Of Ward Bond and “Wagon Train”

A hearty “Yah!” and a crack of the bullwhip today in salute to the great Hollywood actor Ward Bond (1903-1960).

Raised in Nebraska and Colorado, Bond was a star of the USC football team, which is how, along with lifelong friend and fellow USC football alum John Wayne, he was cast in John Ford’s 1929 football movie Salute. Both Bond and Wayne would come to be key members of Ford’s stock company, but not for a decade. Both men were also in Raoul Walsh’s The Big Trail (1930), also foreshadowing their later careers. Before the sun set, Bond had 274 screen credits to his name.

Throughout the ’30s, Bond was a highly prized bit player, normally cast as cops, cowboys, sailors and football players and coaches. He was brawny guy — he usually played rough characters who had a brain in their head (not lummoxes like Nat Pendleton would play). He was usually the cabbie who rolls his eyes, or the traffic cop who says, “A likely story!” Consequently, his early work included many comedies. You can see him in Wheeler and Woolsey’s football comedy Hold ‘Em, Jail (1932), Professor Beware (1938) with Harold Lloyd, Buck Benny Rides Again (1940) with Jack Benny, and three Joe E. Brown pictures: Son of a Sailor (1933), 6 Day Bike Rider (1934), and The Circus Clown (1934, in which he had a hilarious turn as an unimpressed guy in the audience). Frank Capra used him in Lady for a Day (1933), It Happened One Night (1934), Broadway Bill (1934), You Can’t Take It With You (1938), It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) and Riding High (1950).

Howard Hawks cast Bond in Bringing Up Baby (1938), Sgt. York (1941), and Rio Bravo (1959). Other classics he appeared in include Dodge City (1939), both versions of Frontier Marshall (1934 and 1939), Gone with the Wind (1939), Santa Fe Trail (1940), The Maltese Falcon (1941), Gentleman Jim (1942), Joan of Arc (1948), The Time of Your Life (1948), Hondo (1953), and Johnny Guitar (1954), among dozens of others.

Starting in 1939, Bond began working regularly with Ford, who gave him some of his most memorable and best roles. The pictures they made together included Young Mr. Lincoln (1939), Drums Along the Mohawk (1939), The Grapes of Wrath (1939), The Long Voyage Home (1940), Tobacco Road (1941), They Were Expendable (1945), My Darling Clementine (1946), The Fugitive (1947), Fort Apache (1948), Three Godfathers (1948), Wagon Master (1950), The Quiet Man (1952), The Long Gray Line (1955), Mister Roberts (1955), and The Searchers (1956), this last being easily one of his most memorable.

The Searchers was Bond’s last movie with Ford because the following year he moved on to the TV series Wagon Train, largely based on Ford’s film Wagon Master. And this is where I’ll need to impress upon younger people the significance of that popular show, which they’re liable to write off as just some other tv western from before their time. A more accurate formulation would be “one of the most successful and longest running tv westerns of all time”, running behind (perhaps) only behind Gunsmoke and Bonanza in importance.

Wagon Train ran from 1957 through 1965 (eight seasons), and — no exaggeration — EVERYBODY guest starred on this show. There’s no point in listing them, it’s easily a hundred or two of the top stars from the first 2/3 of the 20th century.  Wagon Train was very much a precursor to The Love Boat and Fantasy Island in that regard. I just did a search — there are nearly 50 references to the show on Travalanche already, and I only occasionally see fit to mention it among people’s credits. The format of a slow voyage across the American wilderness was conducive to plots featuring characters who transiently moved in and out of the setting. Because the story platform was in motion, the main characters constantly encountered new people. And, because the titular wagon train never seemed to arrive, there is also an Absurdist element. It’s a bit like Gilligan’s Island, a fact that was not lost on Sherwood Schwartz, who later modeled a new sitcom on it, Dusty’s Trail, starring Bob Denver.

Bond starred on the show as the taciturn, no-nonsense wagon master Major Seth Adams. He died of a heart attack at the young age of 57 halfway through the show’s run, and was replaced by fellow western character actor John Mcintire. Robert Fuller (later of Emergency!) was also on the show. There are episodes on Youtube — I heartily recommend it!