Duke’s Duchesses

When one is asked to pick iconic Hollywood stars, the punim of John Wayne is usually one of the first to grace any buff’s celluloid mind.  And if it isn’t, it should be.  Indeed, the immediate complete visual hitting one’s cellebellum usually comprises the actor’s 6’ 4” frame attired in his favorite, slightly worn cowboy togs – bib shirt and vest, Stetson – highlighted by his trademark crinkly smile.

Remarkably, John Wayne was a major star in the Top Ten Box-Office league from the 1940s-1970s.  Can’t think of anyone who matched that.  Wayne was truly an original – the actor who had “that special something,” as the Tinsel Town wags love to say.  Natch, it’s there in those big-budget Technicolor epics from the late 1950s through mid-1960s; but, more extraordinarily, it’s there in the Poverty Row clunkers from the early 1930s, where he was relegated after the failure of his 1930 mega-buck, widescreen Fox western The Big Trail (and it’s there too!).  Hell, it’s even there in his walk-ons as an extra in pics like John Ford’s 1928 Hangman’s House.  The point is that no matter which John Wayne movie one screens, you are never disappointed.  Simply put, Wayne is Wayne.

Granted, this is a long-winded intro to a piece not necessarily about The Duke, but rather his illustrious list of female costars, themselves chronicling the history of great movie actresses.

Depending on the period, costarring with John Wayne either meant you were a starlet on your way up or a former marquee attraction on your way down.  Later, it became a rasslin’ match to see who would be lucky enough to glean the co-credit gig with the now-superstar.

If you think the list of glamorous women who shared screen time with Duke is some horrible experiment gone wrong, look again.  A mere glance at his 60-year cinema odyssey reveals such beauteous companions as Marlene Dietrich, Joan Crawford, Lana Turner, Laraine Day, Claire Trevor, Susan Hayward, Claudette Colbert, Donna Reed, Lauren Bacall, Capucine, Sophia Loren, Angie Dickinson, Betty Field, Patricia Neal, Yvonne De Carlo, Dorothy Lamour, Jean Arthur, Rita Hayworth and Claudia Cardinale (the latter two in the same movie!).  And the list goes on.  It’s got to be something of record for someone to able to proudly boast that he costarred with both Geraldine Page and Vera Hruba Ralston.  But Duke did.  And triumphed admirably.

The initial four movies discussed here, span the end of Wayne indentured servitude into his post-Stagecoach leap into A-plus offerings, circa 1938-1945.  All are from the swinging saloon door entrance gates of Republic Pictures (formerly known as Mascot, Majestic and other itty-bitty B-minus studios that it enveloped like the blob – the Steve McQueen version).  The titles alone define the ascension:  OVERLAND STAGE RAIDERS, FRONTIER HORIZON, LADY FOR A NIGHT and FLAME OF THE BARBARY COAST (all now on Blu-Ray from Olive Films/Paramount Home Entertainment).

True, when one is resigned to watching an oater entitled Three Texas Steers, he or she dare not expect something of the John Ford/Howard Hawks/Raoul Walsh calibre.  Yes, folks, while the Duke may not let his fans down, these two-day wonders often do.  They certainly are not golden-age Hollywood classics of the screen, and notoriously brandish a penchant for bad direction, worse writing and godawful production values.  There is, however, one aspect that has left a stain upon movie history which must be rectified:  that these 50-minute extravaganzas are lousy looking.  Neglect, of course, was a prime factor, tarnishing their “legend” via decades of wretched, unwatchable TV/public domain prints. Thus, it’s truly astonishing to see them in brand-new 1080p 35mm transfers on Blu-Ray.  Whereas one can appropriately be appreciative of a High Def upgrade on Reap the Wild Wind (after all, one is used to seeing fine quality on a major DeMille title),  there is a definite jaw-dropping double-take in the works when it encompasses on a run-of-the-mill entry!  And that’s what makes their presence in the superior home video format way more awesome.  Crystal clarity with excellent contrast and even some dynamic sound, especially in a universe where the likes of The Quiet Man is still in crucial need of repair?  This is genuinely Bizarro World.

Oh, well, I’m veering off the trail.  Long story short:  it’s ain’t all Maureen O’Hara (although we love ya, Red).

