. . . Arizonian

. . .

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Movie Comment: The Arizonian (1935)

The Arizonian is a wonderful anomaly: a 1930s Western B-movie that scrapes the mindless sunny-side-up of Buck Jones or Gene Autry into the slops and rustles us up something more like Marxist spaghetti or the bitter winter rye of Joseph H. Lewis.

There's no roving outlaw gang or renegade Injuns; instead, all hell boils over due to departmental rivalry between marshal, sheriff, and mayor, and the intertwining of money and politics (brought together, as ever, in the person of Louis Calhern). Ethical and emotional compromise is frequent, and sporadically effective at delaying the progression from bullying to murder to group ambushes to massacre. Costumes, sets, and lighting all have a worked-over and lived-in look. So does hero Richard Dix, who carries the gravitas of Randolph-Scott-on-Jupiter -- he's even stolidly tragic about getting the girl.

Where the movie doesn't -- for the most part -- rise above its station is in its "comic relief." With scare quotes because it's scary. When it comes to inspiring utter shamefaced horror in post-Jim-Crow audiences, shuffling idiot Willie Best is second only to the sub-Tor-ean Fred "Snowflake" Toones. Best may be the only guy who can really make us appreciate the skill of Stepin Fetchit. (Mantan Moreland and Eddie "Rochester" Anderson are in another class altogether -- those guys were stars.) But wait, there's more! Much more, by volume anyway: Best's "comic relief" "love" interest in the film is Etta McDaniel, the lookalike but much less talented sister of Hattie McDaniel.

So.... The most I can say is that at least white actors weren't being paid to wear the blackface.

But even here the movie holds a surprise if you can get past "the most part." [And if you want to keep it a surprise, stop reading -- but I reckon odds are slim that any of you will get a chance to see it soon.] The film's everything-falls-apart catastrophe begins with the shooting of Willie Best, rather than, I don't know, the love interest of the hero? a drunk newspaper editor?

Then the allies, having arranged a cover of total blankness, walk into total blankness, firing, disappearing. As the smoke clears, the one true melancholy hero stands alone, surrounded by corpses. Making the perfect target for the one true self-assured villain.

Who in turn turns out to make the perfect target for Hattie McDaniel's sister.

A lunatic servant saves the world with a shot in the back. This is a most satisfying conclusion to the sort of story that's being told.

But that's because it's a disturbingly odd conclusion.

The American Film Institute catalog was disturbed enough to repress the memory entirely. Etta McDaniel, despite her surprisingly central role, doesn't get mentioned in the movie's credits. That sort of omission's not unusual in a 1930s B-picture. But it is unusual for the AFI researcher to have not filled that credit in, and then to have simplified the ending to: "The only survivor of the gun battle, Clay leaves a reformed Silver City with Kitty at his side."

After the catalog was printed, the AFI was apparently told that there was a problem and someone tried to correct it on their super-expensive-exclusive-access-only web site. That someone hadn't bothered to see the first hour of the movie, though, because their correction goes as follows: "... a mysterious black woman [who's been in about a half-dozen earlier scenes] shoots Mannen with a rifle."

(A more accurately chaotic synopsis is available online. I'd send a correction to the AFI's web site but they don't give any contact information.)

And the next time I'm in L.A., I'll have to check the Academy records to see how the Production Code office reacted to it, 'cause they usually didn't take kindly to such things. Like in 1938 when Spirit of Youth was made, starring Joe Louis the year after he won the heavyweight title (and giving Mantan Moreland his first big break), Joseph Breen warned that the movie was "questionable from the standpoint of policy, because it shows, among other things, several scenes of a black man victorious in a number of fistic encounters with white men." So assassinating a white man seems like it would be right out.

What I figure is that the screenplay didn't mention the race of the characters and the Production Code people didn't bother watching the movie any more carefully than the AFI catalog people did. But I'm still curious.

. . .


Reader Paul K. comments:

Also, it's "Arizonan" not "Arizonian." When will they learn?

. . .

