Thursday, February 14, 2019

John Wayne’s Lone Star Westerns (1933-35)

Director: Robert N. Bradbury                         Writers: Robert N. Bradbury & Lindsley Parsons
Film Score: William Barber (1985)                 Cinematography: Archie Stout
Starring: John Wayne, Gabby Hayes, Yakima Canutt and Eleanor Hunt

The Lone Star series of westerns that John Wayne made for producer Paul Malvern are an incredible piece of cinematic history. As films they are poor at best, distributed by poverty row studio Monogram and made with no other objective than to fill the bottom half of the newly devised double features that many theater chains were showing. They were cheaply made, with existing sets, minimal budgets, shot in less than a week, and using many of the same actors. They don’t even run an hour, so they can hardly be called features, but they’re twice as long as a serial chapter. And also unlike serials, which were made the same way and served the same function, this was more like a stock company that would make different stories with different characters every time while using the same actors. For fans of John Wayne, it’s an absolutely fascinating look at a young actor who wanted to work and kept at it until the industry caught up to him and made him a star. The screenplays are minimal affairs and sometimes make little sense, though some really shine, but that is hardly the point. It’s watching Wayne’s growth that is the real draw, and despite so many detractors of the films--including Wayne himself--the actor has a certain magic at times that is undeniable. With a few exceptions, the films were written and directed by Robert N. Bradbury and, in almost all of the plots, in order to manufacture suspense, crucial elements of the story would simply be left out and not revealed until later, especially when it comes to Wayne’s true identity.

The first in the series is Riders of Destiny from October 1933, with Wayne playing Singin’ Sandy Saunders, Malvern’s attempt to capitalize on the singing cowboy craze of the time. Since the actor couldn’t sing or play guitar, he was shot from slightly behind, lip synching the words and barely pretending to play the instrument. Wayne helps a woman, Cecilia Parker, and her father, Gabby Hayes, to fight the machinations of wealthy landowner Forrest Taylor who wants to gouge all of the farmers for the water that comes from his land. Two months later the crew released Sagebrush Trail, directed by Armand Schaefer. In this one Wayne plays an escaped murderer who is saved by Lane Chandler and goes to work for his outlaw boss, Yakima Canutt. But it turns out that Chandler is the real murderer and Wayne doesn’t know it. Wayne looks a lot more comfortable acting in this one, though the story isn’t nearly as interesting as the previous film, especially concerning love interest Nancy Shubert. The third film in the series is The Luck Texan, released at the end of January 1934. Wayne rides into the ranch of Gabby Hayes, only to find his old mentor has lost his cattle. So they set up a blacksmith shop and when they take a chunk of gold out of a horse’s hoof, begin mining the creek where it was found. But soon greedy Lloyd Whitlock and his partner Yakima Canutt try to steal everything from Hayes and his daughter, Barbara Sheldon, unless Wayne can stop them. Canutt’s bit with the mule is funnier than most of the attempts at manufactured humor in the series.

West of the Divide was released in February, this time with Virginia Browne Faire as the love interest. Wayne and Gabby Hayes are trying to track down the man who killed Wayne’s father and left Wayne for dead. The only one who escaped was his kid brother, but he’s disappeared, so Wayne poses as a killer in order to expose the plot by Lloyd Whitlock and Yakima Canutt to take over the ranch owned by Faire and her father, Lafe McKee. It would be three months before the low-budget cowboy hit the screens again, this time in Blue Steel. Wayne discovers a hotel safe that has been broken into by Yakima Canutt, and sheriff Gabby Hayes thinks that he’s the thief. But Canutt is really part of a gang that has Edward Peil and Earl Dwire sending them inside information about what to rob from inside the town. Eleanor Hunt is back as the girl Wayne helps out and falls for. The exteriors of the snow-topped Alabama Hills in Lone Pine, California are particularly striking, the farthest afield the company had travelled yet and no doubt the reason for the delayed release date. Filmed in the same location and released the same month, Man from Utah begins with Wayne singing again, as he had in the first film. Gabby Hayes is the sheriff, and Wayne helps him stop a bank robbery. Lindsley Parsons’ screenplay mixes things up this time, by including a femme fatale in Anita Campillo. She’s part of Edward Peil and Yakima Canutt’s gang who kill cowboys so they can win rodeo purses. Hayes wants Wayne to win the rodeo so he can put an end to their murdering ways. And he wins the hand of Polly Ann Young in the bargain. This is one of the weakest films in the series because it relies so heavily on documentary footage from an actual rodeo.

