Arizona (1940)

Directed by Wesley Ruggles
Written by Claude Binyon

One of my main points of interest in this marathon was to observe how women played into westerns: how they were portrayed, how often they were rough and tough versus damsels in distress. What were their motivations for heading west, or were they forced along with the men? With Arizona, I get that opportunity full and free with only what I would call the third female lead film thus far. The Wind played with the psychological effects of one woman’s unique travels west, while Annie Oakley was more showman than cowboy western, and as a result didn’t reveal itself as a great source of material for the questions I rose above. Finally with Arizona, a woman takes center stage, independent, ambitious and tough as nails.

As a wagon train headed for California rolls into Tuscon, Arizona, Peter Muncie (William Holden) learns a little about the town and promise of Arizona territory. He soon meets Phoebe Titus (Jean Arthur), the only female in town who makes pies for profit and hopes to one day own a grand ranch in Arizona, to prove that the territory had as much promise as any other. Soon, Phoebe is operating a freight line to help pay for her ranch, but that line comes into direct competition with Lazarus Ward (Porter Hall), who likes to think he runs Tuscon. Needing help to overtake Phoebe, newcomer Jeff Carteret (Warren William) positions himself to become the new town boss by helping Ward run Phoebe’s business into the ground. With the help of Muncie, back from California, Phoebe sets out to take on Carteret and Ward to get back what is rightfully hers.

Phoebe is a character who is more self-sufficient and enterprising than any other character I’ve seen in this marathon thus far, male or female. And Jean Arthur seems the perfect choice to play this tough go-getter. Her performance here is quite convincing, and you can tell she is having fun with the role, which goes a long way to help make Phoebe likable, despite being so different than the other women of the west. She manages to still be feminine while being independent. She doesn’t need Muncie in her life, but his presence is a nice companion with whom she is able to share her dream, as opposed to riding his coattails. The cast overall is stellar. Holden is very good, but the bad buys Porter Hall and Warren William, both of whom we saw in Trail of the Vigilantes, are really good here as Ward and Carteret. Better than in that previous film, and so easy to dislike.

If I had one major qualm with the story, it would be how easily Muncie falls in with Phoebe. She is this tough, only woman in town, and as soon as he makes up his mind he likes her, it’s game over pretty much for the relationship. With Phoebe being the only woman in town, I am sure she had her fair share of potential suitors, so what sets Muncie apart? I don’t think this is covered enough to be convincing, but throwing caution to the wind to believe the romance the rest of the film becomes a lot of fun. It has great twists and turns, the sign of a strong screenplay. The feminism on display here is admirable, and perhaps way ahead of its time. You can’t help but cheer for and root for Arthur’s Phoebe.

There are even a few really unique moments and filmmaking choices. The first comes at the end when, during a shootout, director Wesley Ruggles decides to show us Phoebe, tense in wondering the outcome of the duel, awaiting Muncie inside, as opposed to showing the shootout itself. I am not sure this works perfectly, but it is a bold and intriguing choice. Something we haven’t otherwise seen here, focusing in on the woman instead of the man. The other than stands out is during a rainstorm, which in and of itself in unique in a desert setting. The tension and suspense which is built during this great tracking scene is really the signature scene of the film. Arizona is better than a lot of the westerns thus far. A great cast, careful filmmaking, and a memorable story.

*** – Very Good


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