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John Wayne in the 1930's

by Mike Haberfelner

December 2006

Films starring John Wayne on (re)Search my Trash


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John Wayne's life has been well-documented, and I guess that most serious filmfans know at least some of his biographical data, that he was born Marion Robert Morrison (Marion Michael Morrison according to some sources) in 1907, that he in the 1920's was a promising highschool footballer, that he started to work in films in the late 1920's as a stagehand, an extra or in bit parts, some of them were directed by John Ford, that his first lead was in The Big Trail in 1930, an epic (A-)Western directed by Raoul Walsh, that his real breakthrough was John Ford's Stagecoach from 1939, and that he since then starred in a sheer endless string of Western classics like Fort Apache (1948, John Ford), Red River (1948, Howard Hawks), She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949, John Ford), Rio Grande (1950, John Ford), Hondo (1953, John Farrow), The Searchers (1956, John Ford), Rio Bravo (1959, Howard Hawks), The Man who Shot Liberty Valance (1962, John Ford), Rio Lobo (1970, Howard Hawks) and True Grit (1969, Henry Hathaway), the film that finally won him an Oscar.

Besides that you might also know that over the years, Wayne saw himself more and more as the epitomy of the USA, and eventually his reactionary side more and more began to show, culminating in the fact that he was one of the very few actors who supported the Vietnam War, which Wayne even gloryfied in a self-directed film, The Green Berets (1968, John Wayne, Ray Kellogg), one of the very few pro-Vietnam War films ever - and it was around that time that Wayne got out of touch with the young generation and got a bad reputation with many liberals. You might even know that he never served in World War II, but made enough films about it (both during and after the war) to make one think he won the war single-handedly.

And of course, you might also know the fact that Wayne died 1979 from stomach and lung cancer, that he was married three times, interestingly always to Spanish speaking women, and that one of his 7 children, Patrick Wayne, also embarked on an acting career - which however never remotely matched that of his father ...


However, when reading John Wayne biographies, there is always one period in his life that is more often than not dismissed by biographers or summed up in a sentence like "... during that time, he kept himself occupied working on a string of B-movies and serials ..." - and this period is the 1930's, to be more precise the time between The Big Trail and Stagecoach ... which is a downright shame, because the 1930's were one of the most interesting periods in his life (as he was not yet the superstar he was from the 1940's onwards but had to struggle to get a job) as well as in the development of B-pictures (especially B-Westerns, naturally) and action cinema as such.


Well, needless to say, with this article I tend to bridge that gap.

Let's start in 1930: With just a few bit parts and appearances as an extra as well as limited experience as a stagehand under his belt, John Wayne was chosen to star in Fox Film's The Big Trail (1930, Raoul Walsh), a big budgeted A-Western that was destined to introduce the new 70 mm-film and a process called Grandeur. And if you believed the ads, The Big Trail - a film about the hardships of a treck of settlers on the Oregon Trail - was the big thing of the season, and Grandeur the next important development in cinema technology after the introduction of sound. 

And having been in a film that was announced as a milestone even before its release should have made the career of whoever starred in it - in this case John Wayne (whose alias John Wayne was created especially for this film since Marion Morrison sounded way too feminine for a Western hero).

... but the film quite simply bombed.


The failure of the film though was not so much the fault of leading man Wayne or director Walsh or anyone else involved in the project, but an over-reliance on the Grandeur-process for which the film was designed - though hardly any exhibitors had the technology to play the movie as intended (2 in total), as most exhibitors still recovered from the costly switch to sound cinema. So at the same time, a 35 mm version had to be shot for your average moviehouse, which was naturally less impressive than its 70 mm counterpart.

But this was not the only reason the costs for The Big Trail skyrocketed. The film was also made on an epic scale unheard of up until then, filmed in locations througout the USA with hundreds of extras, dozens of covered wagons and one scene more complex and elaborate than the last. This on one hand led to an immensely impressive Western - but on the other hand to a budget exceeding 2 million Dollars, a sum unheard of for a single film in 1930.


When the film sank at the box office, John Wayne went down with it, and it seemed his career was over before it begun. He played prominent roles in two more films for Fox Film, Girls Demand Excitement (1931, Seymour Felix) - which reunited him with Marguerite Churchill, leading woman of The Big Trail - and Three Girls Lost (1931, Sidney Lanfield), but neither was a Western and neither a particular success.


