John Wayne Western Movies of the 1930s – The Wilderness Years

John Wayne Western Movies of The 1930s – The Wilderness Years (Part 1)

Having checked out all of the full-length feature films that John Wayne appeared in from Stagecoach to The Shootist, I thought I’d take a look at JWs wilderness years, before he became a fully fledged star in John Ford’s 1939 classic Western.

There’s quite a lot of ground to cover in the years leading up to Stagecoach, so I thought I’d begin by first reviewing the Westerns Duke worked in after The Big Trail in 1930, then maybe take a look at the non-Western features he made in the 1930s further on down the line. 

I loved this film right from the opening credits.

Any movie starting with such an obvious spelling mistake has to be worth watching, in this case ‘Feud’ is spelt ‘Fued’.

It appears that this and other Columbia features were sold to TV in the 1950s and the credit and end titles were subsequently replaced by the company that bought them, hence the misspelling of the title.

After Duke’s unenthusiastic reception from cinema goers as the lead in The Big Trail the year before, it was going to be a while before he enjoyed top billing on a constant basis.

In The Range Feud / Fued, Duke is therefore second in the cast to the star of the film, Buck Jones, who plays the sheriff, with Wayne as his best friend, Clint Turner.

Buck has to arrest Duke for apparently murdering his gal’s pa, which of course he didn’t, this being John Wayne and all, but it’s kind of strange seeing Duke behind prison bars, or as the ‘chasee’ rather than the chaser.

The script is full of ripe clichés such as ‘I don’t want any son of mine in cahoots with a double-crossing dog’. Duke’s comment when he finds out he’s about to be lynched, ‘Kinda’ thought Buck would be a standin’ by me for my last ride’, demonstrates that JW epitomised the word ‘cool’ nearly thirty years before Steve McQueen appeared on the scene.

Unless my understanding of history is wrong then it seems that narrative logic does not appear to be a component of these old cowboy oaters of the 1930s.

When Buck Jones catches a bullet in the shoulder whilst attempting to apprehend the real killer, Duke’s gal informs everyone that she’s just called the doctor.

I didn’t think telephones were that accessible to everyone back in the days of the Wild West, but that’s just a mild quibble on my part.

Considering the restrictions imposed by studios on non-essential matters such as script, acting talent, and location shooting when churning out these low-budget B Westerns, I’d say this isn’t too bad an entry in the poverty-row cowboy films of the time.

As for JW, he acquits himself pretty well, but when you’ve been watching his later work non-stop for almost two years like I have, it takes a while to get used to seeing him as a gawky fresh-faced second lead in vehicles such this.

Enjoyable though. 

The leading man in this one is Tom McCoy, playing Texas Grant, who is the victim of mistaken identity, bringing this here hombre a whole passel of trouble – excuse the lapse into cowboy vernacular but it’s right catchin’ the more you watch these cheap oaters.

To tell you the truth, ole’ Tim ought to be strung up for rustling seeing as he’s a’ridin’ the horse that belonged to Buck Jones in The Range Feud. 

An even bigger surprise, though, is catching sight of Walter Brennan as Sheriff Collins. I swear that guy must have been born old.

Although he was about thirty-eight when the film was made, he looks older here than he did as Stumpy in Rio Bravo, which was made nearly thirty years later. He’s even referred to at one point in the film as ‘old Father Time’. Must be a trick of the light.

Duke, third in the cast list, is cowpuncher Steve Pickett, who teams up with McCoy to track down a bunch of rustlers.

He passes the interview with McCoy by telling him the rustlers ‘ain’t got me buffaloed’. This quote and some of the other dialogue definitely left me with the feeling that the film ought not to be taken that seriously.

‘There’s been some pretty bad cases of lead poisonin’ around here – regular epidemic’, Hefty the barman tells McCoy. McCoy’s contribution, ‘I’ll be slingin’ lead in your direction if’n you aim to jump me out’.

And my own particular favourite, ‘how many no-account hombres in this town have no visible means of support?’, makes me suspect the scriptwriters were having a little laugh of their own at the expense of the genre, which makes this film a bit of a guilty pleasure to watch. 

As he isn’t the star of the film, JW doesn’t get to do too much at all.

In one sequence, though, he gets to perform an early run of the climactic face-off in ‘True Grit’, but he comes off worse, getting shot in the shoulder when confronting a couple of rustlers.

