As I’m reviewing all of the films John Wayne starred in from Stagecoach all the way through to The Shootist, for the sake of completeness it’s only right that I include the four oaters he made for Republic after the release of Stagecoach in 1939.
I’ve also included A Man Betrayed, a JW film that has recently been made more widely available on DVD.
The Night Riders (1939)
The Night Riders is the 5th outing for Duke as Stoney Brooke in the ongoing saga of The Three Mesquiteers. All of the films in which he played Stoney were directed by George Sherman, who directed the late career classic Western for the actor, Big Jake, over 30 years later.
The other two Mesquiteers are played by Ray ‘Crash’ Corrigan as Tucson Smith and Max Terhune as Lullaby Joslin (I also see Tom Tyler in the cast, who played killer Luke Plummer in Stagecoach, settling for a part as a villainous enforcer).
Together, the three of them ride the range writing wrongs and basically punching the lights out of anyone who gets in their way. And they punch out a lot of lights.
The films, formulaic and utilising lots of stock footage, usually come in at about just under an hour so the action flows quick and fast and the storylines, by necessity, are fairly uncomplicated.
In The Night Riders, a crooked gambler disguises himself as a Spanish landowner – ominously referred to as the Don – with the help of a forger and misappropriates a whole passel of land from the rightful owners.
He then imposes a land charge on the homesteaders and therein lies the conflict that brings our heroes into the frame, on account of their ranch is also on the disputed land.
Homesteaders are forced to give up their homes for not paying the tax imposed by the false Spaniard. If you wanted some kind of cultural reference for the film you could argue it invokes the plight of the farmers during the great depression of the 1930s – but I’m not sure you could apply that kind of social conscience subtext to this movie.
At some point in the film, The Three Mesquiteers become the Three Masked Merry Men instead, robbing the rich and giving to the poor.
They are dubbed ‘Los Capaqueros’ which as everyone knows is Mexican for ‘those who wear curtains for capes’. It’s all going along quite swimmingly when suddenly the whole film takes what I can only describe as a very surreal turn that I was totally unprepared for.
Whilst the Mesquiteers meet with the Don under the guise of wanting to join the posse tasked with tracking down Los Capaqueros, Lullaby produces a dummy and proceeds to perform a ventriloquism act which is totally out of synch with the rest of the film.
For a start, where in the name of Educating Archie – or Edgar Bergen for our American readers out there – did he keep the dummy? It certainly wasn’t strapped to his horse the last time I looked. It’s a cinematic mashup of B-movie Western meets David Lynch.
The story is stretched to further credulity when the Mesquiteers chance upon real-life President Garfield, who gives them the go-ahead to take down the Don, although he can’t be officially involved. This leaves an informed audience sighing a big ‘uh-oh’ on account of the fact that the real President Garfield was assassinated after less than a year in office. I mean, what are the odds, right?
The climax of the film involves the Mesquiteers being executed by firing squad but we all know that’s not the end as they all come back in the following film. Apart from President Garfield of course.
Three Texas Steers (1939)
OK. Now I’m getting confused. We know that the previous Mesquiteer film is set in the 1880s on account of the presence of the ill-fated President Garfield, who was assassinated in 1881.
If that’s the case, how come the circus audience in this film look as though they’re dressed in what looks like 1930s garb, and not the latter part of the 19th Century?
I also spotted a gramophone playing a vinyl recording of The Blue Danube, a telephone and a motorised jeep with caterpillar tracks that is used to haul a racing horse to the local track heavily populated by race goers dressed in 20th century business suits.
After someone refers to a jitterbug contest I decided to just give up and go with the flow – it was easier that way.
The basic story involves a crooked circus manager who contrives to close a travelling circus run by his boss, Nancy, who also owns a ranch that’s worth a lot of money, and the business manager intends to get his hands on that ranch through devious means.
When the circus goes bust – cue a fairly impressive montage sequence worthy of Eisenstein when the big tent catches fire – the now unemployed Nancy returns to her ranch but mistakenly goes to the home of The Three Mesquiteers, who own the 3 – M ranch.
