John Wayne: The Films Before “Stagecoach”

As we observed earlier today, it’s the Duke’s birthday. We thought we’d observe it by looking at some of his lesser known movies, from the first leg of his career, the decade prior to John Ford’s Stagecoach. An ex-college football player, Wayne started out as an extra at Fox and got his big break in Raoul Walsh’s epic The Big Trail (1930). That film’s failure sent him down to the minor leagues, the B movie studios, where he toiled for nearly a decade.


The Big Trail (1930)

While most of John Wayne’s westerns in the 30s were B pictures, this one is definitely an A! Not only in terms of quality (though the story is the typical simplistic melodrama), but in terms of budget. It is sort of the definitive movie about a wagon train going west. Wayne, in a highly groovy shirt (the sort of thing he would never wear again, even in B movies), is the scout for the expedition, a train of Missourians whom he convinces to go to a valley in Oregon country, though he himself is on the hunt for some bad guys who killed his friend in New Mexico. In an interesting twist, one of those bad guys is the wagonmaster of this trip, a highly entertaining character who in every respect resembles the Popeye character Bluto. There is the very standard relationship: Wayne loves a girl (Marguerite Churchill). His rival for the girl is one of the bad guys, played by Tyrone Power as a phony who claims to have a plantation in Lousiana. All along the way Wayne is the one who keeps the wagon train out of trouble. (There’s a real cool scene where they lower the whole outfit down a cliff on ropes) Many die in an Indian battle. Many die in a blizzard. When the bad guys abandon the wagon train en route, Wayne sees the settlers through to the end. Then he goes to pursue the bad guys and kills them. A year later returns to the valley and marries the girl.

The film is generally hailed by critics today. Originally shot in a widescreen format, most of the theatres that showed in 1930 weren’t properly equipped. It flopped at the box office in its day.



The Range Feud

Buck Jones B movie with Wayne for Republic Pictures. Rival Arizona ranchers are feuding (free range vs. property issues). Rustling has been going on. Jones as sheriff has divided loyalties — he’s the adopted son of one family, but is forced to defend the other family, which is in the legal right. Meanwhile, his brother (Wayne) is in love with a daughter from the other family: Romeo and Juliet. He argues with her father, who is killed shortly thereafter. Jones must put his brother in jail. Wayne’s character is found guilty and scheduled to be hung; he bears up with admirable cheerfulness. Meanwhile, Jones finds evidence to free him, then gets shot. Last minute: a hair raising ride to rescue him at the hanging tree. They collar the right guy. It tuns out to be the guy with mustache, as always.



Two Fisted Law

Tim McCoy picture for Republic with Wayne as one his two buddies, and Walter Brennan as one of the villain’s henchmen who happens to be a deputy. McCoy (who wears a preposterously huge cowboy hat) is losing his ranch: he’s being swindled out of his property by a hissable villain. The sheriff has to serve the papers but he doesn’t like it. McCoy loses the ranch and goes off to do some silver prospecting. Two years pass. The bad guy is now going after Tim’s old girlfreind’s property and trying to force her into marriage. Tim shows up just as he’s manhandling her and makes him stop. She gives Tim a horse named Pal who comes when you whistle (actually a colt he entrusted to her 2 years earlier). The sheriff is about to serve papers on the girl, when Tim rides up with the money to save her property. He can’t say where it came from so it looks suspicious. The bad guys frame him for a Wells Fargo robbery in which a man was killed. It looks bad for Tim. The sheriff lets him play detective — a nice luxury when you’re accused of a crime! He notices a bloody boot print that matches the boot of one of the henchmen. A shoot out with the bad guys ensues, and Walter Brennan dies with a lengthy and unsolicited confession on his lips.



 The Lucky Texan

A Republic Picture with John Wayne now graduated to star. Wayne comes back to a ranch owned by family friend Gabby Hayes. All the cattle are gone, so they start a blacksmith shop. A feller shows up with his horses all dinged up and full of dirt. As they clean it up they see small gold pieces in the dirt. They start prospecting in the area where the man had been and are very successful. They are very secretive about where their claim is, never letting themselves be followed, smuggling their gold to town in their canteens. Unfortunately the men who give them cash for their gold are villains. They trick Gabby into signing the deeds over to them and then conspire to kill gabby. But they don’t manage to finish the job. To catch the crooks, Wayne keeps Gabby hidden at the ranch. Gabby reveals — with hilarious implausibility — that he used to be on the stage, and shows all his make-up and things. Wayne is now accused of Gabby’s murder. As Wayne is on trial, a mysterious old woman shows up in the courtroom. She reveals herself to be Gabby. The bad guys jump out the window. Then — another hilarious moment — it turns out to be the present day! We never had an inking. The bad guys try to escape on a motorized hand cart on the train tracks, the good guys following in an automobile. They catch them, of course.


