The Desert Trail (1935) Lone Star, Dir: Cullen Lewis, b/w, 54m
Cast: John Wayne, Mary Kornman, Paul Fix, Eddy Chandler, Carmen LaRoux, Lafe McKee
The opening sequence in this film is actually quite entertaining. Wayne, as rodeo rider John Scott, is travelling with his gambling friend, Kansas Charlie, played by Eddy Chandler, to Rattlesnake Gulch and the next rodeo where JW hopes to earn money roping a bunch of defenseless cows.
Charlie, on the other hand, is looking to rope in a bunch of loser gamblers by cheating in every hand. The wisecracks and quips between the two of them as they vie for the attention of fellow stage passenger Juanita, played by Carmen Laroux, flow thick and fast, almost as if the resident scriptwriter, in this case, Lindsley Parsons, has been wired up to the mains in order to craft a script that literally crackles with witty wordplay.
Parsons also previously wrote the screenplay for “The Man from Utah”, for which I suggested in my review that things were starting to improve a bit on the Lone Star productions front. Never mind though, we can’t always be right.
Just as with “The Man from Utah” the film is padded out with stock footage of a real rodeo event and, just as with the previous film also, Wayne stumbles into yet another one that is crooked….
When Charlie tells him he’s going to be cheated out of his winnings the two of them confront the organizer and threaten him at gunpoint unless he pays up.
After they skedaddle, a couple of tough hombres, including Paul Fix as Jim (back on the John Wayne Soon-To-Be Stardom Express after a break of two years), try to rob the organizer of the rest of his money.
Aided and abetted by his partner-in-crime Pete, Jim plugs the rodeo guy in the process. Guess what happens next? Yup, that’s right. JW and his side-kick carry the can for the shooting instead.
Despite the cold-blooded murder committed by Jim, the film still steers a comedic path. There’s a certain bedroom farce vibe going on with bad guy Pete turning up at Juanita’s hacienda, having to hide when JW then barges in to try his luck as well.
Charlie then follows suit, his hands manacled after having been wrongly arrested by the sheriff and his posse earlier for the murder of the rodeo organizer. Pete, who’s been in the closet all the while – not the kind of closet that dare not speak its name but the one located in the living area of the hacienda – emerges from his hiding place and robs JW and Charlie.
They separate for reasons too complicated to go into, with Charlie disguising himself as a Preacher by turning his short collar back-to-front before he and JW follow Pete to Poker City. They then bump into Jim as well, unaware that he’s partly responsible for them being on the run.
Pete appears to have a bit of a conscience regarding the killing of the rodeo guy but more importantly than that he also has a hot sister called Anne, played by Mary Kornman, who will obviously at some point indulge in a bout of tongue wrestling with the Dukester – but there I go, getting ahead of myself again as usual.
When you watch these early JW efforts it’s always worth keeping an eye out to try and catch the first appearance of a mannerism, idiosyncrasy or gesture that contributes to his later acting style. In this film, I detected for the first time the habit Wayne eventually adopted of stopping in mid-sentence as if to catch his breath before then finishing what he has to say.
JW and Charlie go off to apprehend Pete and Jim who are intent on robbing the local stagecoach. The heroes interrupt the villains during the robbery, JW riding off to stop the runaway coach and Charlie chasing after Pete and Jim.
He shoots Jim from his horse, Charlie telling him that he was the last person he thought would ever get involved in this kind of thing. Jim replies ‘Pete made me do it and he made me take the stuff. Please don’t tell Anne’.
Pete gets JW and Charlie arrested back in town by informing the sheriff they’re wanted for murder in Rattlesnake Gulch. Pantywaist Jim finally decides to take matters into his own hands and help to exonerate his friends on account of his sister has the hots for Duke.
After Jim helps JW and Charlie break out of jail he gets it in the back from Pete who then goes on to rob the bank before fleeing on horseback. JW and Charlie follow in hot pursuit, whilst being trailed themselves at the same time by the sheriff and his posse.
There’s the inevitable shootout, with presumably Yakima Canutt doubling for Wayne as he does that really clever diving from his horse through a cabin window thing, after which the proceedings are wrapped up by what I assume is a death-bed confession to his sister by Jim, who comes out with the usual “Pete made me do it” stuff.
You don’t actually find out if Jim dies but seeing as he shot the rodeo guy he’s going to get strung up anyway so it all ends quite happily.
Out of the early 1930s JW films I’ve reviewed up to this point “Desert Trail” is definitely a notch above what I’ve seen so far. Wayne and his co-star Eddy Chandler spar with each other really well and I’m hoping it’s a partnership that makes it into the next few Lone Star entries in this series.
Duke comes across as more relaxed and even quite exuberant at times as if he’s finally starting to get into his stride as an actor, not just delivering his lines in a monotone as he did too frequently in the films that came before.
Check this one out. You’ll like it. It’s a real delight to watch.