As Disney quietly disappears huge swathes of film history into its vaults, I'm going to spend 2020 celebrating Twentieth Century Fox and the Fox Film Corporation's films, what one might call their output if only someone were putting it out.
And now they've quietly disappeared William Fox's name from the company: guilty by association with Rupert Murdoch, even though he never associated with him.
Sometime in '28 or '29, Raoul Walsh saw his first talking picture. He didn't like it. The stuff and stuffy theatrical performances, airless studio atmosphere and rigid, immobile staging and camerawork was all profoundly off-putting to this cinematic man of action. But on the same program was a Fox Movietone newsreel, and Walsh was dazzled by the way the small crew captured a noisy union meeting. He rushed to the studio and pitched an idea...
All he needed was a western script and a newsreel van (and a few actors and a props wagon). He would head into the wilderness and shoot the first outdoors talkie. He got the go-ahead and began work on a two-reeler, and the rushes, in which the sound of bacon frying provoked drooling from Fox execs, were so impressive he was ordered to add scenes and turn In Old Arizona into a feature.
It was then that catastrophe struck, and kept striking. Bumpy roads on location caused the delicate sound-on-disc apparatus to stop working. And on the way back to civilization, Walsh's driver struck a jackrabbit which came through the windscreen (expiring in the process) and filled Walsh's face with glass. This cost him an eye, and also the opportunity to star in and direct the first all-talking picture. In Old Arizona (1928) was finished by Irving Cummings, following the pattern Walsh had established, and Walsh can be seen on horseback in long shot, transforming into Warner Baxter whenever he comes close. Twentieth Century Fox has actually released in on Blu-ray and it's very interesting: the use of sound is still distinctive and radical, and its hyper-manly jocularity is incredibly Walshian, if that's a word (it totally should be a word).
The indefatigable and now cyclopean auteur bounced back, helming various sequels to his silent hit What Price Glory? (1927) and the Magnascope widescreen western The Big Trail (1930). You can see that one on DVD, Blu-ray, and Amazon Prime in two different aspect ratios, but you won't find The Man Who Came Back (1931).
This may be because the film isn't very good. It tells the story of a spoiled rich kid (silent star Charles Farrell) who sinks into alcoholism, and his girl (Janet Gaynor, his co-star from 7th Heaven and others) who becomes an opium addict, and their struggle to recovery.
In Old Arizona not only trailblazed an approach to sound cinema still with us today, including overlapping dialogue and off-screen sound, it explored them in unconventional ways that still seem novel. The Man Who Came Back is a play, adapted by sticking a camera in front of it. It features all the elements Walsh says he reacted against in early talkies, including unconvincing sets (the books in the rich dad's library look to have been painted on the flats) and stagey performances (dad loves his dramatic pauses so much he does them even when there's no drama to be had.) Gaynor gets to go well out of her squeaky-clean comfort zone, but this is as awful as it is interesting: she conveys addiction by putting on a kimono and swinging her hips.
Farrell, whose career faded through the thirties, fairs slightly better: there was more of an understanding of how to fake drunkenness than opium addiction, I guess (and drunks are more dramatic). Both actors had struggled through their early talkies and become fairly fluent, and while Farrell has lost the stalwart manliness he projected as a silent star, his informal line readings are preferable to the declamatory approach of his fellow cast-members.
The film also features William Holden, but not that one. This one:
It turns out that the project was originally intended for Frank Borzage to direct: the casting alone would suggest it. The famous studio boss line, "Raoul’s idea of a tender love scene is to burn down a whorehouse,” might be applicable here, but sadly the fire-raising side of Walsh's personality isn't in evidence. He just doesn't have the delicacy to bring poignancy to this soap opera stuff, which Borzage might have elevated.
But the film offers one invaluable service: it shows that the pitfalls of early sound had a life of their own, and could engulf even prodigious and explosive filmmakers who were aware of them and consciously rebelled against them.
You can see from the low quality of these images that this film is not available for sale from Disney. So my assessment of it as creaky and sentimental (I guess sentiment is the flipside of the Hollywood tough guy posture, but usually Walsh is immune to it) is based on far-from-prime viewing conditions. What should the fate of such films be? You might, conceivably, get a Walsh Retrospective at some film festival, and then we'd have to sit through it and nod as we do with the interminable Flagg & Quirt comedies he churned out. Streaming platforms might actually be the ideal commercial home for this kind of misfire: as long as there were plenty of other films available, you wouldn't mind getting hit with a clunker like this one, and your film history knowledge would be enhanced.