In Old Arizona (1929) is one of those landmark achievements of cinema that is at once incredible to behold and yet a tad difficult to watch. Produced in the earliest days of the talkies, In Old Arizona was the first feature-length film to prominently incorporate sound captured outdoors instead of on a controlled studio lot. It was also the first major studio western to utilize sound technology. This obviously makes In Old Arizona an important film, if not an entirely easy one to enjoy at times.
Like so many of cinema’s landmark pictures, including 1915’s Birth of a Nation and 1927’s The Jazz Singer, In Old Arizona is a difficult to watch by modern standards. Only, unlike the other pictures named here, its difficulty does not stem from the presence of egregious racial stereotyping. It’s simply that In Old Arizona is not quite what we think of today when we hear the word “western.” For a western, there’s surprisingly little tension throughout the film even though a military posse led by Sergeant Mickey Dunn is hot on the trail of our protagonist, The Cisco Kid. This is due mostly to pacing, which is a far cry slower than that of westerns made even a decade later. Sgt. Dunn and The Cisco Kid go to the barber shop and The Cisco Kid takes a bath, then Sgt. Dunn sits at a bar waiting for information on The Cisco Kid to fall right into his lap while The Cisco Kid is off with his special lady friend and taking a nap. Exciting, right? It’s not until the hour mark really that anything significant in the tale happens, as it’s only then that Sgt. Dunn makes his move on The Kid’s girl in an attempt to turn her against him. The film is more about the performances of the three leads than it is about action and adventure (Warner Baxter won an Oscar for his performance of The Cisco Kid, after all). So if you abandon any preconceived notions you might have about the western and just let it all wash over you, you’ll likely really enjoy yourself here.
But of course, we don’t turn to In Old Arizona today specifically for escapist entertainment. We look at it as an important historical text, showcasing the latest technological advancements in a transitional period of film history. And technically, it’s both quite impressive and predictably quaint. The landscapes throughout are stunningly beautiful as capture on this early film stock, achieving an almost unreal, painted quality given that the image is flattened by the exteriors’ extreme depth of field. Needless to say, the sound is a little less precise than the cinematography here, highlighting just how far we’ve come in terms of sound design in the 84 years since the film’s release. Dialogue occasionally gets lost in the exteriors thanks to the imprecise use of microphones and lack of ADR, and the clattering of hoofs on the ground as a horse rushes into the distance ceases all-too-suddenly to sound natural at all. Still, when you consider that the partial talkie, The Jazz Singer, had been released only two years prior, that this film is not only 100% talkie, but was filmed largely outdoors as well makes it quite the little cinematic marvel in its own right.
In Old Arizona recently debuted on Blu-ray from Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment. And given the age of the original film stock, the transfer here looks quite sharp in spite of the wealth of scratches present in the image. Unfortunately, the release comes totally sans special features; a short, contextualizing retrospective look at the piece would have been most welcomed.