Won Oscar for Best Actor in a Leading Role (Warner Baxter).
Lacking the fame and prestige of "Sunrise," Fox chose to release this forgotten milestone as a bare bones disc, and while it sports an excellent transfer from surviving elements, it's a shame the film isn't supported by some needed historical footnotes.
By 1928, Warner Bros. and Fox had their own rival sound recording systems, and both studios were rapidly moving away from silent film production. "In Old Arizona" was the first successful all-talking film also shot on location - a major distinction, given how early sound films like "The Bat Whispers" featured locked-off cameras, and actors staying within reach of conspicuously hidden microphones.
Night scenes in "Arizona" were actually photographed at night, and the production used plenty of desert locations and exterior sets to give the story period authenticity. Veteran cinematographer Arthur Edeson's photography is quite beautiful, and like his subsequent work on classics like "Frankenstein" and "The Invisible Man," "Arizona" pushed the envelope in composing images under both controlled and low-light conditions. The film print is in surprisingly good shape, and aside from some obvious wear and occasionally abrupt fades before reel changes, "Arizona" retains its original visual beauty.
The problems of the nascent sound recording system also affected the production in some unexpected ways. Though directed by Irving Cummings and action expert Raoul Walsh, actual camera movement is restricted to just a handful of legitimate tracking shots, forcing the staid actors to deliver their lines with minimal wiggle room. The raunchy, pre-Code dialogue is well-balanced, but the actors seem to have been instructed to Speak Slowly, and Never Overlap; the result is some unintentional chuckles, as though the early and sometimes imperialistic sound recordists felt the human voice in its natural state would overwhelm audiences. (The acting style, however, is roped to the silent era. There's a lot of overwrought posing, hip-swaggering and head cocking, making "Arizona" a classic slice of dated acting in need of its own technical upgrade.)
In spite of being vintage 1928 technology, Fox' early Movietone recording system produced a well-balanced soundtrack that can be heard in its original and "restored" mono format on the DVD. "Restored" is just a moniker for some needed filtration of background noise, although the final result does produce some muddy dialogue passages. The original untreated mix, while retaining a crisper high-end (and better treble range) also contains lots of background artifacts that resemble a persistent, light rainfall, so viewers might want to flip between both mixes before making their subjective choice.
Confident with the potential of sound-on-film, Fox later engaged Raoul Walsh to direct another on-location milestone in 1930 - "The Big Trail," noted as the first film photographed in 70mm film.
© 2005 Mark R. Hasan