Tag Archives: 1929

Pre-Code Hollywood #1 – In Old Arizona (1929)

InoldarizonaIn Old Arizona (1929)
Directed by: Irving Cummings, Raoul Walsh
Written by: Tom Barry
Starring: Warner Baxter, Edmund Lowe, Dorothy Burgess

In Old Arizona was the very first western film to feature full sound, helped establish a long-lasting trope in the “singing cowboy”, and was one of the earliest movies to be nominated for the now prestigious Best Picture prize at the annual Academy Awards. With all those credits under its belt, it’s important to note that In Old Arizona is not in any way a good film. In all honesty, it might be the worst we’ve taken a look at since the blog’s inception – but that’s always part of the fun when venturing into completely unknown territory. While it certainly isn’t a perfect film, there’s no denying the film’s groundbreaking nature and its influence on one of my favorite genre – for those things alone, it’s worthy of discussion.

In Old Arizona tells the story of a charming and eccentric, but feared, cowboy named the Cisco Kid (Warner Baxter) as he tangles with a local cavalry sergeant named Mickey Dunn (Edmund Lowe) who wants his blood. The Cisco Kid is so revered by the locals that he can rob a wagon without so much as a single gunshot – these feats do nothing but further the legend of the Cisco Kid, and enrage Sgt. Mickey Dunn. Luckily for the sergeant, he finds alliances in unexpected places and is able to convince The Cisco Kid’s love interest Tonia (Dorothy Burgess) to help him capture the cowboy. Even with an unexpected betrayal working against him, the Cisco Kid is able to match the sergeant’s efforts with sheer wit and quick thinking. Warner Baxter won an Oscar for Best Actor for his portrayal of the Cisco Kid, and In Old Arizona was nominated for a further four awards including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Writing, and Best Cinematography.
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Being nearly ninety years old, it’s no wonder that In Old Arizona feels dated in its filmmaking techniques, plot structure, and performances. If it weren’t for the countless incredible films that came before it, I’d simply chock up the movie’s faults as failure to withstand the test of time and nothing else. Truthfully, there’s not much about In Old Arizona that works all these years later – the acting is awful, especially the overacted and phony performance of Dorothy Burgess, the writing feels overly simplified and far too convenient, and the film’s structure simply doesn’t warrant a full ninety minute runtime. If any project could benefit from being a short film, it’s In Old Arizona – doing away with the drawn out middle act that leads to the unsurprising betrayal of the Cisco Kid by his girl would make this a far more memorable film. Warner Baxter’s “singing cowboy” is easily the most notable thing about the film, and even Baxter’s performance feels exaggerated and far too comedic for a character who is supposedly so revered by the people around him. Edmund Lowe’s Sgt. Mickey Dunn has screen presence and is probably the best actor in the film, but that’s not saying much considering the two actors he shares the screen with. I appreciated some of the more boundary pushing elements of the film, in particular making Dorothy Burgess’ Tonia something of a seductress, using her sexuality to her advantage on multiple occasions. There are a few notable scenes alluding to sex, some gun violence, and a rather humorous use of the word “jackass”, but overall In Old Arizona’s pre-code influence feels rather mild. The most impressive part of In Old Arizona is in its use of sound, which feels much more natural than some of its contemporaries. The sparing use of score is effective in setting a tone and atmosphere, and the use of outdoor sets makes In Old Arizona feel like a full-blown western. The directors behind the camera deserved far greater than the script and cast of actors they were given, because it’s immediately clear that there is passion and inventiveness behind the film’s flaws.

While I can’t claim to have hated the entirety of my time with Irving Cummings and Raoul Walsh’s film In Old Arizona, it certainly won’t go down as one of the best movie experiences I’ll ever have. The exaggerated performances don’t lend themselves to the subject matter found in the film, instead making this something of an annoying experience. The screenplay is clearly stretching the limits of the story at hand, making what should a forty-five minute short in a full-blown feature length disaster. Both Irving Cummings and Raoul Walsh would go on to have prolific careers in Hollywood, making films that are probably far more memorable than any one scene in their 1929 Best Picture nominee. In Old Arizona is sadly not recommended, no matter how curious you are about the history of film and its pre-code era.