The rest of the time he stands around like the proverbial spare man-part at a wedding, with all the action laurels going to McCoy.

After quite a tense and very well-staged saloon gunfight between the hero and a couple of rough hombres, it all ends rather abruptly when a recovering McCoy suddenly recalls he isn’t being mistaken for somebody else.

He actually is that somebody else, and everyone lives happily ever after.

I guess they must have run out of film.

Despite being second in the cast list this time around – although that might be another typo a la Fued – Duke has even less to do than he did in Texas Cyclone, if such a thing is possible.

In fact, he’s so misused in this film it makes you wonder why he bothered to appear at all. He’s not even in on the end of the film when everything gets wrapped up, that’s how redundant he is.

Although it’s worth pointing out this is the first of approximately five times that he plays a character actually called Duke.

The hero of the film, Tim McCoy, still sporting the ridiculously big hat he wore in the last film, is called Tim Clark. Now I don’t know about you, but Tim Clark is in no way a proper name for a rootin’ tootin’ son-of-a-gun genuine cowboy hero like McCoy.

It would only be appropriate if the film were called Two-Fisted Accountant – with apologies to any accountants out there who go by the name of Tim Clark.

Wheeler Oakman once again plays the main villain, Bob Russell, an ornery critter aimin’ to take the Bar X away from Duke’s pal, Tim ‘The Accountant’ Clark.

Poor old Bob makes a big mistake and picks on Betty, played by Alice Day, the gal Tim happens to be soft on, and afore ya know it there’s guns-a-blazin’ and galoots galootin’ and, as always happens in these early Westerns, a whole bunch of scenes featuring horses galloping back and forth in one direction or another. 

Look closely and you’ll see at one point that McCoy’s horse, Pal, stumbles during a chase and it’s obvious it’s not rehearsed. 

Walter Brennan is demoted from Sheriff in Texas Cyclone to Deputy Sheriff – but that’s on account of him being a darned galoot hisself. And he gets’ his durned deserts too.

I note Tully Marshall plays the sheriff, an actor who invoked the ire of JW when they worked together in The Big Trail a couple of years before.

Apparently, Duke took a swig from a liquor jug Marshall handed him during a scene, not realising that it actually contained rot-gut whisky. To quote our boy, ‘After the scene, you can bet I called him every kind of an old bastard’.

Early on in the film, Duke wishes the villain tryin’ to run ole Tim off’n his own land ‘A rough horse, a cactus saddle and a long journey’. 

Yep, pardners, writing duties on this one is back in the safe hands of the same writer of Texas Cyclone, William Colt MacDonald.

Sadly, apart from a couple of other lines of a similar nature, Two-Fisted Law doesn’t match the somewhat subversive nature of the script for the previous film.

In fact, the script could have done with some quality assurance, what with someone uttering the line ‘You’re mighty lucky to get out of this like this’. I guess that’s what happens though if you try and make it up as you go along.

Not really a bona fide John Wayne film if truth be told. I reckon he had more lines to say in his cameo appearance in the The Lucy Show.

At last. John Wayne is back where he belongs, top of the cast list and saving a plum loco horse called Duke from being sentenced to death.

Not your average cowboy narrative to be sure, but when the film is produced by a certain Leon Schlesinger, who went on to also produce the famous Loony Tunes cartoons for Warner Brothers (this is the first of a series of films Wayne made for the studio in the 1930s), one shouldn’t be too surprised that the movie starts with the premise of a horse being put on trial.

Seeing as the horse has already snaffled naming rights as Duke, JW has to do with being called plain John Drury. 

Duke / John saves Duke / Horse from the knacker’s yard by offering to demonstrate that the four-legged critter can be tamed – hence the title of the film – after which he gets roped in to tracking down a mysterious hombre called the Hawk who’s been terrorising the townsfolk.

Unfortunately for JW, the hombre who offers to help him find the Hawk, Henry Simms, played by Frank Hagney, is actually the Hawk himself. 

The next thing you know, JW is framed by the Hawk for being the Hawk and well…. You can probably guess the rest for yourself.

Duke ends up being tried by Judge ‘Necktie’ Jones over in a place called Desolation, and it’s at this point that any attempt to keep the tone serious goes straight out the saloon door.

