About a week ago I tried to watch a very early film with William Holden and Glenn Ford – Texas (1941) which I just could sit through, it hadn’t aged well at all. You could see in-experienced actors trying their best to work of each other. Just stumbling around, I left it alone after 10 minutes, yes I’m brutal (or unfair) with some films. However a film from the same period – Arizona (1940) with the same production values, caught my attention and very early on. Even with my suspicions of Jean Arthur in the lead role of a Western, a brave move indeed, which actually paid off. An actress who was actually no stranger to the genre, having previously played Calamity Jane in The Plainsman (1936) opposite Gary Cooper who were a great screen pairing. Not only that having a rare female lead role in a Western as early as 1940 is something I never thought would have happened. I am still learning about this genre, even a few years in my exploration. It wouldn’t really be until the 1950’s with Rancho Notorious and Johnny Guitar (1952 and 1954) and not forgetting the gigantic Forty Guns and The Furies (1957 and 1950) with Barbara Stanwyck. Was it too soon for a female lead to own a western for audience, having to wait another decade for the psychological side to come oozing out.
From the first time we see Phoebe Titus (Arthur) on-screen she is wearing the clothe’s of a man, she is not defined by her sex, instead defined by the surrounding she chooses to live in. Even though she was the only American woman in the town or even territory, probably to spice up the film and sexual tension that her position might create. She runs an open bakery but is not a push over, even to the self-proclaimed judge Judge Bogardus (Edgar Buchanan) who has to wait at least an hour for his pie. She fills some of the criteria for a frontiers woman, yet is able stand alongside the men in her character. To be honest she has to as the film progress.
Another surprise is that Arthur was around 40 when the film was released, which shows that her screen image was more powerful than her own age. Paired opposite Peter Muncie (Holden) 18 years her junior. You just can’t the difference in age if you judge her by this film and not her long career in film already. She leads the film, even as much as it’s a vehicle to push Holden, they are still holding back with him. When they share the screen age looses all meaning, both appearing to be in their 20’s. It’s the power of youth being portrayed on-screen.
Moving onto look at what the film is really about, which took sometime. history is very much being played fast and loose with here as a territory in 1860 that apparently aligns itself with the Confederate states of America, which made no sense as it’s on the other side of the country and it wasn’t really involved in the Civil War (at least on-screen). After doing a little research it was in fact a divided state that supplied troops to both sides. It did indeed request protection from confederate troops from Apache’s. More historical than I first thought, yet still not going in to detail, ultimately this is a film and not a documentary, fact is only used as a backdrop for the birth of the state and a romance to be place upon. Arizona is not really mentioned in the more classic films that depict the War, instead focusing on the really Southern states.
So onto the plot which took sometime over this lengthy film that looks really at self-preservation from the Apache’s. Wanting protection of the Union who they were yet to join. The army moves out leaving them vulnerable to attacks. Now this is 1940, another world war has just begun and America is in a state of isolation. Pearl harbor is over a year away too, so they are not exactly ready to take up arms. However Hollywood was making films subtly that talked about the War, where they should stand, away from their allies or alongside them. Now this is just a theory as the people of Arizona want protection from the other, who could be Nazi Germany who are only an ocean away.
There are always a few who take advantage of the situation when Titus and Solomon Warner (Paul Harvey) join up to form a wagon train that delivers goods comes under attack by Apache’s who are working with Jefferson Carteret (Warren William) and Lazarus Ward (Porter Hall) who want control over the market. Could these be seen as a metaphor for the unknown German enemy who is working to support the Nazi as American ships travel the Atlantic. Move that to the wagon train route on Arizona and you have a Western. Its pretty clever and very simple too. Allowing for the romance to playing on the back-burner for a while as Muncie joins up with the Union army (not sure when he does) coming back to marry Titus and live the American dream that they found is under threat by two men.
A pleasant surprise for a very much forgotten Western that for a while tries to do away with the woman playing the weaker role, being more dominant. She is still taken advantage of but not for long. Even wearing the odd dress, its however all on her terms which makes this all the more interesting. Maybe it took a maturer actress to take on the role that requires more confidence in not just her clothes but the performance that you really believe in. Here Holden is playing the lesser role which we rarely see in the genre, which makes for an oddity in a genre dominated by men.