Hollywood’s First Outdoor Talkie Western
On the 20th of January 1929, the movie In Old Arizona was released on the wide cinema screen. This American Western directed by Irving Cummings and Raoul Walsh prides itself in being the first major feature film to use the new technology of sound whilst being filmed in outdoor locations. Although its plot, acting and visuals were far from perfect, the film is remembered for simply being an early example of technical innovation in moviemaking.
The film made extensive use of natural settings, filming in Bryce Canyon National Park, ion National Park in Utah and the San Fernando Mission and the Mojave Desert in California. It was also amongst the first in developing the image of the singing cowboy, based on the character of the Cisco Kid from the short story The Caballero’s Way by O. Henry. Its tale revolves around Cisco, a jolly caballero (knight or gentleman, in Spanish) who manages to outwit Sgt. Mickey Dunn through his panache for thieving and desire for dramatic rendezvous. A peculiar anecdote about the movie features Raoul Walsh who was set to star as the Kid in this film, but had to abandon the project when a hare jumped through the windscreen of a car he was driving and cost Walsh an eye, after which he wore an eyepatch for the rest of his life. That stopped his acting career, but he made a success of directing.
So, instead of Walsh, Warner Baxter, sporting a black mustache and a musical-comedy Mexican lilt, stars as the Cisco Kid, rather inappropriately referred to as the “Robin Hood of the Old West”. The land and its people fear his risqué reputation and on approaching the local stagecoach, he only needs to fire two warning shots for the driver of the Wells Fargo to hand over the box to him. He doesn’t give the money to the poor, as a noble Robin Hood would, he simply seems to spend it on his own passions. He is enamoured with a Mexican girl named Tonia María, but the easy señorita is meanwhile also having a liaison with Cisco’s rival Dunn. Eventually, a fight between the two ensues, and the crafty, ruthless Kid takes revenge on a cheating Tonia by framing her to be killed in the trap set for him – Dunn shoots her by accident, while the Kid gallops off into the sunset rejoicing his wicked escape.
There is quite a lot to be said about the mediocrity of the movie. Fake latin accents and stereotypical body language touch on racism, but this is something to be expected of the naivety of the 1920s. There is far too much talking, presumably making the most of the newly discovered medium of sound. However, the latter is very delayed and the sound bites are cut short, for instance the viewer can only hear a fraction of the galloping sound in the landscape before it trails off. D.W. Gardner writes, “There was a reason the early sound films were called “talkies.” Most shoots were limited to a single microphone, and that was usually reserved for the dialogue. It was hard to pick up sounds that weren’t within a few feet of it, so films were enclosed on sets to allow for easier sound pick-up. This is what gives In Old Arizona it’s claim to fame: Along with being the first sound western, it’s the first sound film that largely takes place outdoors. The locations in Arizona were certianly photogenic, but with such weak sound sources, it would have been a lot more satisfying to just give the non-dialogue portions of the film to a foley artist.” There isn’t really much action, or acting, for that matter, to speak of. The protagonists do not engage in dramatic performance, they simply just read their lines out loud. Warner Baxter, the Cisco Kid, even talks to himself at some stage, praising his own heroic talents, no less. The good vs bad paradigm is also relative, as the Cisco Kid just turns out to be just a common thief and quite a cold-blooded figure overall. Sgt Dunn, his rival and supposed baddie, although a gambler and philanderer, is in actual fact a big softie and has the goodie-two-shoes vocabulary of a boy scout. Tonia, the woman they are fighting for, is a pretend latina, a gold digger of very questionable morality, which makes one wonder whether she is really worth fighting for?! In spite of its shortcomings, it must have been quite a big hit in the world of show business at the time, as it was nominated for five Academy Awards. The leading actor Warner Baxter went on to win the Academy Award for Best Actor for his performance and further nominations included Best Director for Irving Cummings, Best Writing for Tom Barry, Best Cinematography for Arthur Edeson, as well as Best Picture!
In Shooting Cowboys and Indians: Silent Western Films, American Culture, and the Birth of Hollywood (2003), Andrew Brodie Smith demonstrates that the genre of Western played a critical role in establishing movies as a popular medium and ensuring that Hollywood became the centre of motion-picture production in the United States. It seemed that “the conventions of the western were both a response to contemporaneous social changes and “the crystallization of a particular set of business conditions, including shifts in audience demographics and tastes, censorship and reform activities, and developments in film exhibition and distribution (…) soon the genre’s popularity not only laid the foundation for a nationalist cinema but also allowed American producers to reclaim control of the domestic market, which had been dominated by European companies.” (Eric Schaefer, review of Shooting Cowboys and Indians…by Andrew Brodie Smith, in The Business History Review, Vol. 78, No. 3, Autumn, 2004).