"She make love to you?"
Beautifully simple, primitive storytelling, glossily handled. 20th Century-Fox's Cinema Archives line of hard-to-find library and cult titles has released The Cisco Kid, the smash 1931 Western hit starring Warner Baxter, Edmund Lowe, Conchita Montenegro, Nora Lane, Frederick Burt, Willard Robertson, James Bradbury, Jr., Jack Dillon, Charles Stevens, Chris-Pin Martin, Douglas Haig, and little Marilyn Knowlden. A sequel to Fox's award-winning oater, In Old Arizona, The Cisco Kid sees Warner Baxter return once again to his Academy Award-winning role of the charming, devilishly handsome Robin Hood rogue of the Southwest, O. Henry's "Romantic Bad Man," The Cisco Kid, with completely satisfying results (except for some stereotyping...of the Irish). No extras for this quite nice-looking black and white fullframe transfer.
Brooklyn-born cavalry officer Sergeant Michael Patrick "Mickey" Dunn (Edmund Lowe) has just been given a choice assignment: track down his old nemesis, bandit The Cisco Kid (Warner Baxter), who's recently been seen north of the border. Despite this being an assignment from a superior officer, Mickey seems set on receiving for himself that $5,000 dollar reward for the Kid. However, the wily, cheerful, smiling Kid yet again proves too cunning for the blowhard Dunn; he slips away to romance beautiful dance hall girl Carmencita (Conchita Montenegro), which pisses off would-be suitor Sheriff Tex Ransom (Frederick Burt), as well as Dunn...who had a thing with Conchita, too. Dunn finally catches up with The Kid, and wings him, but Cisco is too smart to lay down from a mortal wound; he escapes again and is found by widow Sally Benton (Nora Lane), and her children Billy (Douglas Haid) and Annie (Marilyn Knowlden), who nurse him back to life at their ranch. The children come to love Cisco...as does Sally, quietly and unspoken, of course, but Dunn is in hot pursuit, while Nora is in jeopardy, as well: her ranch is to taken by the bank.
Having written a few reviews on Cesar Romero's Cisco Kid outings--and having quite enjoyed them--I was intrigued to again see Warner Baxter's take on the character (I hadn't seen him as The Kid since I was a kid, on Bill Kennedy's old afternoon movie show out of Detroit). Prior to this early sound effort, there had been several silent movie adaptations of O. Henry's 1907 short story, The Caballero's Way, where his Cisco Kid character was first introduced. Baxter's performance as The Kid for 1928's Best Picture winner, In Old Arizona--the first major sound Western, and the first talkie shot on location--won him the second Best Actor Oscar ever awarded, where The Kid character (who's ironically never solidly identified as either White or Hispanic) was softened considerably from O. Henry's nasty fictional construct: a violent, amoral, murderous thug whose pastime was shooting Mexicans "to see them kick," and whose distrust of women extended to his tricking a lawman into killing the Kid's own loving girlfriend. Fox produced an unofficial sequel to In Old Arizona with 1930's The Arizona Kid (where the name "Cisco" was never used...but everyone knew that's who Baxter was playing), before bringing out The Cisco Kid in 1931, with Baxter, Lowe, and co-director Irving Cummings from In Old Arizona's team, back together again.
Seen today, the feeling one gets from The Cisco Kid--and that's largely because of countless subsequent imitations and permutations of Cisco's already familiar elements--is that's it's a B-Western with A-picture trappings. The story, from Al Cohn (The Jazz Singer, The Cat and the Canary), was as old as the hills even in 1931: the charismatic, loveable, tomcat rogue tamed by the innate goodness of a woman he can't have, with said woman a beautiful widow with two small children, who's about to lose her ranch to the scheming bank officer who wants to marry her (a de rigueur plot machination during the depths of the Depression). We're led to believe we'll see more of that subplot--we're told bank creep Enos Hankins (Willard Robertson) was in cahoots with the gang that killed Sally's husband--but strangely, that entire angle is dropped as the story focuses on The Kid's rehabilitation at Sally's, and Dunn's pursuit. With this movie being produced prior to the Production Code's enforcement, The Kid is free to "romance" Conchita without her being punished for sexual license (indeed, her "death" at the finale could be taken as a funny poke at the Code, when she bounces back up and announces she was faking, to give The Kid time to escape). However, anyone looking for pre-Code thrills will be disappointed at The Cisco Kid's recognizable silent movie-era emphasis on swooning, unabashedly sentimental melodrama and romance. The Kid, laughing at his own tricks, may say, "All women...I hate!" before he plants a passionate one on Conchita (the female audiences must have swooned at that misogynist panty-twister)...but his true ardor clearly comes when he discovers a consuming paternal love for sweet little Annie, as well as at the realization of his doomed affection for "good girl" widow Sally--quite conventional and expected...and hardly anything you could call pre-Code daring.
No, this is "primitive" storytelling (in other words, an efficient little story, told with snap and skill and no fat--something almost impossible to find today) dressed up in an A-picture package. Director Irving Cummings executes several silent movie-worthy dollies and crane shots among the atmospheric sets and solid location shooting, with a few rather remarkable deep-focus shots (courtesy of cinematographer Barney McGill) that have an almost 3D effect. Cummings' handling of the climatic robbery sequence is a model of whipsaw cutting (with the help of editor Alex Troffey), made all the more intriguing since Cummings keeps the camera outside of the bank at all times. As for Baxter, he's disarmingly winning as the charismatic Kid. Suave, physically gracefully, and ridiculously handsome (in the fashion of the times), with those deeply expressive silent movie-trained eyes, Baxter is able to convey a remarkable span of emotions without saying anything...even though he's rarely silent here, constantly laughing or singing or delivering poetic dialogue (his scene with little Marilyn Knowlden, where he professes his paternal love for her and her freckles--"little specks of gold from the sun!"--is topped only by his few rushed seconds of conflicting emotions as he looks at Lane before saying goodbye for the last time). Of course today, the professional victims looking for new ways to be phonily outraged, would damn Baxter and The Cisco Kid's moviemakers as racist for daring to have a White actor play a Hispanic character (a sublimely ridiculous notion that no actor, regardless of ethnicity, should ever support). I can assure you, though, that if anyone should be offended by The Cisco Kid on ethnic stereotyping grounds, it should be the Irish-Americans, what with Edmund Lowe's truly offensive turn here (not in a political sense, but purely sensory...as in "it stinks"). I'll take Baxter's sexy, powerful, playful, loving, self-sacrificing, and truly noble "bandito" Cisco Kid any day over Lowe's blustering, bragging, unfunny ("Hellooooo, chili pepper," he warbles distastefully at Montenegro), dense, mercenary, gross (watch him eat a steak and turn vegetarian) "hero."
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.