Her place is called the W – E ranch but the sign is upside down and she mistakes the W – E ranch for the 3 – M ranch. Got it? Apart from the fact that the Mesquiteers nearly lose their ranch – Stony Brooke becomes Stoney Broke – that’s about all of the plot I’m prepared to go into.
Nancy is accompanied, amongst others, by a large gorilla and a midget. To try and distract said gorilla after it picks him up, the increasingly tiresome Lullaby pulls the old ventriloquism act to frighten his attacker.
The weird thing is that the dummy actually moves even though there’s no one to operate him. I always thought those things required an arm to be shoved up where the sun don’t shine in order to animate them. Obviously not.
And we get to understand why he’s called Lullabye. He sings his dummy to sleep. I swear the only thing missing from these films that I’ve seen so far is FBI agent Dale Cooper sitting around a campfire and declaring he’s just drunk a ‘damned fine cup of coffee’.
A couple of things to note in the world of the Three Mesquiteers. Republic recycles the same actors playing the same characters, Ethan Laidlaw repeating his turn from the previous film as a no-good hornswaggler.
Also, absolutely everyone in the film who carries a gun is a lousy shot. Not one of them is capable of hitting a barn wall from ten paces, which is why I guess there’s a fistfight almost every five minutes.
What with Wayne and the boys losing the mortgage on the ranch and then in quick succession losing the money they got for the mortgage, then finding a letter proving the circus business manager is corrupt before then losing the letter as well, I’d be inclined to redub them as The Three Stooges instead.
I’m starting to think that the only thing going for these films is that they’re quite short.
Wyoming Outlaw (1939)
Good new, pardners. Someone at Republic Studios saw the light and dropped Lullaby Joslin, the weird one with the wooden dummy, and replaced him with Raymond Hatton as Rusty Joslin.
Not only that but Wyoming Outlaw is a far cry from the previous Mesquiteer vehicles I’ve seen so far. You get the usual punch-ups, misguided intentions and hammy acting as before, but this time around the violence is real and people don’t get to dodge the bullets as before.
It’s as though someone with a sense of reality and social commitment has been let loose on the script and the end result is an entertainingly adult B-Western with not one wooden dummy to be seen.
The bad news is that the timeline between each film is still a bit skewed. This time we’re in 1918 – apparently the Mesquiteers and their fellow cowherders were not aware America had entered the First World War.
Hiding from a huge dust storm, Stoney finds a conveniently placed newspaper that provides a little bit of social history for the audience as regards the reason for the storm. It seems it’s the result of the land being farmed specifically to provide wheat during the war. Once the war ended the price of wheat fell and most of the farmers were bankrupted, a situation not even the Mesquiteers could sort out.
Chancing upon the daughter of a dirt-poor farming family, the Mesquiteers try and help as best they can but her brother, Ray Parker, ends up in trouble with the law when he insists on hunting protected game to feed his family.
Parker played very convincingly by Don ‘Red’ Barry, points out that ‘the right to eat should come before the right of game to live’. ‘Sounds like pretty good sense’, agrees Stoney. Not a film for animal rights campaigners then.
Once the story starts rolling then the Mesquiteers don’t really feature that much. They’re depicted more as bystanders in a situation that this time is taken out of their hands as Ray Parker crosses the line into lawlessness and becomes an outlaw on the run.
One aspect of a harder storyline than normal is that people actually start getting killed, something not depicted in the previous episodes. The climax involves Ray sacrificing his own life by taking a corrupt businessman hostage and forcing the law to shoot both of them.
This is quite a good entry in the series, with co-stars such as Elmo Lincoln, the first Tarzan, and Charles Middleton, of Ming the Merciless fame, along for the ride.
Don Barry packs a real punch as the doomed Ray Parker and apart from the tacked-on happy ending, I’d thoroughly recommend this to anyone who, like me, has thus far avoided investing time in checking out Wayne’s lesser known work.
New Frontier (1939)
I still find the hermetically sealed world of these films difficult to get to grips with but when this kind of wild entertainment is on offer, who can resist?
Not so much Westerns, more of an early version of the TV classic series The Time Tunnel. Where will they end up next? In New Frontier, the threesome is now located n the year 1925, fifty years after the end of the American Civil War.
