Saturday, May 3, 2014

Arizona (1940)

Director: Wesley Ruggles                                 Writer: Claude Binyon
Film Score: Victor Young                                 Cinematography: Harry Hallenberger
Starring: Jean Arthur, William Holden, Warren William and Porter Hall

There are many different kinds of westerns, those about cowboys on cattle drives, the building of the railroads, outlaws and lawmen, gold miners and mountain men, or the cavalry and the Indians. Arizona is a western about settlers, ordinary men and women who moved West for the prospect of a better life. It’s a nice little film, and Jean Arthur is surprisingly good as the tough, no nonsense rancher who takes on an entire territory to keep what she’s earned. But she had already done the same type of western role for Cecil B. DeMille’s The Plainsman in 1936, and would end her film career in a western with Shane. There’s not a lot of excitement here, mostly the intrigue surrounding the town and how the war intervenes. The film also has something of an anti-climax at the end, in that the finale happens off screen, but it works.

The film begins in 1860 with a wagon train reaching Tucson, Arizona. William Holden is looking for a hotel but is disappointed to learn there isn’t one. When he catches the sight of Jean Arthur charging by with a shotgun, he can’t help but be drawn in. Porter Hall plays the criminal leader of the town, but Arthur refuses to be cowed by him. When two of his hands steal some money and she threatens to shoot them on the spot, Holden is smitten. After he comes courtin’ one night, she gets the idea that if she can buy some wagons and mules he can help her go into the shipping business and undercut the gouging prices of Hall. It’ll be a much quicker way to earn enough for her ranch than what she’s been doing selling pies. Unfortunately Holden heads for California, leaving Arthur to handle the business by herself. Her success is fast and substantial, that is until the Civil War breaks out and the Union Army calls in all its soldiers from the West, leaving Tucson completely unprotected.

Suddenly, just as the army pulls out, Warren William comes into town with his fancy clothes and slick manners and secretly joins forces with Hall. And going after Arthur in a number of ways. The thing that’s so terrific about the film are the two leads. Both of them exceed expectations in an incredibly satisfying way. Arthur seems the least likely heroine for a western, but she is pleasantly convincing even if the portrayal gets a little broad at times. Holden is delightful as the pioneer who becomes a soldier and marries a rancher, coming out of a breakout performance in Our Town the same year. Not only does he actually chord the banjo as he sings to Arthur, but he actually has a very nice singing voice. Also in the cast are the dependable Warren Williams who makes a great villain, and the distinctive Edgar Buchanan as the town judge. Victor Young’s score was nominated for an Academy Award, while production designers Lionel Banks and Robert Peterson won. Arizona is certainly not the best western I’ve ever seen, but in its own way it is an entertaining film.

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