Eventually, the association of Wayne and Fox Film came to an end, and he next hooked up with Columbia for a string of B-movies, both Westerns and non-Westerns, however he only very rarely played the lead in those, but supported Columbia's stable of leading men like Buck Jones (Range Feud [1931, D.Ross Lederman]), Jack Holt (Maker of Men [1931, Edward Sedgwick]) or Tim McCoy (Texas Cyclone, Two-Fisted Law [both 1932, D.Ross Lederman], with John Wayne's character being called Duke in the latter).

However, when Wayne had a fall-out with Columbia's president Harry Cohn, his roles with the company got smaller and smaller, and eventually, seeing his career going nowhere, Wayne thought it best to part ways with the company.


Wayne's next stop on his road to fame was Mascot Pictures, a little outfit that produced almost exclusively serials - and some of them were among the best there were on the market [for an article on Mascot, click here]. Mascot had a bit of a reputation to hire both young hopefuls who haven't quite made it elsewhere and erstwhile stars on their way down ... and after the financial desaster of The Big Trail, Wayne was a bit of both actually.

Mascot offered Wayne the lead in three of their serials, The Shadow of the Eagle (1932, Ford L.Beebe) - a mystery with Wayne as an aviator, consequently involving much airplane action -, Hurricane Express (1932, J.P.McGowan, Armand Schaefer) - another mystery, this time involving trains and airplanes -, and The Three Musketeers (1933, Colbert Clark, Armand Schaefer) - an updated version of Alexandre Dumas' Three Musketeers, with the plot transplanted to Africa and the Musketeers turned into Foreign Legionnaires, plus a young Lon Chaney jr is also in this one [Lon Chaney jr bio - click here]. None of these serials was a Western, but always remember, Wayne was not established as a Western actor yet.


Now admittedly, the Mascot-serials were hardly what would qualify as cinematic art, they were obviously made on the cheap and had a certain hurried look one just can't deny - but that said, they are also highly entertaining, fast paced, full of action, and they hit just the right note with their target audience, mainly young boys - and they gave John Wayne plenty of opportunity to prove his qualities as a leading man. And what might be even more important, when filming the Mascot-serials, Wayne would meet Yakima Canutt, stuntman extraordinaire, who would not only teach him basic stunting skills (which he needed in serials and B-pictures back in the days) but also become his lifelong friend and advisor.


Yakima Canutt was a stuntman and actor specialized in Westerns who was in movies since the mid-1910's, and in the mid-1920's, he even had starring roles in a few Westerns for Goodwill Productions, some of them even produced by himself  - however, as an actor he simply was not leading man material while as a (Western-)stuntman he was a genius ... the things he could do with a stagecoach were simply limitless.

(By the way, Canutt did continue acting up until the 1950's, but mainly in bit-parts or as characters that had to get into particularly rough situations like the villain's lead henchman.)

It wasn't only Canutt's stunting that made Wayne look good, he was also instrumental in teaching him how to be a screen cowboy, like how to walk in his cowboy boots, how to convincingly draw his gun and stuff. In every iconic John Wayne picture, I dare say, there is a little bit of Yakima Canutt ...


The three Mascot-serials might not have made John Wayne a bona fide star but at least a matinee-idol that proved bankable enough for low budget pictures - and as such, John Wayne knocked on the doors of producer John Schlesinger of Warner Brothers in 1933 to ask for employment, and wouldn't you know it, Schlesinger could help out: Schlesinger had a bunch of Ken Maynard-silent Westerns on hand he wanted to remake as sound films, but - to save a buck or two - he just wanted to reshoot the talking sequences while lifting the action sequences (which really made the fims) directly from the silents. So, in a sextet of films known as the 4 Star-series - Ride him Cowboy (1932, Fred Allen), The Big Stampede (1932, Tenny Wright), Haunted Gold (1932, Mack V.Wright), The Telegaph Trail (1933, Tenny Wright), Somewhere in Sonora and The Man from Monterey (both 1933, Mack V.Wright) -, John Wayne had to do the talking for Maynard while Maynard had to do the action for Wayne - well, in a way. This can't have been a very satisfying job, and the films are pretty much forgotten nowadays and deservedly so, but it was bread on the butter for Wayne, back then still a struggling young actor.

(Interesting remark on the side: Wayne's horse in these films is called Duke, and several sources claim Wayne's own nickname comes from there - while other quotes say it comes from his childhood dog of the same name ... maybe we will never know ... and maybe we don't even care ...)


Besides the Warner Brothers-Westerns, Wayne could also be seen in a few non-Westerns, like Lady and Gent (1932, Stephen Roberts) for Paramount, which sees him as a boxer, the independently-produced romantic comedy (!) His Private Secretary (1932, Phil Whitman), and the Barbara Stanwyck-starrer Baby Face (1933, Alfred E.Greene), that was quite a scandal upon its release, but Wayne left a big impression in neither of these films and it became more and more clear that Westerns were indeed his thing.


