John Wayne was still paying his dues as a leading man when he made Tall in the Saddle (1944). 1939’s Stagecoach had made him a star after a decade of headlining B-westerns, but he was under contract to Republic, which was still a “poverty row” studio that made its money on B-movies. With a budding star in its stable, Republic cashed in by casting him in one western after another, with a smattering of action and war films tossed into the mix. Budgets increased and production values improved, but most were still being cranked out at a rapid rate. With few exceptions, his best films in the years following Stagecoach — The Long Voyage Home (1940) for John Ford, Reap the Wild Wind (1942) for Cecil B. DeMille, The Spoilers and Pittsburgh (both 1942) with Marlene Dietrich and Randolph Scott — were made for other studios.
Tall in the Saddle, Wayne’s second film in a six-picture deal with RKO, is a classic western tale of the stalwart hero who stands up against corruption and injustice, the old west version of a knight errant. It’s arguably his best western since Stagecoach and it even references that breakthrough as Wayne enters the film by hitching a ride at a stage stop. Five years later, Wayne is older and more confident and it shows in his portrayal of Rocklin, a decent, modest cowboy with a rustic but respectful manner, a respect for cussed old frontier survivors like stage driver Dave (George ‘Gabby’ Hayes), and the strength and spine to stand up to bullies without even pulling a gun. While he faces down the corrupt sheriff and his minions, he develops a crush on a society girl, Clara Cardell (Audrey Long), who arrives in the same stagecoach with her disapproving spinster guardian, and strikes romantic sparks in his clashes with the fierce, feisty cowgirl Arly (Ella Raines), the beautiful and dangerous daughter of another rancher. Ward Bond, Wayne’s close friend and drinking buddy, co-stars as the jovial but ethically questionable Judge Garvey.
Plays on Turner Classics Movies on Wednesday, August 1