Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Arizona (Columbia, 1931)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2013 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I ran Charles a movie, Arizona, a 1931 Columbia production that was included in the recent boxed set of so-called “pre-Code” Columbia films put out jointly by Sony (the current owners of Columbia) and Turner Classic Movies. I was interested in this box largely because it contained Three Wise Girls and Virtue, two amazing films TCM showed as part of a run of five early-1930’s Columbias in 2009 along with The Good Bad Girl, Attorney for the Defense and The Final Edition. I was also interested in the box because two of the three movies in it I hadn’t yet recorded, Ten Cents a Dance and Shopworn, were early vehicles for Barbara Stanwyck, and since I’d rather watch her in almost anything than practically anyone else (Charles likes to joke about how often I’ve said that such-and-such a movie would have been better with Barbara Stanwyck in it — and, being Charles, he’s taken to joking about Stanwyck’s actual films that they would have been better with Stanwyck in them), but through some imp of the perverse I picked the fifth film in the box to be the one we screened last night. It was called Arizona and starred Laura La Plante and John Wayne — obviously it was picked for this box because Wayne was in it (playing one of his rare leads during his dark years, between the failure of The Big Trail in 1930 and the smash success of Stagecoach in 1939) and this meant that each of the five films in the box had a legendary star in it (the star of Three Wise Girls was Jean Harlow in her last non-MGM picture, and the star of Virtue was another blonde who died way too young, Carole Lombard). The compilers of the box realized that people seeing “John Wayne in Arizona” were going to get entirely the wrong idea about this film, so they wrote, “Despite the title and a cast that includes John Wayne in the title role [it does not! There is no person actually named Arizona in the film — it means the state], this is not a Western but one of the rare pre-Code dramas he made early in his career.” Actually it’s a rather stale soap opera, based on a play by Augustus Thomas that had its world premiere in Chicago on June 12, 1899 — which explains its rather creaky storyline that seems to belong to another, more Wild West era even though the settings, costumes and technology (airplanes and automobiles both feature promptly) are those of 1931

Wayne, who’d been born Marion Michael[1] Morrison (an incredibly nellie name for an actor who became a star by portraying an icon of masculinity), had achieved fame on the University of Southern California football team in the late 1920’s, in which capacity he was billed as “Duke Morrison” (so he was known as “The Duke” well before director Raoul Walsh rechristened him “John Wayne” for The Big Trail!), so Arizona’s director, George B. Seitz, cast him as a college football hero: Bob Denton, star player for the Army football team at West Point. The film opens with the famous Army-Navy football game — represented by excessively grainy stock clips of the real one, including seemingly whole regiments marching up and down the field before the game actually begins (Charles joked that it looked like the entire U.S. Army was going to be playing the entire U.S. Navy, which as he pointed out would have given the Army a decided numerical advantage) — in which Denton is having to sit out the game due to a sprained shoulder. The game is a scoreless tie until the very end, when Navy scores a touchdown but fails to make the extra point; Army then mounts a quick drive and scores a touchdown of their own, after which Denton is brought in to kick the extra point and does so. Denton then faces the obligation of a West Point cadet, no matter how illustrious his gridiron exploits, to serve his country as an Army officer for the next two years, and his commanding officer, Col. Bonham (Forrest Stanley), assigns him to his own post in Arizona. It’s not quite clear exactly what the U.S. military is supposed to be doing in Arizona — in 1899 there were probably still some dregs of Native resistance to the U.S. occupation as well as white outlaws like Billy the Kid for the Army to be up against, but by 1931Arizona was firmly a U.S. state and doesn’t seem any more in need of military intervention than any other part of the country — but the soap opera complications have already been set up. Denton tells his girlfriend of two years, Evelyn Palmer (Laura La Plante), that he’s breaking up with her as he goes out to his new post, and when she pleads with him to stay with her, he reminds her that they planned a relationship with no strings which either of them could end at any moment.

