"I never fight with my fists. If I hurt my hands, I cannot play the guitar. And if I cannot play the guitar and sing, I cannot make love to the senoritas. And if I cannot make love, oh ho...I die."
Handsome devil Cesar "Butch" Romero officially takes over as The Kid in this fun, assured B oater. 20th Century-Fox's Cinema Archives line of hard-to-find cult and library titles has released The Cisco Kid and the Lady, the 1939 Western directed by Herbert I. Leeds and starring Cesar Romero, Marjorie Weaver, Chris-Pin Martin, George Montgomery, Robert Barrat, Virginia Field, and little baby Gloria Ann White (...who almost walks off with the picture). With an accomplished light comedy turn by gay caballero Romero, The Cisco Kid and the Lady steers writer O. Henry's fictional creation firmly into Hollywoodized Robin Hood territory for the first of Romero's six outings as The Kid--and a welcome change of direction that is for fans of the laughing Latin cavalier. No extras for this good black and white transfer.
The Arizona territory, the late 1880s. Mexican adventurer/outlaw The Cisco Kid (Cesar Romero), and his sidekick Gordito (Chris-Pin Martin), spot miner Drake (J. Anthony Hughes) trundling along the desert valley floor, his wagon team and mules prime targets for the good-natured thieving duo. Other eyes, however, are watching, too, but not for Drake's horses; crooked businessman/criminal Jim Harbison (Robert Barrat) knows Drake has hit a bonanza and he wants to jump his claim. Harbison's man shoots Drake, and the runaway team takes off, with Harbison, Cisco, and Gordito in pursuit. As Drake dies, he wills the mine to all three men, with the proviso that they share 50% of it with his baby, whom Gordito finds burbling away in the wagon. To ensure none of them makes off with the loot alone, he tears his map into three sections, and dies. Later, Harbison tries to double-cross Cisco and Gordito, but both have destroyed their map sections, committing the details to memory, and thus ensuring their lives. Dropping off the cute baby with even cuter school marm, Julie Lawson (Marjorie Weaver), Cisco is busy dodging Harbison's backstabbing efforts...while The Kid romances not only Julie, but Harbison's chorus girl honey, Billie Graham (Virginia Field), too. Even more complications crop up, when Julie's timid boyfriend, Tommy Bates (George Montgomery) blows into town...and thinks The Kid is the father of Julie's new-found baby.
Do me a favor, okay? Read O. Henry's short story from 1907, The Caballero's Way (it's in the public domain on the internet), and tell me where it specifically indicates that "The Cisco Kid" is Mexican? I just read it this morning, and you could take The Kid for Mexican, or White, or something else, in equal measure. The only reason I mention this is because the cinematic Cisco Kid of The Cisco Kid and the Lady, race not withstanding, is still a long, long way from O. Henry's fictional creation--a violent, amoral, murderous thug whose pastime is shooting Mexicans "to see them kick," and who arranges, in typically ironic twist-ending O. Henry style, to dispatch an unfaithful lover with cold aplomb. I haven't seen Warner Baxter's Academy Award-winning turn as The Cisco Kid since I was a kid (Fox Film Corporation's In Old Arizona, from 1928), so I can't remember how his take on the character compares to Romero's...but I doubt there were too many scenes along the lines of Baxter bathing and feeding an adorable baby. There had been earlier silent film treatments of the character, while Baxter came back in 1931 for an official Fox sequel, The Cisco Kid (Fox's 1930 The Arizona Kid, with Baxter, was really a Cisco movie in every way but name), and then again in 1939's The Return of The Cisco Kid, when 20th Century-Fox rebooted the property into a profitable B franchise--minus falling star Baxter. Fox contract player Cesar Romero, who had backed up Baxter as Cisco's sidekick in that movie, was chosen to take over the series that same year, beginning a six-picture run that ended when WWII broke out in 1941 (patriotic Romero would volunteer for the Coast Guard and see action in the Pacific). B movies fans, however, more readily associate The Cisco Kid character with "Poverty Row's" Monogram post-WWII efforts starring Gilbert Roland and later, Duncan Renaldo, while boomers out there no doubt summon up Renaldo's smiling visage when recalling his 1950s syndicated smash TV hit, The Cisco Kid.
