Oh no - at it again. I'm taking a look at those John Wayne movies that came out before I was a fan - that is before I was born. Again like Part 3 they're John Wayne movies from the 40s.
I started this sojourn way back reminiscing about the John Wayne westerns I remember seeing as a youngster so if you want to start at the beginning then check out My 10 Best John Wayne Westerns.
In Old Oklahoma / War of the Wildcats (1943)
I don’t usually comment that much on the style or aesthetic content of these JW 1940s Republic films so when you get an opening sequence in one take that runs for over two minutes you tend to sit up and take notice.
It starts under the credits with the camera presenting a panorama of characters on a train discussing ‘oil in them thar hills’ as a ticket conductor makes his way through the carriages.
After that it’s business as usual filmmaking wise.
Martha Scott plays Catherine Allen, school teacher turned authoress – with very bad dress sense. The costume she wears at the beginning possess shoulder pads so ludicrously high she looks like she’s about to flap her wings and go join the nearest bat colony.
Ms Allen has written a racy romantic novel called A Woman Dares for which she is being literally railroaded out of town, similar to Claire Trevor’s banishment from Tonto at the beginning of Stagecoach.
She disparages the menfolk on the train for not giving up a seat on the train for her, to which comes the reply ‘This is the twentieth century remember?
When women stand on their own two feet.’ Nice to see feminism getting an airing even if it’s the butt of a joke.
The villain – Albert Dekker (again) - as a wily oil businessman in the mould of JR called Jim “Hunk” Gardner, labels Scott a ‘wildcat’ which might presumably explain the change in title when the film was rereleased.
Into the middle of all of this stumbles Duke, thankfully dressed in cowboy garb, even if the film is apparently set in 1906. Good to see Gaby Hayes back in the sidekick saddle, spluttering dialogue like ‘consarn that noisesome gasoline guzzling monster’ (I think that’s what he said anyway) when confronted with the future that is the automobile.
He also utters the immortal words ‘Say, legs is pretty things, ain’t they?’ when confronted with the past that is a dancing saloon girl.
Wayne sings in the bath a song called Pretty Redwing. I knew the minute I heard it that he also sang this song in another film. According to my research it’s either The Comancheros or McKlintock!
There’s also a musical saloon number featuring Dale Evans, the future Mrs Roy Rogers, as the promisingly named Cuddles Walker.
Unfortunately it’s her only scene in the film which is a bit of a shame as she looked kind of cute. Damned sight better looking than Trigger anyway.
The improbable romance between Dekker and Catherine turns out to be just that. After all, when you have to choose between an oily millionaire oilman like Dekker or The Duke warbling Pretty Redwing at the drop of a ten-gallon hat then there’s no contest.
The main thrust of the story is that Dekker is out to steal the oil rich land from Chief Big Tree, only to be eventually thwarted by JW and Gabby Hayes, the Batman and Robin of the prairie.
All that’s needed is a bout of the usual fisticuffs to settle the whole thing, Dekker and Duke squaring off in close-up whilst the long shots feature stunt men who look nothing like the actors they’re doubling for. In John Wayne’s case, he’s too short and a bit chubby to boot.
So not really a cowboy film then, even if our hero gets to shoot a couple of right villains, and a spectacular climax in which he heads up a wagon train laden with oil that the dastardly Dekker is attempting to sabotage and put Wayne out of business.
It is, though, an interesting mixture of various themes including the exploitation of Native Americans by the duplicitous white man, the passing of the West, the unacceptable face of capitalism as well as the nascent rise of feminism, the inclusion of this last subject not surprising seeing as the film was scripted by two women, Ethel Hill and Eleanor Griffin.
Not exactly a JW classic but a pleasant Sunday afternooner nonetheless to help pass the time.
Tall in the Saddle (1944)
At last. A bona fide John Wayne Western, the first proper JW cowboy movie since The Spoilers.
I think I’m correct in saying that this is the last time Wayne worked with Gabby Hayes, the archetypal personification of the old-timer who spouted pure frontier gibberish, and was eventually consigned to the dust heap of cinematic history with the help of the Gabby Johnson character in Blazing Saddles.
Hayes appeared with Wayne in approximately 8 films and this one is particularly prescient, with Wayne being told to watch out for Dave, played by Hayes, as ‘he’s a miserable old cuss’.
Wayne replies that he likes ‘grumpy old cusses. Hope I live long enough to be one.’ Well, guess what, Duke. Judging by films such as Cahill US Marshal, Big Jake and True Grit I’d say your wish actually actually came true.
Despite being a fairly low-budget RKO production this film still has its moments, although I must confess I found the plot somewhat convoluted.
The cast includes the ubiquitous Paul Fix and Ward Bond, both playing the villains of the piece. Wayne’s female co-star, Ella Raines, is a feisty young gun-totin’ easy-on-the-eye rootin-tootin’ frontier gal who’s ‘meaner than a skillet full of rattlesnakes’ and who – of course - eventually falls heavily for our hero.