Warlock by Oakley Hall, 1958

(Also at The Valve)
The judge nodded. "Just a process," he said. "That's all you are. What are men to me?" He rubbed his hand over his face as though he were trying to scrape his features off.

Warlock's prose is solid, sturdy, heavy less lively than Elmore Leonard's; less introverted than Charles O. Locke's and sculpts its characters into familiar forms: noble lawman, autocratic rancher, Byronic gambler, open-hearted cowboy, drunken judge, liberal doctor, the good angel, the wicked lady, the vacillating chorus of shopkeepers, the comic counterpoint of the dime-novel mythologist....

Familiar enough to disappoint if you've heard the book puffed as revisionist. Hall didn't aim to be the Western's Suetonius but its Thucydides.

Warlock remains very much a Western. It would have to be.

Hall isn't interested in refuting the appeal of courage and virtue. Instead, he wants to show the uses and limitations of that appeal. Yes, we see people fail (sometimes fatally) to make an immediate difference. But (unlike, say, a Pynchon novel) Warlock particularly attends successful intervention towards some newly configured sense of justice.

"It is war, not a silly game with rules."

"There are rules, Morg," Clay said.


"Because of the others I mean the people not in it. [...] Because he will have to pretend there are rules whether he thinks there are or not, just like he had to today. And if he has to pretend, it means he is worrying about the others pretty hard."

These newly shared ends, though, are always provisional in their turn, and the potential target of new champions. The true antagonists of Warlock are value systems. And any meeting between them is tense.

It occurred to him all at once that Blasedell was trying to make contact with him in some way, and immediately what he had hoped was going to be an easy conversation for him grew taut with strain.

* * *

From Leatherstocking on up, American value clashes found a home in the Western.

With few exceptions, Warlock's are familiar: the overlapping claims of elected, appointed, or volunteer sheriffs, marshals, deputies, posses, vigilantes, and federal troops; the ambiguous jurisdictions of nation, territory, county, town, property, and home; the competing interests of ranchers, cowboys, miners, entertainers, gamblers, outlaws, merchants, and corporations.

(Exceptionally, an early labor struggle is included. Thematically, that back-and-forth between middle class charity, organized worker action, and management crackdown resembles other Western fights for the moral high ground. Historically, one can draw a not-too-indirect line from hired peace officers to Pinkerton's strike-busters. But it's never become a standard genre element, given the inconvenient questions which might rise: "Order" as determined by who? "Public safety" for who? A decent place to raise whose family? Traditionally, the genre describes an incoming ethical system's victory over a decrepit ethical system. But here we have several new communities emerging at once.

There are, for instance, the miners, the bulk of the town's population. Are they intelligent and responsible enough to be entrusted with the vote? They are not, we feel, perhaps a little guiltily. Then there are the brothel, gambling, and saloon interests.... Our projected state was thus gradually whittled down, to become a kind of club restricted to the decent people, the right-thinking people, the better class of citizens....

If anything, Hall stacks the deck in favor of sustainable democracy by adroitly maneuvering Warlock's thin strip of middle class into alliance with the workers.)

(Exceptionally excluded are the Indians. Warlock's native population appears only as the memory of a once common enemy, deployed when a gesture toward unity might profit some otherwise losing party.)

* * *

But most of the Westerns I've read declare a winner and then stop.

Warlock lays value clashes out in sequence, taking advantage of the compressed lifespans of American frontier settlements like Warlock, built around a set of mines or like my own home town, built around a railroad track (which closed) or, potentially, like the thousands of suburbs dangling precariously from highways, piped water, and power lines.

The book's uniqueness is structural. We begin with "The Fight in the Acme Corral". The disguise is thin; the fight's centrality is assumed; it's finished in about 140 pages. With 330 pages to go.

But Hector is dead, and what is there left for Achilles to do?

Warlock's people fight and kill over matters of principle. However, Warlock's people build, burn down, and re-build "matters of principle" even faster than bars or cathouses. No alliance is maintainable, because individuals themselves are divided. No settlement is final. Warlock's crops are staggered so that some conflict is always near harvest, until the soil's completely played out.