The first time we see Judge Jones he’s chastising a lazy mule called Ronald. For some strange reason the Judge is holding a newspaper with headlines declaring that ‘Dewey Captures Manila’ during the Spanish – American war, which means that the story is set in 1898.

‘Necktie’ Jones does indeed sentence JW to a necktie party, which is probably why John Wayne was so wary of the Reverend Clayton nearly twenty-five years later.

This now having turned into a full-blown comedy, it all works out fine in the end, apart for that durned coyote Simms.

During the course of attempting his getaway he’s cornered by the Duke – the four legged one – who then proceeds to kick seven colours of ordure out of him and in the process stamps the ornery critter of a villain to death.

The horse, being quite intelligent, apparently knew all along that Simms was actually the Hawk. Now, if only he’d been able to master the art of talking, like Mr. Ed, he could have saved everyone a lot of bother. But then there’d have been no story.

JW plays Deputy Sheriff John Steele. He’s stolen Duke, the horse that Wayne, as John Sims, rode in Ride Him Cowboy. 

Actually, according to the info I found on the website, the studio needed the horse to match with the horse in the copious amounts of stock footage incorporated from earlier Ken Maynard Westerns. You’d think the budget would have stretched to buying a shirt for JW that matches the one Maynard wears in the long shots but apparently not.

The story is all about New Mexico becoming a state, rather than a lawless state. There’s an attempt at some kind of historical fact, with Berton Churchill, who would later play the crooked banker in Stagecoach, portraying the real-life governor, Lew Wallace, famous as the author of Ben-Hur.

Duke goes undercover on the orders of Lew, disguising himself as a bum. We know he’s a bum because he appears to drink a lot, and his hat doesn’t fit properly. He leaves his marker, the five-pointed star, everywhere to spook the bad guys.

I don’t know if it’s my imagination but I reckon that in The Big Stampede we’re seeing for the first time the beginning of the famous John Wayne gait, wherein he walks very lightly on his feet as if he’s slightly off-balance.

Some unkind soul apparently remarked that JW walked as though he ‘needed to change his diapers’ but Duke’s classic swagger is an intrinsic part of his screen persona, and you can definitely see him practising it in this film.

He also plays harmonica, giving Mick Jagger a run for his money, and this is also one of the earliest examples on film where Wayne does that thing with his forehead to signify emotion, this time after a potential romantic encounter is interrupted by a cavalry soldier. 

I’m not sure why I’ve never picked up on it before, having seen so many Westerns over the years, but this is the first time I’ve taken note of an element of the Western genre that could almost be considered iconic.

I’m talking specifically about what can only be labelled the ‘annoying kid’, and this film has it in spades. Nine-year-old Sherwood Bailey plays Pat Molloy, brother of the female lead character Ginger, played by Madison Mae.

The kid displays all the requisite aspects of the AK, as he shall now be known, including freckles, missing teeth, a very loud and whiny voice, a dubious haircut and the ability to annoy the hell out of me every time he appears on the screen.

At one point in the film, the AK runs off wearing his sister’s frilly undergarments, so I guess that’s the cross-dressing element of the audience taken care of, but in general AK’s have no place in the Western (I’ll make an exception for Brandon DeWilde in Shane). They just get in the way. Good idea for a subsequent article though.

There’s some great stunt work in this film, particularly the scene in which Wayne’s double overturns a wagon whilst holding the reins then throws himself onto the ground before being dragged along behind a team of horses. Whoever the double was – Yakima Canut? – I hope he got double pay that day.

In the climactic sequence, the big stampede itself, the subtitles on the version I watched interpreted ‘Get those buzzards’ as ‘Get those bastards’ instead. Is there such a thing as predictive subtitles?

This is another Leon Schlesinger production and the music closing the film is so jaunty I half-expected to hear Porky Pig declaiming ‘Th-th-th-th-th-that’s all, folks!’ 

And that really is all for the moment. Join me next time when I take a look at some more of Duke’s earlier Westerns, including Haunted Gold and The Telegraph Trail. Until then, happy trails to you all.

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Steve is a film scholar of note, gaining both an MA in film studies and a Ph.D. for his thesis on the silent films of John Ford. Steve, a scriptwriter and published novelist, provides much of the content you see here and is a dedicated aficionado and longtime fan of John Wayne, John Ford and Western films in general.

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