For Randy Rides Alone the gang is back home filming in Santa Clarita. Wayne walks into a saloon where everyone is dead, and when sheriff Earl Dwire and mute witness Gabby Hayes arrive he’s arrested. But this time Hayes turns out to be the leader of the gang, and Yakima Canutt and the boys were trying to get a pile of money from Alberta Vaughn’s uncle when they killed him. The Star Packer, which was released in July of 1934, contains the first Native American character in the series and it turns out to be Yakima Canutt. He and Wayne have something of a Lone Ranger and Tonto relationship, with “Yak” gathering information and Wayne capturing the criminals. Verna Hillie is the niece of cattleman Gabby Hayes, and when she arrives the sheriff is shot in broad daylight in town by a killer known only as The Shadow. Wayne takes the job. But after what happened in the previous film, it’s not too difficult to figure out who The Shadow really is. The only question is what he is trying to achieve by his subterfuge. The Trail Beyond didn’t appear in theaters until three months later in October. It’s the first of Malvern’s films to be based on an existing work, James Oliver Curwood’s novel The Wolf Hunters from 1908. But where that story was set in the Canadian tundra, Wayne and company are in Kings Canyon National Monument and Rainbow Falls at Mammoth Lakes. Verna Hillie is back as the love interest, but this film is notable not only for the presence of Noah Beery and his son Noah Beery Jr., but the absence of Gabby Hayes. Wayne is hired to find the orphaned niece of a cattle rancher, and the story and setting are a nice change of pace, though Wayne looks distinctly out of place tromping around the Canadian woods in his cowboy duds.

The regular gang is back together shooing out at Kernville for The Lawless Frontier, released in late November. Half-breed Indian Earl Dwire, posing as a Mexican bandit, kills Wayne’s parents and the Duke finally runs into him while helping out Gabby Hayes and his granddaughter Sheila Terry to escape from his clutches. While this is one of the lesser films in the series--and that’s saying something--it nevertheless contains an impressive sequence in which Wayne chases Dwire on foot through the desert, with Dwire exhausted but frantic to get away and Wayne marching slowly but steadily forward after him. ’Neath the Arizona Skies followed a month later with the same cast. Wayne is trying to find the father of a half-breed Indian girl so that she can claim the money she’s owed from the oil leasing on tribal land. The only problem is Yakima Canutt and his gang want the money for themselves. Harry Fraser directs this one, with Dwire playing a good guy for once and Gabby Hayes going uncredited for some reason. The first of the series to be released in 1935, in early February, is Texas Terror. Wayne is the sheriff in town and when his friend Dan Matthews is killed by holdup men, and they make it look like he was killed by Wayne, the sheriff quits and gives the job to Gabby Hayes. The presence of John Ince in the film, as well as some more realistic Native Americans raises the quality considerably.

In the next film, released in March of 1935, Wayne rides to Rainbow Valley and spots mailman Gabby Hayes--his last appearance in the series--looking for water for his car. When LeRoy Mason’s gang start chasing him, Duke comes to the rescue, but it turns out the bandits are harassing the entire valley because there’s no road for the marshal to get there from the other side of the mountain. Hayes’ niece, Lucile Brown, doesn’t like Wayne at first, but after he saves the town she changes her tune. The Desert Trail, released a month later with Lewis Collins directing, is a very different film from the rest: a comedy. Duke is a rodeo cowboy traveling with confidence man Eddy Chandler. When the prize money is robbed from the rodeo office, the criminals blame Wayne and Chandler, who play their relationship for laughs. Former Our Gang member Mary Kornman is the love interest as Wayne is on the hunt for Al Ferguson and his partner, the great Paul Fix of The Rifleman fame, in order to get his prize money back. Two more months would elapse before The Dawn Rider hit the screens in June, with Yakima Canutt returning as a saloonkeeper and Bradbury in the director’s chair. Wayne rides into town to visit his father, Joseph De Grasse, and gets into a fight with Reed Howes but the two become friends. Meanwhile Dennis Moore is the head of a gang who robs the Express office with help from Canutt. When De Grasse is killed, Wayne makes it his only mission to find the killer, but also gets caught up in a misunderstanding with Howes over Marion Burns. The screenplay, by Lloyd Nosler, has one of the better plots in the series.