1938’s OVERLAND STAGE RAIDERS is one of those Republic having-its-cake-and-eating-it-too epics.  By that I mean it anachronistically mixes traditional Western trappings with modern 1930s technology.  In serials, that wasn’t so bad.  But switching stagecoach loot to an airplane within the same narrative tapestry is a bit on the crazed fruit side (like armored cars or trucks or Super Chief rail never existed).  It is cool to see Wayne literally parachuting into action, effortlessly switching from saddle tramp to ace aviator lawman.  Playing devil’s advocate, that’s part of the loopy fun.  More genre mating occurs when the script has the local badman import eastern gangsters to extort, rob and beat the bejeezus out of the resident ranchers.

My problem with this batch of Mesquiteers is the participation of the unbearable Max Terhune, who, aside from questionable hygiene, has the sidekick temerity to not only out-grizzle Gabby Hayes but adds revulsion to the proceedings by being a ventriloquist – although it’s often a toss-up as to who’s the real dummy.  His alter ego, Elmer, is likely the second most annoying character ever to appear in a B-western, the number one position being Terhune himself.  Surprisingly, this 55-minute effort required the talents of four writers to bring the story and script to the screen:  William Colt MacDonald, Bernard McConville, Edmond Kelso and Luci Ward.  While the dialog is certainly nothing to have Ernst Lubitsch lose any sleep over, it does (and often brutally) get the job done.  “I’ll choke the truth out of him,” merrily offers a denizen with such joy that even Wayne seems ill at ease.  Oh, yeah, and counterbalancing the agony of Terhune (and Elmer) is Wayne’s lady costar who is a genuine Lulu – none other than Louise Brooks!

RAIDERS  is directed by the prolific George Sherman, who survived in the industry into the 1970s.  His last credit is on 1971’s Big Jake, also the last Wayne picture to do blockbuster business across the country.  Sherman, who, by all accounts, was at sea with the business by the 1960s, was nevertheless under The Duke’s protection (he got a producer’s credit on The Comancheros, and, it’s generally assumed that Wayne himself directed most of Jake).  OVERLAND STAGE RAIDERS was photographed by William Noble (whose career began in 1919, eventually amassing a filmography of nearly 200 features) and looks amazingly slick.

Brooks’s role is less-than-zero, or, as a female Universal-International contractee once told a pal of mine: “I was generally given the ‘wait at the fort till the fucking cavalry comes home’ parts.”  She really has little to do, appearing in close-ups while adoringly pining longingly for Duke (which, apparently, wasn’t all acting).  Many Republic ladies did get in on the action (riding, shooting, cat-fighting), but not Lulu.  It’s sort of wild seeing her with shoulder-length hair; still stunning, but very different. The movie has been called an attempt at Brooks’s comeback, but anyone who thinks a picture called OVERLAND STAGE RAIDERS could bring ANY organism back – living or dead –  has obviously been munching the loco weed.  The actress was paid $300 for her couple days work, and she needed it!

The usually acerbic Brooks remembered RAIDERS and Wayne with rose-colored fondness.  She recalled arriving at the location on a cool, brisk, sunny morning.  Wayne was joking with fellow actors and crew, saw her, flashed his trademark grin, and walked over to her, hand extended.  “So great to meet you,” he blushed honestly.  Indeed, Brooks reminisced that the OVERLAND STAGE RAIDERS experience was one of the best she had ever been had on any Hollywood production.  To her dying day, she defended the Duke whenever anyone made a nasty crack.  Brooks also would chuckle that OVERLAND STAGE RAIDERS remained the only movie of hers that her father liked.

1939’s FRONTIER HORIZON, about a crooked reservoir land deal, is (no pun) a high-water mark for Duke.  It was one of eight Three Mesquiteer oaters he made in 1938 and ‘39 (taking over the role of Stony Brooke from Robert Livingston).  Max Terhune and famed stuntman Ray “Crash” Corrigan filled out the trio of sagebrush do-gooders in this unusual entry, penned by two women (Betty Burbridge and Luci Ward).  The reliable George Sherman directed, William Lava provided the thundering score and the wonderful cameraman Reggie Lanning shot it.  Greed has never been more lethal and/or callous than in the pic’s plot about crooked political grafters obliterating a town out of existence to line their pockets (via a lethal pipeline, no less).  Their nightmarish “pipe” dream doesn’t contain oil, but pure water – waylaid to turn a right into a privilege.  The fact that it means flooding an entire community into oblivion is of little consequence.

