Notably, it was one of sixteen ultra-cheap Westerns a young John Wayne starred in for indie Lone Star Productions during 1934-35, for release through Monogram Pictures. They were among the first batch of Hollywood movies to air on the new medium of television in the late 1940s, and for one reason or another soon fell into the public domain. Since then, 'Neath the Arizona Skies and other Lone Star/Wayne films like The Star Packer, The Desert Trail, The Dawn Rider, and Randy Rides Alone have been endlessly packaged and repackaged on VHS and DVD from bottom-feeder home video labels.
Without exception, the video transfers of these releases have varied between horrible and utterly unwatchable. This new Blu-ray release, licensed from Paramount, rectifies this in much the same way Olive/Paramount's Blu-rays have of the B-Westerns Wayne made immediately after this for Republic Pictures, beginning in 1935. On a scale of 1 to 10, up to now most home video versions of 'Neath the Arizona Skies rated a 2 or three; this is closer to an 8 or a 9.
The movie itself isn't much, but it's fascinating to watch John Wayne learning how to act and for the tenuous blossoming of his iconic screen persona. He was still a neophyte but his performance is already far less amateurish than most of the cast. Indeed, the only other actor better than Wayne inexplicably appears unbilled, despite his major supporting part: George Hayes. Like Wayne, Hayes was well on his way toward Western genre immortality, as the ultimate Western sidekick "Gabby" Hayes, the components of which are about 80% in place in 'Neath the Arizona Skies.
Also of note is the actor playing the film's "dog" heavy: arguably Hollywood's greatest stuntman ever, Yakima Canutt. He also does most of the picture's stunt work (along with Eddie Parker), at one point reportedly doubling Wayne as Wayne doubles Canutt.
Burl R. Tuttle's script is unusually busy for a 52-minute B-Western. It starts out promisingly, with Chris Morrell (Wayne) the guardian of a precocious little girl, Nina (Shirley Jean Rickert, wearing a terrible black wig), abandoned by her white father, Chris's old friend, and orphaned by her Indian mother. Her late mother's oil leasing payments have made Nina rich, attracting the attentions of outlaw Sam Black (Canutt) and his gang, they determined to cut in on the deal by kidnapping Nina and claiming the payment for themselves.
Meanwhile, wanted express office bandit Jim Moore (Jay Wilsey, billed here as "Buffalo Bill, Jr.," despite bearing no relation to Sr.), having found Chris unconscious after a struggle with Black's men, switches clothes with hapless cowboy, resulting in much confusion when Chris and Jim's virginal sister, Clara (Sheila Terry), meet-cute on the trail.
Like Wayne's other Lone Star productions, 'Neath the Arizona Skies was dirt-cheap. The average studio feature around this time averaged about $250,000-$350,000, while higher-end short subjects, like Laurel & Hardy's two-reel comedies, either side of $30,000. Wayne's five-reel Lone Star Westerns were made for a paltry $10,000-$12,000, with Wayne usually pocketing $1,250 for ten-days work. This one played but a single day in New York City but was very popular with hix in the stix who'd nix hix pix. That audience was the foundation for what in a dozen years would be Wayne's worldwide stardom.
It was also during this time that Wayne, guided by Canutt and character Paul Fix (not in this one, but many of the other Lone Star titles), and inspired by Harry Carey Sr. and William S. Hart before him, gradually developed a more realistic Western hero that sharply contrasted Tom Mix types that had come before, and the Gene Autry types gestating concurrently. Ex-rodeo champ Canutt was a real cowboy Wayne admired; he freely adopted Canutt's walk, drawl, etc., making their scenes together especially interesting to watch.
George Hayes had played all manner of roles at Monogram (sometimes playing two different parts in the same film) but around this time Hayes's "Gabby" character began to emerge in both the Lone Star Westerns and the Paramount-released Hopalong Cassidy films. Hayes has his teeth in and is far better groomed than usual, but Gabby is unmistakably peeking through.
Video & Audio
'Neath the Arizona Skies isn't quite the revelation that the Olive Blu-rays of early Republic titles have been, but it's still almost startling to see such an abused, overworked public domain title come to life in high-def. It's still just a bit rough around the edges but, overall, is an extremely impressive presentation considering. The mono audio is also much improved, and optional English subtitles are offered. No Extra Features.
Though I'd strongly argue that Olive would do better releasing titles like these as more economical double- or triple-bills, for John Wayne and B-Western fans, 'Neath the Arizona Skies is a must-have. Highly Recommended.
Stuart Galbraith IV is the Kyoto-based film historian largely absent from reviewing these days while he restores a 200-year-old Japanese farmhouse.