The shock of the breakup sends her into a rebound relationship with, of all people, Col. Bonham, even though not only is he about twice her age (in fact Forrest Stanley was born August 21, 1885, Laura La Plante on November 1, 1904, and John Wayne on May 26, 1907), he’s also Bob Denton’s guardian. While we’re not given any explanation of what happened to Denton’s parents, we get a scene between the two men in which Bonham reminds Denton (and explains to us) that he reared him almost from birth — anyway, throughout his childhood — and therefore he regards Denton as a virtual son to him. This doesn’t stop him from marrying Denton’s ex-girlfriend, though he doesn’t know that Evelyn was Denton’s girlfriend — yes, this is one of those damnable stories whose entire dramatic conflict depends on the principals lying to each other throughout the whole movie; once anybody told anybody else the truth about their relationships, the movie would be over instantly and we could all go home. Evelyn goes to the post in Arizona as Mrs. Bonham, and Denton ends up in a rebound relationship with Evelyn’s sister Bonnie (June Clyde, playing way too much the flibbertigibbet in a part that really required the down-to-earth “cool” of Joan Blondell) that ends up with one of the pilots in their unit flying them down to Mexico, where they are married. (Charles pointed out that Arizona itself in 1931 was a frequent destination for California couples wanting to get married without the three-day waiting period then imposed by California law, so he found it ironic that a movie about a couple already in Arizona would have them fleeing not only the state but the whole U.S. to get married.) Pissed off that Denton is dating Bonnie, and not realizing that they’re married, Evelyn seizes her chance when Denton is waylaid by local señorita Conchita (Nina Quartero, basically doing the Lupe Velez “Mexican Spitfire” act), who asks him for a ride and makes a pass at him. Once all the characters are back on base, Evelyn dishevels her own clothes while both Denton and Bonham are in her home, then claims that Denton has just raped her — and Bonham instantly demands that he resign from the Army in disgrace. Later, however, Bonnie breaks the news to Evelyn that she is Mrs. Denton — at last! Somebody tells the truth in this movie! — and Evelyn confesses that she framed Denton and gets Bonham to rescind Denton’s resignation, though Bonham reassigns Denton to San Francisco to get his former ward and his sister-in-law out of his sight.

It’s scripted by Robert Riskin and Dorothy Howell, who basically did the best they could with what they had to work with — still, it’s not a patch on the savagely brilliant and morally daring scripts Riskin supplied for Three Wise Girls and Virtue — and it’s a “pre-Code” movie in that it at least acknowledges that people have sex drives and sometimes make mistakes because they let their sex drives determine their lives. But it’s also awfully dreary, not really bad but not all that good either, and it doesn’t help that Laura La Plante is about a decade too old for her role or that John Wayne, even then, looked at the camera with a sort of blank, bovine stare that for most of his career — except on the rare occasions a major director he respected, like John Ford or Howard Hawks, actually shook a performance out of him — stood in for any real acting on his part. I’ve often re-imagined movies like this as if Warner Bros. had made them, and I found myself doing so again and wishing for James Cagney as Denton (as hard as it would have been to believe him as a football hero!), Bette Davis as Evelyn and Joan Blondell as Bonnie — but as it stands Arizona is a decent (though spectacularly mistitled) movie that fits the concept of a “pre-Code” box even though Attorney for the Defense or The Good Bad Girl would have fit it even better.

[1] That’s what I’ve seen in previous sources, but give Wayne’s birth middle name as “Robert.” A “Trivia” entry on his bio page explains, “According to Wayne’s own statements, after the birth of his younger brother in 1911, his parents named the newborn Robert Emmett and changed Wayne’s name from Marion Robert to Marion Michael. It has also been suggested by several of his biographers that Wayne’s parents actually changed his birth name from Marion Robert to Marion Mitchell. In Duke: The Life and Times of John Wayne (1985), Donald Shepherd and Robert F. Slatzer state that when Wayne’s younger brother was born, 'the Duke’s middle name was changed from Robert to Mitchell. . . . After he gained celebrity, Duke deliberately confused biographers and others by claiming Michael as his middle name, a claim that had no basis in fact.’”