For a moment though it looks like Wayne will be immune to her charms with declarations such as ‘no woman is gonna get me hog-tied and branded’ and ‘I never feel sorry for anything that happens to a woman’. To my ears that last one sounds like a sentiment straight from a James Edward Grant script but he wasn’t on board for this one, unless he made an anonymous contribution to the script somewhere along the way.
The film starts out as a languid exercise in good old fashioned cattle rustling but there’s a couple of set pieces I thought were particularly effective. There’s a saloon confrontation over a card game between an unarmed Wayne and a local idiot in which said idiot pulls a gun on Duke. JW calmly walks away up to his room then returns with a gun belt buckled around his waist. Wayne takes the pot of money he was being cheated out of as the card cheat bottles out and skedaddles.
I also liked the confrontation between Duke and a drunken gun fighter in which Wayne informs his opponent ‘touch that gun and I’ll kill ya’.
Classic stuff from what might have been a pedestrian affair without JWs involvement.
I thought Frank Puglia as the guardian of Ella Raines was a bit creepy and someone really should have plugged the screeching aunt played by Elisabeth Risden full of holes in the first reel.
As I mentioned the plot is confusing to say the least. Ward Bond attempts to explain it all at the end of the film but I don’t think even he understood it himself, and he was the guy who was responsible for all the mayhem in the first place.
Having said that, throw in a couple of good punch ups – I should have checked this one out before writing a previous article on the subject – and a whole bunch of scenes featuring large numbers of cowboys riding back and forth across the landscape to do whatever it is a man’s gotta do and you have a reasonably entertaining Western oater on your hands.
Flame of the Barbary Coast (1945)
The version I watched proclaims prior to the credits that the UCLA Film Archives has provided the print, meaning someone thought this film worth preserving.
Coupled with the fact that the screenplay is by Borden Chase, who contributed quite extensively to the James Stewart / Anthony Mann cycle of 1950s Westerns, initial hopes are high that this effort will not be as mundane as some of the other 1940s offerings from Wayne and Republic Studios.
The story is set in San Francisco in the early 20th century, so again not a real proper Western as far as I’m concerned.
Ann Dvorak is Flaxen Tarry – who thinks these names up? -saloon singer and flame of the Barbary gambling saloon. There’s also a strangely benign villain, Tito Morell, played by Joseph Schildkraut, who comes across as just a dirty old man who runs the saloon in order to savour the nocturnal delights of Flaxen and any other female that wanders across his plane of vision.
My first impression is that there’s too much singing and dancing – two full musical numbers occur in just the first 15 minutes of the film – and in my opinion Ann Dvorak can’t sing very well.
Into the mix wanders Duke, playing yet another Duke, gambler Duke Ferguson this time around. He falls head over spurs for Miss Flaxen indicating he’s both easily lead and tone deaf into the bargain as well.
Visiting the coast to collect a debt of $500 dollars, which by coincidence is owed to him by Morell, Duke goes on a gambling spree with Flaxen and ends up breaking the house in all of the gambling dens in town, including Morell’s.
Duke celebrates his newfound riches by singing very loudly and almost, but not quite, putting Dvorak’s voice to shame.
The aggrieved casino owners want to ‘give him the works’ but Morrell relieves a drunken Duke of all his winnings at cards instead. Seeing as this is only about half an hour in, Duke doesn’t resort to fisticuffs to resolve the situation. He goes back to his ranch in Montana and approaches the local gambling expert, Wolf Wylie, played by William Frawley, to help him get his money back.
Frawley has quite an amusing take on his profession, stating that ‘a deck of cards is like a woman. Usually when you pick one up – you wish you hadn’t’.
Nobody writes scripts like that these days Not unless they’re prepared for a visit from the PC police.
The problem is that this film can’t make up its mind whether it’s a late era Western, a gambling Sting-type exercise or a political skulduggery melodrama. The end result is that it’s none of the above, in fact it’s a bit of a mess.
There’s hardly any action to speak of, with Duke finally getting to throw a punch at least one hour and six minutes into the film. Also, it’s the closest JW gets to appearing in a full-blown musical – I count at least 10 songs listed in the soundtrack on IMDB.
The film was also nominated for its music score so I rest my case. I therefore regretfully conclude that, even with a low-budget recreation of the San Francisco earthquake of 1906 and a Borden Chase script – although the scene in which Flaxen calmly informs everyone she’s going to walk again after being paralysed and almost flattened in the earthquake is downright absurd - the Flame of the Barbary Coast never really sets itself alight.
Too much singing and dancing – and not enough punching and stomping.
Just as with Flame of the Barbary Coast I had high hopes for this film as well, even more so considering it’s a rare 1940s Republic Studio JW offering – an actual Western.
A few of the usual suspects are rounded up for this one. Paul Fix must compete with Bruce Cabot for one of the most featured actors in JW films. There’s also Walter Brennan and Ford stock company members Mike Mazurki and Ward Bond.
I note with interest that the script is based on an original story by Carl Foreman. Due to his Communistic tendencies he was later banished from Hollywood by the Motion Picture Alliance which at the time was headed up by JW.
