Thursday 1 March 2007

Arizona (1940)

A single year after John Ford's Stagecoach launched John Wayne into superstardom, it seems strange that someone as experienced in westerns as Wesley Ruggles should choose to direct a western with a female lead. After all, he'd directed one that won an Oscar, the astoundingly average Cimarron in 1931, and in that Irene Dunne was very much a supporting character to manly man Richard Dix. This one has the forty year old but still highly desirable Jean Arthur playing a rough and tough frontier woman called Phoebe Titus who, in the tradition of Jean Arthur characters, has more balls than most of the rough and tough frontier men. Of course, also in the tradition of Jean Arthur characters she's as funny as she is serious. She's more sassy than native.

She runs roughshod over an almost unrecognisably young William Holden who is only 22 years young. He's Peter Muncie, who has travelled into Tucson from St Louis, MO on the way to the fabled California, but after he serenades her overnight, she ropes him into working a new business she sets up shipping freight across country. That's dangerous business in the Arizona of 1860, given that Tucson has no law, no manners and not a lot else and plenty of dangerous Indians, lowlifes and outlaws to deal with.

Ruggles tried very hard indeed to make this look authentic. He didn't want to film on a set, so he built a town from nothing and it's still around today, known as Old Tucson. It was used in films like Rio Bravo, Gunfight at the OK Corral, Death Wish, The Cannonball Run, The Bells of St Mary's and Tombstone, along with a wide range of fifties and sixties TV westerns. Now the town looks awesome but it's pretty hard to believe in the story which is more than a little too sentimental, convenient and nice. The sweep of the story is fine but the details let it down.

Jean Arthur is a joy to watch but she's a good part of what makes the film difficult to believe. She's better in westerns than Jimmy Cagney or Humphrey Bogart but she was made for other material. Far more believable are regular western supporting actors suchas Edgar Buchanan and Paul Harvey. Warren William is as great as ever, arriving out of nowhere and enforcing his way by sheer force of will. I don't think he knows how to give a bad performance and when he's being a sleazy character who can switch between two different faces in the blink of an eye, he's unmatched.

The biggest problem of all is the fact that Wesley Ruggles chose to make a western with a female lead, a rough and tough female lead, and then turned her into a complete wussy girl. It could have been so special but it ended up wasted. Phoebe is a great character for half an hour but gradually gets more and more stereotypically treated until the point that she's nothing. What a waste.

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