Paradise Canyon uses most of the cast from the previous film, this time with Carl Pierson directing, and was released in late July 1935. Wayne plays a U.S. Marshal who goes undercover to capture counterfeiters working near the Mexican border in a medicine show run by Earle Hodgins and his daughter Marion Burns. Reed Howes plays the bad guy this time, working for head man Yakima Canutt. Unfortunately, also along for comedy relief are Perry Murdoch and Gordon Clifford as Ike and Mike, who offer neither comedy nor relief. Paradise Canyon was the last of Paul Malvern’s Lone Star Westerns, released through Monogram, when that company merged with Consolidated film processing, and later Mascot, to become Republic Pictures. Both Malvern and John Wayne would continue make pictures for Republic for the remainder of 1935. Their next production, Westward Ho, was released in August and is slightly longer than the Lone Star’s at just over an hour. Yakima Canutt has been demoted to a henchman by now, and Sheila Bromley was the love interest. The New Frontier followed in October with Carl Pierson in the director’s chair. Finally, Duke’s last film in 1935 was The Lawless Range released in December. The old gang is back with Bradbury directing, Parsons handling the screenplay, and Canutt back as the villain. Wayne would go on to make five more westerns for Republic before finally moving to Universal in late 1936. The biggest difference in the Republic pictures is that they have marginally better actors, much higher production values, and most of them survive in beautiful prints that are far more enjoyable to watch.

Of course the acting is wooden in all the Lone Star productions, especially when comparing Wayne to his later films, and the D-list supporting cast doesn’t make things any better. There isn’t nearly as much racial stereotyping as one might expect, but then there are no black cast members. The one black actor in Rainbow Valley is never commented on, and the Mexicans in Paradise Canyon are actually impressive. Yakama Cannut’s lone portrayal of an Indian isn’t too bad, but when Earl Dwire tries to speak with a French accent in The Trail Beyond or, even worse, a Spanish accent in The Lawless Frontier, it’s incredibly bad. Exteriors for the films were mostly shot at a couple of locations, Kernville, California, on the north short of Isabella Lake, about forty miles northeast of Bakersfield on the southern end of the Sequoia National Park, and at a couple of ranches around Newhall California just north of the San Fernando Valley. Other locations north of Los Angeles were used for specific films as well. They are all beautiful areas and Malvern’s crew make the most of the locations in each film, especially in the chase scenes. The stunt work is pretty good, if repetitive, and Wayne does a nice job of jumping on his horse in a variety of ways. The majority of the stunts were probably performed by Yakima Canutt, who had been an expert stunt man since the silent era and specialized in many of the high-risk stunts seen in this series.

One of the effects that director Robert Bradbury likes to use is the quick pan, which not only avoided the need for cuts in medium shots, but also provided transitional devices that work well when the actors are traveling from one location to another. The tracking shots of the riders on horseback are also well done, probably from train tracks beside the road. One of the oddities of the series is the twentieth century anachronisms that are built into the plots, automobiles and telephones, and especially the telephone poles that dot the roadways. There are no film scores for the pictures, as Malvern couldn’t afford them, and barely any sound effects. In 1985 musician and composer William Barber added music to some of the films. Mercifully, only The Man from Utah and Randy Rides Alone have the new music on this set. The synthesized score doesn’t really add much, and most of the time it’s an unnecessary distraction as it obviously isn’t from the same time period and simply feels intrusive rather than supportive. John Wayne would return to Republic Pictures after his contract with Universal was up, and eventually made thirty-three movies for the company. His Monogram Pictures certainly pale in comparison, and in the absence of Wayne it’s doubtful anyone would watch them today. Whatever charm the Lone Star westerns have is due to their star, and while in no way essential, their historical window on the career of John Wayne is rewarding for adventurous souls.

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