Randy Rides Alone

A good title for a film about teenage masturbation! This film has many cool elements that make it seem akin to the sci-fi and mystery serials and other Bs of the day. It opens with a cool scene: John Wayne comes down from the hills, fatigued from riding. He looks down in the  valley and sees a preposterous scale model of a saloon. It is Ed Wood bad — it looks like he’s about to step on it. But when he comes down to the saloon, everyone is dead. The player piano still playing. The plot the usual — a damsel needs his help. A gang is after her deceased father’s thousands, which are kept in a trapdoor in the floor. The bad guy is Gabby (then just “George”) Hayes, who goes around in disguise as Matt the Mute writing on pieces of paper. The most delicious part: when he reverts to the villain (in the hideout in a cave behind a waterfall) he puts on a special villain costume! Black cowboy duds. Then when he reverts to the mute costume, he immediately starts acting like the mute, even when he is alone! Very theatrical. My favorite line: spoken by the villain with disgust to his henchmen: “…And you call yourselves badmen”. In the end, Wayne blows everything up with dynamite, but not before retrieving the money and giving it to the girl.


Star Packer

Yes, “Star Packer”.  Actually, I guess it’s supposed to mean that the hero is holding a sheriff’s badge. This movie has all sorts of cool influences from other movies and even other genres. John Wayne is a secret agent sent to this town to catch a crook named “The Shadow”. Like many a science fiction, espionage, and crime drama villain of the 1930s, the shadow speaks to his minions through a veil in a secret window behind the door of a safe. No one knows who he is. He has assembled a gang of the worst desperadoes in the west, and they’ve been robbing stages and banks. Wayne is hired to be sheriff by a seemingly kindly town leader, who also happens to be the uncle of Wayne’s love interest, who is here because she inherited her father’s half of the family ranch. We suspect immediately that her “uncle” is actually the Shadow, and he is. Another interesting rip-off: Wayne has a Tonto-like Indian sidekick in this one. The film’s many anachronisms include the use of flashlights and telephones (alongside stagecoaches). Worst plot device: on a tip, Wayne actually robs a stagecoach before the robbers get to. A lame way to prevent a robbery (especially since the crooks kill the stagedrivers) but it does make for a dramatic scene!


Blue Steel

Youthful lawman John Wayne teams up with prospector Gabby Hayes to foil a plot by a disguised town leader and his gang to blockade supply runs so they can starve out the ranchers and get the gold beneath their land. Wayne is a marshall but the other characters (and the audience) think he’s a bandit. In the end the heroes get the supplies through, explode their pursuers with TNT, and Wayne gets the girl.



Lawless Range

John Wayne’s practicing for the rodeo and a shoe-in to win. Then his dad says his friend needs help. Wayne goes unhesitatingly, sacrificing the rodeo romp. Then he lip syncs a cowboy song on the way to his adventure. In town he foils robbers,  but is mistaken for one of them, and brought in. The marshall knows he’s not guilty and uses the opportunity to recruit him as an undercover man (posing as a crook) to investigate the disappearance of the very man he’s on his way to help. On the way there, he gets into a shootout with a gang, and protects a girl (the niece of the man he’s already going to help). A posse picks him up as one of the gang; they’re going to hang him. The girl’s testimony frees him last second. Wayne’s parting shot is a classic: “Now if you’re through with this little necktie party, I’ll be on my way.” We learn that all the ranchers in the valley owe mortgages to the town banker — a guy with a mustache. And he is about to foreclose. The ranchers really need to get their cattle to market, but are prevented by these lawless gangs. H’m…Also, a gang has been stealing provisions, starving out the valley. Wayne organizes the ranchers to protect the shipments. The cattle drive is about to begin. The bad guys expose Wayne as a spy (rather convoluted) and put him in cave, where he meets Gabby Hayes, the man he is supposed to help. They break free and expose the rustlers, led by — you guessed it — the guy with the moustache.


