Monday, June 11, 2012

Movie Monday: The Baron of Arizona

This week's Movie Monday selection is the 1950 historical drama The Baron of Arizona!

During our many, many hours at the Wizard World Philadelphia Comic Con, my Ace Kilroy partner Dan O'Connor and I talked movies. I like to think my movie knowledge is fairly wide and deep, but ever since video stores went the way of the horse and buggy I've found it a lot, lot harder to find obscure and/or older titles, and those are pretty much the only types of movies Dan bothers with anymore.

Anyway, he mentioned a Sam Fuller movie called The Baron of Arizona--based on a true story, it's historical western starring Vincent Price! Not only had I not seen it, I'd never even heard of it! But once he told me what it's based on--more on that in a moment--I realized I had to see this movie, pronto, and make it the next installment for Movie Monday. So, without further ado:
The film opens in an elegant drawing room, with a bunch of men in suits, smoking cigars and drinking. It's 1912, and they are celebrating President Taft's signing the proclamation which made Arizona the 48th state. One of them, a man named John Griff (Reed Hadley) starts to tell the story of "The Baron of Arizona", a swindler so brazen that he almost single-handedly claimed the entire state for himself.

We then flash back a miserable, rainy night, inside a beat-up old shack containing a beat-up old man. Amid the thunder, there's a knock at his door. He opens it, and:
The man (Vincent Price, of course) introduces himself as James Reavis, carrying a sheath of papers and pursuing an interesting claim: that the United States is honoring land grants made before the Mexican-American War of 1948. This means a young orphan girl named Sophie is, to hear Reavis claim, a Baroness, which means when she is an adult she will inherit thousands of acres of land, which Arizona mostly consists of.

After telling Sophia of her destiny, we see the extent to which Reavis carried out his deception. It involves faking a carved stone that supposedly marked the claim back in 1750:
Reavis, in tremendous performance by Price, is utterly charming and also totally sociopathic. He dotes on Sophia, claiming to care for her. She is a poor, uneducated child, so she tends to believe everything this smooth man tells her. She asks him to read her a story from a book, which Reavis does. Via a pullback, director Fuller reveals that Reavis is making the story up on the spot, reading from a more adult tome:
Part of Reavis' plot involves going "undercover" as a monastery, and gaining the monks' trust so he can gain access to their ancient manuscripts, which he can use to forge details to back up his land claim. This plot takes what seems like years, and the amount of effort and detail Reavis puts into this plot is almost comically heroic--I mean, you have to sort of admire a guy who wants it this bad (he reminds me a bit of Livia, the scheming Roman Queen from I, Claudius).

When some of his chicanery is revealed, Reavis grabs a horse and takes off, leaving the monks confused. He meanders his way into part of a band of gypsies, where a young gypsy girl--who seems just as ambitious and conniving--falls for him and wants to run off with him:
Years pass, and Sophia grows up into a beautiful woman (Ellen Drew), and Reavis declares his love for her, and wants her to be his bride. Some people are skeptical of Reavis, but Sophia is hopelessly smitten, and agrees to marry him.

Eventually Reavis comes to face to face with his adversary Griff, who works for the Department of the Interior. Griff knows in his gut that Reavis is pulling a fast one, but is he also somewhat impressed by how successfully Reavis seems to have been in pulling this off:
Most of the film is fairly restrained--its mostly just people talking, with only very brief moments of action (like Reavis' getaway from the monks, for instance). But after its revealed that Reavis might just find a way to pull this off, the townspeople who are afraid of being thrown off their land turn into a mob and grab him, ready to string him up:
The savagery with which they attack Reavis is genuinely frightening; maybe if the star had been a more traditional leading man it might not have worked as well. But since this is Vincent Price, a man who played lots of characters who came to violent, grisly ends, you wonder if just maybe The Baron of Arizona is, in fact, gonna get it.

But Reavis is slick, and manages to talk his way out of the hangman's noose. The plot unravels, and Reavis is sent to prison. But when he is released, Sophia is there, waiting for him. It appears that Reavis does genuinely love her, and the film ends with them reunited.

I really, thoroughly enjoyed The Baron of Arizona. Knowing this film was based on a real guy, who really did try and pull this flim-flam off, gives the movie an extra kick of verisimilitude. Apparently Fuller and his screenwriters took some liberties with the truth, but who cares? This is not a documentary here, it's an old-time Hollywood movie with an amazing early star turn by the legendary Price, who uses all of his charm to essay the role. Reavis seems like a real sociopath, someone so used to deception that there probably wasn't much of a real person left.

There are some striking shots here, and the supporting performances are solid as well. But the real draw is the Fuller/Price team--somewhat surprisingly, it appears they never worked together again, a real shame. Fuller's total lack of interest in bullshit--both in his work and his personal life--is the perfect fit for the story of a man who was nothing but bullshit.

The Baron of Arizona isn't easy to find (it's only available--officially--as part of a Sam Fuller boxed set), but it's well worth searching out. After all, how many historical western dramas starring Vincent Price are you ever going to see?

Fun Fact: one of the stunt doubles for The Baron of Arizona was none other than Ed Wood!

1 comment:

Robert M. Lindsey said...

Netflix has it. I'm going to queue this right up! Sounds great, I love Price. The audacity of some people, rather than honest hard work to become rich, they work hard at swindling people.

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