In 1933, after Warner Brothers had used up all its Ken Maynard stock footage for the 4 Star-series, they decided to discontinue the series and let Wayne go rather than shoot complete Westerns with him as star. However, independent production outfit Monogram, which was on the look-out for a cowboy actor to replace Bob Steele anyways, thought Wayne to be a bankable enough cowboy actor to star in a series of cheaply produced Westerns that were made to look almost like a continuation of the Warner Brothers-series - up to a point where Monogram was billed as Lone Star Productions in the credits ...

This might now all sound cheap and derivative, but actually, John Wayne's Monogram-series - 16 fims in total - consisted of some of the best B-Westerns produced in the 1930's, some of them even outdoing some of the weaker A-Westerns Wayne did later on.


The quality of these Westerns can in no small part be attributed to the series regular director Robert N.Bradbury (he directed 11 of 16 films of the series), who had also directed most of Bob Steele's Monogram-Westerns before Wayne came along (and was incidently Bob Steele's father) [Bob Steele bio - click here], and who was not only one of the most versatile Western directors, his timing was also perfect to make his films as exciting as possible, he and cameraman Archie Stout would always give their movies a visual polish often lacking in other B-Westerns, and Bradbury was always adamant to try out new ideas and plot-elements and -devices to take his Westerns (by and large a very pre-defined and rigid genre) into new directions, often constructing his films like murder mysteries (complete with the then customary masked killers and secret passageways). He also didn't shy away from including car chases in his Westerns, sometimes giving these chases a comedic spin.


Bradbury's first film with Wayne, Riders of Destiny (1933) already proves that, when Bradbury has John Wayne (probably dubbed by someone else) sing a few tunes years before Gene Autry started the singing-cowboy-craze with Phantom Empire (1935, Otto Brower, B.Reeves Eason). Now most of Wayne's singing in this film seems at least a little out of place, but when he in the finale sings a haunting tune before shooting his opponent Earl Dwire's both wrists, this is positively creepy stuff. (The singing-cowboy-routine is later repeated in The Man from Utah [1934, Robert N.Bradbury], but unfortunately not to the same effect.)

A later film in the series, Lawless Frontier (1934, Robert N.Bradbury), has one of the most exhilarating chase scenes in Western history that at one point has Wayne ride through the sewers on a plank of wood (!) - just like a witch riding a broomstick.

The Star Packer (1934, Robert N.Bradbury) not only features a villain (Gabby Hayes) that poses as a harmless hunchback but also uses a machinegun in the finale decades before Django (1966, Sergio Corbucci).

The Lucky Texan (1933, Robert N.Bradbury) features a chase oldtimer vs railway utility car and Wayne chasing a baddie on horseback riding another plank of wood down the sewers.

The Trail Beyond (1934, Robert N.Bradbury) is set in Canada, if only for a change of scenery (the Canadian coniferous forests look great on film though).


Other films in the series were Sagebrush Trail (1933, Armand Schaefer), West of the Divide, Blue Steel (both 1934, Robert N.Bradbury), Randy Rides Alone, 'neath the Arizona Skies (both 1934, Harry L.Fraser), Texas Terror, Rainbow Valley, The Dawn Rider (all three 1935, Robert N.Bradbury), The Desert Trail (1935, Lewis D.Collins), and Paradise Canyon (1935, Carl Pierson), and each of these films had at least something going for it.


One thing, besides the direction, that makes John Wayne's Monogram-Westerns so immensely enjoyable is Yakima Canutt's excellent stunt work that for some reason rarely looked better than in these films, and especially his stagecoach stunts overshadow his similar work in the way more famous Stagecoach (1939, John Ford) to no small extent. 

(By the way, Canutt played small parts in many of these movies, mostly the villain or the villain's henchman, but his funniest performance is in The Star Packer, where he plays John Wayne's native American sidekick.)


... and then there was George Hayes, who was a fixture of a series and who had various roles, from typical cowboy sidekick to local Sheriff to villain (e.g. The Star Packer) and who was still a few years away from becoming the perennial sidekick first on the Hopalong Cassidy series and later in dozens of Roy Rogers films [Roy Rogers bio - click here]. But even before his sidekicking has become routine, he gave able support to Wayne in these films.


(By the way, it was during the filming of John Wayne's Monogram-Westerns that the pass system - a method to convincingly fake fistfights by narrowly passing the opponent while the camera films it from an angle that makes it look real - was invented when after a staged fight director Bradbury found both his leading man - Wayne - and his stuntman - Canutt - too roughed up for comfort.)