Paradise Canyon

John Wayne is hired by a federal agent to catch some crooks. He goes undercover with a motorized medicine show on the back of a truck, the film’s one modern element. Everything else in the film is “old west”. This film i an amazing document. Anyone interested in medicine shows should see it. The show is modest in the extreme: “Doc Carter” sells the tonic, a male duo sings funny songs to guitar accompaniment; Carter’s daughter is advertised to do an “exotic dance”. But we never see her do one. These films were for children’s matinees, remember. So the show is modest in more ways than one! The plot concerns a ring of counterfeiters, one of whom was formerly Doc Carter’s partner. At one point Wayne is framed for stealing and arrested, but he escapes and rescues the captures Doc and his daughter who are tied up in the old mine. The other characters include the Mexican authorities who help Wayne with his undercover work (we are south of the border). One question—why is it called Paradise Canyon



The Desert Trail

John Wayne plays a rodeo star (already playing fast and loose with history. did they have rodeos in the time of stagecoaches? I don’t think so). The rodeo cheats the winners, paying only a fraction of the promised prizes. Wayne takes his full amount at gunpoint. While in a way this is justice (and it is certainly presented as such) upon reflection it is thug’s justice. What if everyone went around solving things that way? So the plot is screwy. Immediately after leaving, some robbers rob the same guy and kill him and Wayne and his partner are sought as the culprits. (But this is complicated, at least in my head. they are not all that innocent, are they?) Lots of fol de rol with a Mexican girl whom Wayne and his partner both court while in disguise (the latter as a parson). They’re thrown in jail and escape with a big shoot out. 


The New Frontier

The title refers to a section of Oklahoma opened up for settlement. Wayne vows to stay working for his dad as a wagonmaster, seeing settlers through. Then his dad, who’s just been asked to be sheriff in a lawless new town (far too big and bustling as depicted for a “new, frontier town”) is shot and killed in the back by the boss crook. Meanwhile Wayne is leading settlers from Kansas down to the area. Another gang tries to steal his food. Wayne demonstrates the skill he is known for: being tough but fair with the bad guys, avoiding bloodshed. A minimum of shooting occurs and everyone is happy. The leader of this gang vows to pay him back some day (in a good way). He gets to town and learns about his dad. Wayne becomes the sheriff and goes after the killers. The bad guys amass a huge gang. Wayne deputizes the gang he helped back in the desert. Being a right guy pays! A big shoot out between the gangs. “This is a show-down, ace! What’s your answer?” “This!” (gunfire). Huge, huge shooting war. The leader of the good gang dies, but the bad guys are defeated too. 



 The Lonely Trail

 A little more involved than the usual Republic western of the era. It’s in post-Civil War era Texas, in a new military district. Carpetbaggers hire an African American, who is made a puppet of the governor-general. A lot of crooked money changes hands. John Wayne comes home to his family ranch and learns that a mess of back-taxes are owed. He’s surprised to hear that all his neighbors are in rebellion against the authorities. The governor asks him to join the troopers. He promises to look into it, but sees that his old friends, including his old girl, who runs a bar, are against the authorities. (The “good” negro, to balance the carpetbagger is one “snowflake”, who works for her in the bar. Oy!) Wayne and his friend see troops cruelly handling some man, and rescue him. They decide to enlist in the troopers so they can protect their people from the inside. Lots of battles between the two forces. Then the governor confronts the general about his abuse of power and makes peace with Wayne’s people. My question: Why the hell would a movie about a milieu this specific armed rebellion in reconstruction Texas — be called “The Lonely Trail”?! There ain’t a lonely trail in the whole goddamn movie!


The Man from Utah

No, not Orin Hatch! This is a John Wayne picture. He ambles into town and instantly foils a bank robbery. Marshall Gabby Hayes hires him to go undercover at a crooked rodeo. He foils a stagecoach robbery on the way there. The usual misunderstandings with nice people because he is masquerading as a bad guy to get in with gang. The most hilarious aspect of this movie is the rodeo footage, all shot at a modern rodeo. Tens of thousands of people in a modern Hippodrome. There are more people in this stadium than there were in the entire old west. The question—so seldom asked because it so seldom needs to be asked—is “WHEN are we?” In this movie as in life, it is best not to probe too deeply into such questions. All we know is, at the climax of this picture, Wayne simultaneously wins the rodeo and foils a bank robbery. The real question should be “What do they eat for breakfast in Utah?” 


Sagebrush Trail

John Wayne is on the lam for a murder he didn’t commit in Maryland. Pursued off a train he ducks in a pond, and breathes through a reed. He escapes. When he emerges, he hooks up with a chap named Jones who incites him to join his gang and dubs him Smith. Smith is made the gang’s cook.  They all live in an old cave. Both men fall in love  with the store keeper. The gang sort of doubts Smith’s reliability — which is good because he keeps leaving notes at the stores that are about to be robbed. In the end, the gang goes to kill Smith, but Jones saves him, at the cost of his own life. In a twist, it turns out Jones had done the Maryland murder. 


The Three Mesquiteers (1938-39)

Wayne took over the role of “Stoney” Brooke in eight installments of the popular Republic series during these years.

 Then comes Stagecoach! For my post on John Wayne’s westerns from that point on, go here. 

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.