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Pre-Code Hollywood – An Introduction

GirlMissing00011On July 1st, 1934, the Motion Picture Production Code (commonly referred to as the Hays Code) was officially implemented after four years of development. The Code set a list of precedents that all mainstream Hollywood sound films had to adhere to, focusing largely on censoring profanity, sexuality, organized crime and violence, and religious criticism. The Hays Code was made up of two sections – “Don’ts”, which outlined things that were strictly prohibited by the code, and “Be Carefuls”, which were subject to scrutiny by the Production Code Administration (PCA). The two lists featured the following rules and restrictions:

Don’ts:

  • Pointed Profanity
  • Suggestive Nudity
  • Illegal Drug Trafficking
  • Sex Perversion
  • White Slavery
  • Interracial Relationships
  • Sex Hygiene
  • Scenes of Childbirth
  • Children’s Sex Organs
  • Ridicule of the Clergy
  • Offense to Any Nation, Race, or Creed

Be Careful’s:

  • Use of the Flag
  • International Relations
  • Arson
  • Firearms
  • Theft
  • Brutality/Gruesomeness
  • Murder
  • Smuggling
  • Torture
  • Executions
  • Sympathy for Criminals
  • Attitudes Towards Public Figures/Institutions
  • Sedition
  • Cruelty to Children/Animals
  • Branding of People/Animals
  • Sale of Women
  • Rape
  • Wedding Night Scenes
  • Men and Women Sharing a Bed
  • Deliberate Seduction of Women
  • Institution of Marriage
  • Surgery
  • Drug Use
  • Law Enforcement
  • Excessive/Lustful Kissing

As you can see, the Motion Picture Production Code set the groundwork for a great deal of censorship in American cinema. By limiting the content that writers and filmmakers were able to show on screen (or even allude to), the PCA was in turn stifling artistic freedom and creativity in general. Limiting the content allowed in Hollywood films would lead to Hollywood writers, directors, and actors coming up with more subtle, creative ways of getting past the Hays Code. In turn, it sparked a great deal of outrage in Hollywood upon its announcement in 1929, setting in motion a five-year period now known as Pre-Code Hollywood. This Pre-Code era saw the development of many boundary pushing films, featuring strong female protagonists, violent content focusing on gangsters and criminals, and sexual innuendo. The Hays Code was abandoned in the 1960’s when it became clear that studios were no longer willing to enforce the strict rules, and when American culture was in the midst of an undeniable revolution. The collapse of the Motion Picture Production Code would eventually lead to the creation of the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), whose film rating system is still in use today.

Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Film Club will be taking a look at fifteen of the most famous Pre-Code Hollywood films, examining their boundary pushing nature and shedding light on an era of filmmaking that has been sadly forgotten to history. The Pre-Code Hollywood films that will be covered include:

  1. In Old Arizona (1929) (dir. Irving Cummings, Raoul Walsh)
  2. The Divorcee (1930) (dir. Robert Z. Leonard)
  3. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931) (dir. Rouben Mamoulian)
  4. Night Nurse (1931) (dir. William A. Wellman)
  5. The Public Enemy (1931) (dir. William A. Wellman)
  6. Blonde Venus (1932) (dir. Josef von Sternberg)
  7. I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (1932) (dir. Mervyn LeRoy)
  8. The Most Dangerous Game (1932) (dir. Irving Pichel, Ernest B. Schoedsack)
  9. Red-Headed Woman (1932) (dir. Jack Conway)
  10. Scarface (1932) (dir. Howard Hawks, Richard Rosson)
  11. The Sign of the Cross (1932) (dir. Cecil B. DeMille)
  12. Baby Face (1933) (dir. Alfred E. Green)
  13. The Bitter Tea of General Yen (1933) (dir. Frank Capra)
  14. Gold Diggers of 1933 (1933) (dir. Mervyn LeRoy, Busby Berkeley)
  15. Of Human Bondage (1934) (dir. John Cromwell)

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