry are knocked off because he has a justifiable grievance against the stage company and the land thieves it services and because he gallantly refuses to rob individual passengers.
As the story unfolds in the film, Cisco is smitten by the lovely Tonia Maria, in this pre-code film a thinly disguised prostitute.  Not only does he lavish on her the profits of his enterprise, but at one point he croons a song in her name.  Some film historians consider this the inspiration for the singing cowboy craze that followed.  It is not the only music in the film.  To show off its sound, one scene injects, for no apparent reason, a quartet sing the popular 1890’s ditty Daisy Bell better known as The Bicycle Built for Two.
Watch out Cisco, she's up to no good!

The stagecoach company appeals to the Army for help in ridding it of the pesky Bandito, despite the fact that the Army seldom, if ever, engaged in this kind of law enforcement except in the complete absence of civilian authority.  Never the less, the Army appoints the square jawed and handsome Sergeant Mickey Dunn to capture or kill Cisco. 
In any post-code film the dashing Anglo would be the hero and the bandit an oily greaser.  But in this movie, Dunn stumbles on Tonia Maria and falls for her charms.  The shady señorita shows no loyalty to her old paramour but throws in with the soldier to trap Cisco and reap the reward.
Eventually Cisco gets wind of the betrayal, frames Tonia Maria as an accomplice in the robberies, and then arranges a trap in which Dunn shoots and kills Maria by mistake.  We last see Cisco riding off, laughing.  None of the criminals-must-get-their-just-deserts crap for pre-code films like this.  And to have a Mexican triumph over a white representative of law and order would in short order be unthinkable.
Warner Baxter was cast as Cisco.  A well-established leading man specializing in top hat and tails gentleman, the part was a radical departure for Baxter.  And it came as his career as a leading man seemed to be winding down as he entered middle age.  But he took to the sombrero wearing bandit role with relish.  Looking at it now his and Tonia Maria’s accents seem over the top, even ludicrous but contemporary movie goers had no problem with it.  Baxter would go on to achieve lasting fame as the producer in 42nd Street who tells Ruby Keeler “you’re going out a youngster but you've got to come back a star!”
The tall, muscular Lowe was also an established silent leading man on the down swing.  He similarly played mostly society swell parts.  But he had established bona fides as a rugged action hero in Maxwell Anderson’s World War I opus What Price Glory with Victor McLaughlin.  Both he and Baxter would reprise their roles in a sequel named simply The Cisco Kid.
Diminutive dark eyed Dorothy Burgess was cast as Tonia Maria.  She was a rising young star who made something of a specialty of portraying Latin women.  The movie boosted her career.  But three years later she was driving a car and was involved in an accident that killed all of her passengers.  Distraught, she had to be hospitalized and underwent convulsive electric shock treatment for her paralyzing depression.  After her release she found herself relegated mostly to supporting parts in minor studio B movies until her untimely death in 1939 of tuberculosis.
In Old Arizona was not only a popular and critical success, it tied with Ernst Lubitsch’s  Paramount part sound film The Patriot staring Emile Jannings and Lewis Stone for the most Academy Award nominations at the second presentation of those honors.  It was nominated for Outstanding Picture losing to the MGM musical The Broadway Melody as well as receiving nods for Cummings alone for Best Director, Tom Berry for Best Writing, and Arthur Edson for Best Cinematography.  

Warner Baxter admires his Academy Award.

Baxter took home the trophy his turn as the Cisco Kid beating out a strong field that included George Bancroft for Thunderbolt, Chester Morris for Alibi, Paul Muni for The Valiant, and Lewis Stone for The Patriot.  That made Baxter the second winner and first American to be named Best Actor following German Emile Jannings for The Blue Angel.  The win was not without controversy.  Even many critics who loved the film found Baxter’s performance hammy and over-the-top.  Seen today his stereotypical caricature of a Mexican bad man is likely to make viewers cringe.
The movie also helped re-establish westerns as a popular genre alongside the booming musicals and, stagy dramas, and crime stories that dominated the early years of talkies.  The Cisco Kid with its big budget, location shooting, complex script, and major stars was the godfather of the major studio A list western.  A recovered Walsh used many of the same locations for his epic The Big Trail which introduced a young John Wayne the next year.  The expensive film, now highly admired, was a flop, largely due to being fronted by an unknown actor.  It took Wayne most of a decade toiling in minor studio two reelers and B movies to work his way back up to the bigtime in John Ford’s Stagecoach.
Studios took notice and were careful to cast their biggest stars in important westerns.  Early examples include Gary Cooper in The Virginian, Richard Dix in Cimarron and, of course Will Rogers.   Later in the decade big name but unlikely stars like Australian born swashbuckler Errol Flynn and James Cagney, the epitome of the urban tough guy were headlining big westerns.  Actresses Irene Dunn, Barbara Stanwick,  Olivia de Havilland, and Marlena Dietrich were able to find meaty rolls that transcended damsels in distress.
Meanwhile a whole second tier of westerns continued to thrive, a direct continuation of the popcorn fare of the silent era staring the likes of Tom Mix, Hoot Gibson, and Ken Maynard, all of whom made the transition to early talkies.  These two reelers and B movies were made quickly on shoestring budgets with thin plotlines that emphasized lengthy horseback chase scenes, shooting, fist fights, and oily villains right out of old stage melodramas.  They were meant as matinee fare for young audiences, and as programmers at second rate movie houses.  Sound would bring the addition of the singing cowboy including John Wayne’s Randy character and especially Gene Autry.
As for the silent, their day was doomed.  By mid-summer of 1929 the last completely silent feature film, The Winged Horseman starring Hoot Gibson was released.  For the next three or four years partial sound films continued to be released and for a while studios released both sound and silent versions of some films to accommodate the small town theaters and neighborhood houses who could not afford the expensive instillation of sound equipment.  But by 1933 even the most rustic customer or the most strapped Depression Era film goer with ten cents to spend demanded all talking pictures. 

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