In 1935, roughly about the time John Wayne had completed his second season of Monogram-Westerns - a season of Westerns traditionally consisted of 8 films -, Monogram seized to exist (at least for a while), when it became part of the merger that ultimately created Republic Pictures [Republic history - click here] - other companies included in this merger were Mascot, Liberty, Majestic and Chesterfield/Invincible, and the film developing outfit Consolidated Film Laboratories.

It seems though the powers-that-be at Republic were pleased enough with Wayne's performances to keep him on board for another series of Westerns.

The eight films of this series were Westward Ho, Lawless Range (both 1935, Robert N.Bradbury), The New Frontier (1935, Carl Pierson), The Oregon Trail (1936, Scott Pembroke), The Lawless Nineties, King of the Pecos, The Lonely Trail (all three 1936, Joseph Kane), and Winds of the Wasteland (1936, Mack V.Wright) - and even if the genius of Robert N.Bradbury is missing from the later films of the series, by and large they are well-done B-Westerns, and at least the stagecoach race of Winds of the Wasteland is well worth mentioning - and watching.


After his association with Republic came to an end, Wayne went over to Universal, to star in a string of non-Western Bs: Sea Spoilers (1936, Frank R.Strayer) - a marine adventure that has him as captain of the Coast Guard -, Conflict (1936, David Howard) - a boxing drama based on a story by Jack London -, Carlifornia Straight Ahead (1937, Arthur Lubin) - in this one Wayne's a trucker -, I Cover the War (1937, Arthur Lubin) - Wayne is a newsreel cameraman covering an Arab uprising against the British -, Idol of the Crowds (1937, Arthur Lubin) - this time Wayne's a hockey player pitted against gangsters -, and Adventure's End (1937, Arthur Lubin) - here, Wayne's a pearl diver.

By and large, these films were ok-done adventures, but Wayne failed to impress in them like he did in his Westerns, and ultimately the way was back to Westerns first (with the Paramount-produced Born to the West/Hell Town [1937, Charles Barton]), and back to Republic [Republic history - click here] second ...


It was in 1936 that - with the film The Three Mesquiteers (Ray Taylor) - Republic had started a series about a trio of cowboys - you guessed it, The Three Mesquiteers - based on the stories/characters of William Colt McDonald. Initially, the trio was played by Bob Livingston, Ray Crash Corrigan [Ray Crash Corrigan bio - click here] and Syd Saylor, but already after the first film, Saylor was replaced by Max Terhune. And after 16 films, Bob Livingston left the group because Republic needed him for bigger, better things like the serial The Lone Ranger Rides Again (1939, John English, William Witney) (and eventually he would leave Republic for PRC to find his luck in the Lone Rider-series [PRC history - click here]).


As a replacement for Livingston, Republic hired John Wayne to play Stony Brook, the lead in one of their most popular series. In all, Wayne starred in 8 films of the series - Pals of the Saddle, Overland Stage Raiders, Santa Fe Stampede, Red River Range (all 1938, George Sherman), The Night Riders, Three Texas Steers, Wyoming Outlaw, and Frontier Horizon/New Frontier (all 1939, George Sherman) - and he was sided by Ray Crash Corrigan in all of them and by Max Terhune in the first six of them, who was replaced by Raymond Hatton for the last two.

Generally speaking, Wayne's Three Mesquiteers-films were all solid B-Westerns, but they were just a little too polished for die-hard B-movie fans like me and lacked the spark of e.g. John Wayne's Monogram-Westerns.


When the last films of Wayne's run on the series came out, Wayne had already shot to A-movie fame with Stagecoach and he wisely decided to no longer star in B-movies - and in about as wise a decision, Republic, who still had him under contract, did not force him to but instead used his sudden high profile to produce a few A-Westerns starring Wayne of their own - e.g. Dark Command (1940, Raoul Walsh), Three Faces West (1940, Bernhard Vorhaus), Angel and the Badman (1947, James Edward Grant) and the classic Rio Grande (1950, John Ford) - as well as loaning him out to other (bigger) studios. 


The rest, as they say is history, and is a tale I might (or might not) tell some other time ...


PS: Wayne's role of Stony Brook with the Three Mesquiteers fell back to his predecessor Bob Livingston for another 14 films, then to Tom Tyler - the man John Wayne travelled through half the country to shoot in Stagecoach - for the final 13 films [Tom Tyler-bio - click here]. In 1943, the series was - after 51 pictures, finally put out to pastures ...


© by Mike Haberfelner

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