Written by Frances Hyland (Step Lively, Jeeves!, Charlie Chan in Reno), from a story by Stanley Rauh ( Michael Shayne: Private Detective, Dressed to Kill), and directed by ace editor/B movie helmer, Herbert I. Leeds (Mr. Moto in Danger Island, Charlie Chan in City of Darkness, The Man Who Wouldn't Die), the satisfying, entertaining The Cisco Kid and the Lady packs more laughs in the first act of its breezy, neatly-constructed 73 minutes, than in all of this summer's one thousand times-more expensive Disney debacle, The Lone Ranger (seriously...have these people never studied old Hollywood moviemaking?). I very much doubt that the exceedingly competent B oater, The Cisco Kid and the Lady, will ever be included on one of those seemingly never-ending lists of classic titles from 1939--Hollywood's "greatest" year--but there is something quite modern-feeling about its early comedic treatment of its heroic anti-hero, a definite vibe of the carefree joy of outlawism and illegality (and even sex) that would be expanded upon in 1960s spaghetti westerns.
If this franchise reboot with Romero aimed to soften the Cisco Kid character with humor and less overt criminality, it worked...but in the process it layered the character with an intriguing subtext of "is he or isn't he a friend?" that fits in better with later, more "adult" Westerns, rather than most others coming out during its own time period. Is the Cisco Kid an out-and-out criminal outlaw, or a hero, or something inbetween, like a Robin Hood, who commits illegal acts in the service of a "higher good?" The opening sequence in The Cisco Kid and the Lady suggests all three. In a scene right out of a Terence Hill/Bud Spencer epic, Cisco and Gordita rifle through their collected "wanted" posters, laughing at how they all indict "The Cisco Kid" while failing to have one picture of the thief resemble any other. So perhaps the Kid didn't do all these crimes (as the opening montage suggests, when a lawman scoffs at simultaneous, far-flung sightings of the Kid), or any of them, we think...until he spots kindly Drake the miner, with his adorable baby. We're charmed by them (that baby is too cute...), but the screenplay gives calculating Cisco an entirely different reaction: he moves with Gordita to rob the miner's horses (even without the baby: how would the miner survive out there in the desert without transportation?). Only the murderous villainy of Harbison stops Cisco's criminal act. When Drake dies, Cisco won't pray over him (a rather unusual--and modern--development at this time: he's neither made to pay for this refusal nor "shown the light" later on), but he does say, "Adios," in a genuine way, and his subsequent protectiveness with the baby suggests a good man. And yet...he never abandons the notion of getting his share of the mine.
Cisco isn't punished, either, for bedding both ladies here, another anomaly for 1939 (we all know the real code at work here, even if the script has the characters saying something else for the censors: if Cisco makes a move and the camera pans away before the fade-out, that's implied coitus). If modern (and humorless) viewers have a knee-jerk reaction to Romero's and particularly Martin's ethnic characterizations, they should think about how both Cisco and Gordita are the two smartest people in the movie, easily outwitting their opponents while proving to be generally more sensitive and even observant of higher moral goals (SPOILER Cisco gladly gives up his share of the mine and Julie...to stay single). I don't see how anyone, though, could find trouble with the smooth, amusing The Cisco Kid and the Lady. Expertly mixing broad, cartoon- style comedy (the magnificently dirty Martin, crashing down from a window or falling on his ass), with a blase, deadpan humor (most of the suspense here comes not from the actual plot but from us wondering if these dolts are going to kill that baby, after leaving it alone out in the desert, giving it a revolver to play with, and in the movie's funniest unintentional sick joke, letting it fall off a high couch), and touched off with amiable, sexy Romero's effortlessly engaging turn (he's just as effective kidding with that hilariously reactive baby as he is tangoing with Field), light, breezy, entertaining The Cisco Kid and the Lady is a beautifully executed $300,000-or-so example of what Hollywood today can't deliver with $300,000,000.
Paul Mavis is an internationally published movie and television historian, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, and the author of The Espionage Filmography.