It makes you wonder if that was payback for coming up with such a lousy story.
In this one John Wayne plays gambler John Devlin, continuing that whole ‘Duke plays a character called Duke’ name scenario. Walter Brennan portrays – well, he portrays Walter Brennan really, a dad blasted ornery coot who also happens to be a steamboat captain.
Brennan is as usual quite proficient when it comes to being dad blasted and ornery – that is after all his default setting anyway - but he’s not exactly that hot when it comes to the actual piloting of a steamboat itself, running it aground before blowing it up.
There’s also Nick Stewart as Nicodemus, a stereotypical lazy African American steamboat worker giving Stepin Fetchit a run for his money. Finally, Ona Munson, Wayne’s co-star in Lady from Louisiana, turns up in a bit part as a saloon dancer. How mighty are the fallen.
The film is set in the 1870s so it’s definitely a Western. We know that for a fact due to the presence of cavalry troops, stagecoaches, Injuns, saloons, land grabbers and characters dressed in typical cowboy garb. So why does it start as a comedy chase movie with Wayne eloping with his wife, played by Vera Ralston?
And why does Ralston’s railroad magnate father and all of his friends talk with Eastern European accents? Is it because Ralston was Czechoslovakian which in turn meant that Republic Studio head Herbert Yates, embroiled in off screen horizontal shenanigans with Miss Ralston at the time, insisted that she and her onscreen family all possess the same strangulated speech mannerisms? Not that I’m that interested but I guess we’ll never know.
The basic story is that Ward Bond and his cronies are set upon grabbing as much land as they can before the railroad arrives. Wayne is married to the daughter of the guy who’s going to be bringing the railroad to the territory so they’re both seen as competitors for the land.
During the course of the film Miss Ralston gets shot in the shoulder which is bad luck for Vera but even worse for the audience, what with Ward Bond being such a lousy shot.
The only thing worse than Ralston’s acting is the model work for the steamboat sequences which are pretty poor, even for a low-budget Republic vehicle such as this.
I actually can’t think of anything positive to say about this film, apart from the fact that it’s not very long. It clocks in at just under 80 minutes, proving yet again the veracity of the old adage that every cloud has a silver lining.
Without Reservations (1946)
Just like Reunion in France and They Were Expendable, this is a rare classy John Wayne vehicle, albeit one in which he gets to play second fiddle to the main star again on loan-out duty to RKO.
However, seeing as the main star is Claudette Colbert and the director is Mervyn LeRoy (Little Caeser, I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang, Mr. Roberts –taking over the helm from John Ford on this last one after Ford tried to punch Henry Fonda’s lights out) I’d have to say Wayne is in pretty good company.
In a story that bears more than a passing resemblance to certain aspects of Lady Takes A Chance – another RKO feature – the female protagonist writes a book that meets with JWs disapproval.
Colbert is the strangely named authoress Christopher Madden who has written a book called Here is Tomorrow which has been optioned by a Hollywood studio. Wayne is Rusty Thomas, a Marine home from the war on his way to San Diego with trusty sidekick Dink Watson.
Being a writer, and a woman, Colbert’s character is referred to in a rather derogatory manner as an intellectual, so I’m assuming that’s some kind of an insult.
This reminded me of a test you could apply, mainly for my generation and the one before, in order to ascertain whether you’re an intellectual or not.
Basically, you may consider yourself an intellectual if, upon hearing Rossini’s William Tell overture, you do not automatically think of the Lone Ranger. I’m happy to say I fail the test miserably.
Colbert keeps her real identity from Wayne whilst trying to trick him to go to Hollywood and test for the male lead in a film version of her book after Cary Grant (appearing in a cameo) has passed on the role. There’s also a cameo from Jack Benny and LeRoy as well.
I do love the line near the end when Wayne realises Colbert and her film producer want to make an actor out of him. ‘An actor?’, he shouts, in a manner that suggests that’s the last thing he’d ever try being. That’s right, Duke. I mean, why break the habit of a lifetime – just kiddin’.
Although not exactly Sunset Boulevard, it’s still a credible entry in the Hollywood on Hollywood film genre. I’d say it’s more of train / road trip movie with an underlying theme of unreconstructed man-ape meets enlightened woman, woman attempts to restrain her natural impulses when faced with man-ape, fails miserably and lives happily ever after kind of film instead.
In the final analysis it’s not as funny as it could have been. I found it a bit too overly jingoistic, the script peppered with dialogue such as ‘People should appreciate their country’, but then I guess that’s literally a sign of the times.
It also smacks at times of the notion of men coming home from war then trying to put women back in their place, which I’d say was rather an outmoded line of thinking even at the time the film was made.
Finally, I wasn’t really convinced that Wayne and Colbert are a credible romantic couple. Maybe it’s just me but, although Colbert was only four years older than Wayne, there are times when she looks more like his mother than his love interest.
One for the more curious JW fan if you’ve got nothing better to watch.