June 20, 2013

Warner Baxter, In Old Arizona

In Warner Baxter's opening scene, you see him taking a look at his own wanted sign and beginning a monologue about how great he is. And it wasn't until about halfway through this monologue that I realized he was talking to himself. Or his horse. And my feelings during that moment of realization is essentially how I feel about the entire performance; it's odd and it's uncomfortable.

In circumstances similar to that of the winning best actress performance of that year, Baxter was a 39 year old man playing a character who was supposed to be 25. In addition to this, Baxter was also a white man playing a character who was not white, and such situations almost always results in a cringeworthy disaster. Flaunting an accent that is mostly Mexican, sometimes Italian, and sometimes Greek (though the Cisco Kid later tells us that he's Portuguese...go figure), Baxter gives a racially insensitive and entirely unconvincing performance as the Latin/ethnic bandit. It's movies and performances like these that opens your eyes to the practices of Hollywood folks back in the day--this was a time when throwing a white man in a caballero costume on camera and bronzing the hell out of his face and having him butcher an accent for an hour and a half was a totally acceptable means of entertainment, and people would still go out and pay for a ticket and the studios would make a profit off of it. This practice wasn't shy towards the African-Americans and the Asians either. Twas a weird era.

Racism aside, I didn't hate Baxter's performance as much as I thought I would. In his defense, he isn't even the worst of the three main characters. Edmund Lowe acts with an odd "gee-whiz, jeez, shucks" schtick that made me want to punch him in the face. Dorothy Burgess's slutty latina was horrifying and someone in 1928 should have taken it upon themselves to start the Razzies that year just so they could give all of them to her. So while he wasn't so good at being ethnic, Baxter does do suave bandit well. Although he ventures into "cheesy" territory often, it helps that he is lovable and his good looks help to accentuate the charming aspect that role requires. The moments near the end where he doesn't have to talk--such as the moment he realizes his love has betrayed him, and his final exchange with her before he leaves--are well acted and surprisingly profound. Topping that off are his chilling last words before the film ends, which hints at the path the performance could have gone if he hadn't relied so heavily on the "LOOK-AT-ME-I'M-HISPANIC" approach during most of the film. And while both performance and film haven't aged well (not that the ones from this time usually do), I can see why people may have been taken by him. Ultimately, I give it

Side-note: My coverage of Best Actor is going to be a little spotty. This is because 1) a lot of the films nominated for Best Actor are tougher to find than that of Best Actress and 2) I don't like Best Actor as much as I like Best Actress. So for example, because I can't locate George Arliss is Disraeli with ease, I'm going to postpone it and cover some Best Actor wins from the 4th Academy Awards and so on instead until one day I do find Disraeli. Deuces! 

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