* * *

The novel includes extensive excerpts from the observations and analysis of a fair-minded intelligent contemporary eyewitness, who (in the novel) is always ludicrously mistaken as to character, motives, and outcomes.

These ironic expositions reinforce a generic convention: The straightest shooters hold the strongest principles and the clearest insights.

"I guess you will understand me. It is a close thing out there, you and the other. But I mean it is like two parts of something are fighting it out inside before there is ever a Colt's pulled. Inside you. And you have to know that you are the part that has to win. I mean know it."

As I said, it's conventional. But it conventionalizes a feeling we recognize. The people we've known and worked with and admired most did combine those things; they were more productive, and more certain of their plans and their goals and of others' positions and goals. We can sometimes almost feel them combine in ourselves: a broadly engaged clarity, and a barely-after-the-deed conviction that we knew the right way to play it.

To what extent this combination of literal and figurative grasp, this energizing overlay of rightness and righteousness, is illusory is difficult to say. Certainty in itself can exert influence, principles can be swayed by example, and the playing field adjusted to match the diagram.

"Real" or not, though, it can be lost. Rectitude can be muddied and clarity confused. Or simply trampled by those who refuse to listen: Moral deafness is learnable. It may even be a duty. What's sociopathy except loyalty to a value system which precludes parley? The Indian fighter bereft of Indians; the blood-feuding patriarch faced with rule of law; the CEO valuing stock price over customer or worker; the born-again valuing catchphrase over deed....

He began to check it through, calculating it as though it were a poker hand whose contents he knew, but which was held by an opponent who did not play by the same rules he did, or even the same game.

And so the investor pulls out, the team is laid off, the state stops funding, the cops start busting heads, the troops open fire, the amendment passes almost unnoticed....

And then it's gone. The godhead lifts. The champions fall.

I will confess that for a time I subscribed to a higher opinion of our Deputy than I had previously held. That was yesterday. Today the mercury of my esteem has sunk quite out of sight....

What's left to defend but some contested graves? When pressed, we remember with a mix of pride and embarrassment our own sincerity, and with confused bitterness the sincerity of others who lost more.

And horribly, there's no choice but to start again. We change our subscriptions, re-enlist in a different army, but the pattern stays the same. We again pledge allegiance to these manufactures a job, a family, a project, a movement, a church, a party, a town and, forever lacking control, we dedicate or squander our lives to mere hope for influence.

Again the abstraction seems miraculously held aloft, transfixed by the combined intensities of our good wills and again crashes down.

Was there a jostle? a lapse of attention? We walk or we're carried away from the gambling table we took for altar.

Better luck next time?

When he looked up to meet the eyes that watched him from the glass behind the bar, no longer friendly, he saw that what had been bound to pass had already quickly passed.

* * *

The Western takes as an interesting given that peculiar American expectation: a mobility neither exile nor nomadic, making a (discardable) home within communities nesting out from self, to family, to neighbors, to fellow laborers, and on to Mr. Smith in Washington, all able to simultaneously satisfy some rudimentary sense of justice, offer some hope of personal advancement, and satiate the wealthy.

The Western yokes action with negotiation, idealized characters with real history.

Warlock isn't a great novel "in spite of" its genre. Its atypical power is thoroughly drawn from the generic.

To quote Hall's frequently quoted "Prefatory Note":

... by combining what did happen with what might have happened, I have tried to show what should have happened.

"What might have happened" doesn't encompass "what could not have". "Should have" allows the heroic. "Did" requires the tragic.

"I have thought," the judge said bitterly, "that things were so bad they couldn't get any worse. But they have got worse today like I wouldn't believe if I didn't hear it going on. And maybe there is no bottom to it."

"Bottom to everything," the sheriff said, holding up the bottle and shaking it.


Copyright to contributed work and quoted correspondence remains with the original authors.
Public domain work remains in the public domain.
All other material: Copyright 2015 Ray Davis.