When the valley of New Hope is threatened by the construction of a new dam which will turn the land into a reservoir, the townsfolk decide to fight back.
The constructor tasked with building the dam threatens those who oppose it, only to be told by Duke to ‘take it easy. You don’t know the kind of people you’re dealin’ with, mister’.
The leader of the town declares that ‘None of them high-priced lawyers are gonna’ take our homes away from us’ and proves to be as good as his word, rallying the other inhabitants to take on the thugs who try to violently push the project through.
Ok. So far so good, but just when I’m thinking this is the story of the little guy – or ‘mule-headed hicks’ as they’re referred to – facing off against the tyranny of so-called progress, that old devil called corruption rears its ugly head once more.
The suits fool the townsfolk with a phoney land deal by promising to build a pipeline that will irrigate their new town if they give up their rights to New Hope.
The climax takes part on what looks to me very much like a working dam. I’m assuming it was actually a real one as I just can’t see Republic paying for the new construction of a proper dam purely for a Western B-movie that runs for less than an hour.
I kept thinking that I vaguely recognised the actress playing the granddaughter of the town patriarch. Upon further investigation it turned out to be Jennifer Jones, famous for her portrayal in 1946 of Pearl Chavez, the dusky maiden in Duel in the Sun – or Lust in the Dust as it was famously dubbed by critics at the time.
I’d like to be able to say that John Wayne’s performances in these Mesquiteer films reflects someone on the cusp of stardom but to be honest his part could have been played by anyone. The fact is it was, the role of Stoney Brooke also played by Bob Livingstone and Tom Tyler.
If you watch the opening credits of the Wayne Mesquiteer films you can see Duke grinning into the camera but the shot runs just a bit too long for comfort. I swear I detect a moment when Wayne’s fixed grin starts to falter as if he’s thinking ‘for God’s sake get me out of this series before I shoot somebody for real.
I wanna do something like Stagecoach again’. Don’t worry, Duke. It all turns out fine in the end.
A Man Betrayed (aka Wheel of Fortune, Citadel of Crime) (1941)
Not too sure what to make of this one really.
It starts off quite promisingly with a distinctive noirish atmosphere – lots of rain and darkness then the sudden death of young Johnny Smith from Spring Valley who it turns out has been shot whilst gambling in the Club Inferno.
The script is quite smart at time – a business card for the Club Inferno proclaims, ’40 beautiful girls, 30 beautiful costumes’ – but the film vacillates between moody melodrama and clunky comedy and ends up being something in between.
It’s a contemporary story with rube lawyer Lynn Hollister, Wayne’s character, coming all the way into the big city from Spring Valley to find out who killed his friend Johnny. The official verdict is suicide but, wouldn’t you know it, the local politicians are a bunch of corrupt shysters working hand-in-hand with the gangsters that run the Club Inferno.
What makes this film an interesting watch is the casting of Frances Dee as the corrupt politician’s daughter and eventual love interest of Mr Wayne.
She was herself played by Jessica Lange in the 1982 bio-pic Frances for which Lange was nominated as Best Actress. It turned out that Miss Dee suffered mental issues due to an overbearing mother and a love affair with the bottle.
None of this shows on the screen which I guess indicates she was quite a good actress given the chance.
We also get to see Ward Bond channelling his inner Lenny Small (Of Mice and Men) as a rather creepy gangster who insists on invading the social space of Miss Dee more than she would like.
At some point in the proceedings, Wayne gets involved with the political party headed by Dee’s corrupt father, Boss Cameron, and ends up delivering a speech on the radio. I was waiting for ‘Republic. I like the sound of the word’ but I’m guessing Duke’s political leanings were not so obvious back in 1942.
I liked the fact that Boss Cameron loves model railways, which should have given me a clue as to how the film was going to end. Cameron has an attack of a clean conscience and, in quick succession, owns up to being corrupt, gives his blessing for the union between his daughter and JW, then retires to Spring Valley.
I guess I was looking for something a bit more challenging considering this film rarely if ever, shows up on TV and has only recently been made more widely available on DVD but we’re still in the early stardom days for John Wayne so I shouldn’t have expected too much in the first place.
A film for obsessive JW completists only. – of which I am obviously one.