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.
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Plays on Turner Classics Movies on Wednesday, August 1
Hondo (Paramount) is one of John Wayne’s best westerns of the 1950s, a leathery frontier drama starring Wayne as a Cavalry scout who comes across a lonely homestead where a toughened settler (Geraldine Page) and her son await the return of her brutish husband (Leo Gordon), refusing to leave even as tensions between the Apache nation and the Cavalry heat up into war. Wayne settles into the laconic confidence he brought to his best roles of the 1950s as the wanderer who falls in love with the “plain” frontier wife all but abandoned by her scoundrel of a husband and all but adopts her son, who is eager for a father figure. With his buckskin jacket hugging him like a second skin and his feral dog by his side, Wayne looks like a man of the wilderness as he strides through the desert, a half-Indian scout apart from both the Navajo and the Cavalry who may have found a new life with this married woman.
Directed by John Farrow and adapted from a Louis L’Amour story, it was originally shot in 3-D (that accounts for the preponderance of arrows shot into the camera) but it plays better as a straight, unassuming character-based western adventure. Wayne buddies Ward Bond and James Arness play intolerant Army scouts and Michael Pate, Rodolfo Acosta, and Leo Gordon co-star.
It’s newly remastered for Blu-ray and a new DVD edition (though still not available in 3D) with all the supplements from the previous DVD release: commentary by Leonard Maltin, western historian Frank Thompson, and actor Lee Aacker, the featurette “The Making of Hondo,” profiles of screenwriter James Edward Grant and actor Ward Bond, and the brief featurettes “From the Batjac Vaults” and “The Apache,” plus an introduction by Leonard Maltin.
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The Duke takes charge
The 1933 programmer The Man from Monterey, one of the many low-budget westerns that the young, pre-stardom John Wayne made during his movie apprenticeship, plays on Turner Classic Movies on December 22. I wrote a brief essay for TCM.
Running under an hour, The Man from Monterey is a simple sagebrush melodrama set in 1848 California. Wayne plays Captain John Holmes, an American cavalry officer sent to coax the landowners to register their land (once part of old Mexico, now a part of the growing United States) with the new American government. Meanwhile, dastardly Don Pablo Gonzales (Francis Ford, John Ford’s older brother) is scheming to steal the Rancho Castanares, the biggest spread in the area, by convincing its owner, Don Jose Castanares (Lafe McKee), to defy the Americans as a matter of principle (and thus lose his title to the land). Just in case that scheme fails, he encourages his playboy caballero of a son (Donald Reed) to court Don Jose’s daughter, the lovely Senorita Dolores (Ruth Hall). “You know Felipe, there’s something mighty suspicious about all this,” drawls Captain John without a shred of irony to his adopted sidekick, a colorful fortune teller and barfly played with comic flair by character actor Luis Alberni (marvelous as the exasperated hotel manager Louis Louis in the 1937 Easy Living).
Read the complete feature on TCM here. Also available on DVD in a John Wayne B-western triple feature.
John Ford’s classic western is a landmark of the genre for so many reasons: mature, classically constructed and superbly directed, it made a star of John Wayne, revitalized the western genre and introduced Ford to the breathtaking landscape of Monument Valley, which would become the mythic backdrop of his west. It was once nicknamed Grand Hotel on wheels but Ford’s mix of high culture, working folk and disreputable characters tossed together under the threat of Apache attack is much more egalitarian and, for all of the melodramatic potential of the personal stories that collide, human than the famous, glossy MGM melodrama. A cross-section of the high and low of the new America setting the west—from a haughty southern socialite (Louise Platt) out to reunite with her cavalry officer husband to a “dance hall girl” (Claire Trevor) driven out of town by the new, judgmental forces of morality, from an Eastern whisky drummer (the appropriately named Donald Meek) to a lovable souse of a country doctor (Thomas Mitchell) who serves as the wry commentator of the changing social fabric of the west—board the stage to Lordsburg as an Apache uprising brews on the plains.
John Wayne's entrance in Stagecoach: a star is born
John Wayne’s Ringo Kid is the last of the passengers to be introduced but his entrance is a gift to this young actor, fresh out of his apprenticeship as a B-movie cowboy hero and handpicked for the role by the mentoring director. As the stage comes upon a lone figure on the trail, the camera rushes in to a close-up of this young cowboy, escaped from prison and hauling his saddle behind him (his horse died in the escape), and reveals a soon-to-be-star completely at ease in the desert and on the screen, waving down the audience as he waves down the coach. It’s not that Wayne is a great actor, but Ford presents him as a magnificent screen presence and Wayne communicates a sense of justice and integrity in every piece of dialogue and movement.
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