What makes this entry so important is that it was Wayne’s last B-series role, as between this fistful of Mesquiteer adventures was sandwiched Stagecoach.  The other “notch above the rest” factor is the female lead, beautiful newcomer Phyllis Isley.  While that name may not mean much to novice classic movie buffs, her Oscar win a mere four years later probably does – under her rechristened marquee “A” upgrade as Jennifer Jones.

Even here, as an inexperienced teen, she shows some of that smoldering sexuality that would get the horndogs a-panting in Duel in the Sun, Portrait of Jennie, Ruby Gentry and other later efforts.  What makes this even more startling is that, like most B-western heroines, she has relatively little to do (although considerably more than Brooks).

No surprise that Republic took full advantage of her meteoric rise to stardom (along with the Duke’s).  Almost immediately after The Song of Bernadette‘s release (and Academy Award track record), the studio re-issued FRONTIER HORIZON with an A-picture campaign featuring Wayne and (now) Jones receiving big above the title billing.

1942’s LADY FOR A NIGHT is a rather ambitious effort from Republic, their bid in the still viable post-GWTW Scarlett O’Hara cash cow sweepstakes.  It provides former Warner star Joan Blondell with the role of her lifetime, a crazy quilt hybrid of every wiseacre and upwardly mobile Southern minty julep ever to hit the screen.

It’s a stark departure for Wayne as well, playing a rather shady good-bad guy or bad-good guy, your choice.  Wayne and Blondell are lovers/partners who operate the floating “bawdy house” riverboat casino.  Blondell, tired of Wayne’s pussy-footing, offers the ultimatum of marriage or else.  She gets “or else,” and promptly hooks up with rich, weak and rakish Ray Middleton, heir to a withering name and an even more dilapidated plantation.  Blondell’s ill-gained fortune comes in handy to pay the bills, but Middleton’s disgusting and downright evil snobbish relatives treat her like crap, pretty much the way Blondell was often handled at Warners.  Aunt Julia (the genuinely creepy Blanche Yurka), in particular, is a couple ticks short of Mrs. Danvers (likely not an accident in Isabel Dawn’s and Boyce DeGaw’s script, from the story by Garrett Fort).  Within the compact 87-minute running time, Yurka poisons Blondell, gives her a blind horse with the instructions to whip him up, and does all other kinds of naughty things, which only accelerate after Middleton’s unsurprising death.

Wayne, meanwhile, plays it for all its political worth, even resorting to quasi-blackmail in his lust for power and his now-titled ex-paramour (which is extremely threatening to the classless upper class).

There’s a lot of cringe-worthy racist dialog, with African-Americans spouting such lip-biters as “Mr. Lincoln done emancipated and proclamated me.”  Which is more than can be said of Blondell’s character.  Nevertheless, Wayne’s rep with the ladies is given a line worthy of Preston Sturges (“I wouldn’t trust him in my garden” mutters a supposed lady of quality).

The fog-shrouded bayou mansion itself is a Lovecraftian masterpiece, and why Blondell would pour her dough into an upgrade renovation from foreboding horror to one of mere titillating terror (especially considering its ungrateful inhabitants and her Dickensian treatment) is a mystery that is never fully solved.

LADY FOR A NIGHT is certainly a strange movie for the studio, and, being a Republic picture, there’s lots of action to bounce off the psychological shenanigans.  It’s also a fascinating stop-off point for Blondell, on her way from featured player to character actress.  She and Wayne work rather well together.  There’s also some fine support from the strong additional cast members, including Philip Merivale, Edith Barrett, Leonid Kinskey and one-time silent screen star Carmel Myers.  While director Leigh Jason adequately, at best, keeps the narrative moving, the camerawork by Norbert Brodine is first-rate, as is the score by David Buttolph and Cy Feuer.

The movie was a box-office bonanza for Republic and ultimately ended up as a footnote in American history.  So impressed were U.S.A.F. flyers Robert K. Morgan and Jim Verinis with LADY FOR A NIGHT that they christened their new fighter plane after Wayne and Blondell’s riverboat, The Memphis Belle.

Once one is apprised of the situation that FLAME OF THE BARBARY COAST takes place in 1906, the die has been inevitably cast.  Indeed, before savvy viewers can say “Lydecker Brothers” (Republic’s superb SFX mavens), one can practically hear the rumbling of cracking sidewalks and cascades of shattering glass storefronts.  Yup, the quake plays a relevant part of this unusual drama, another A-picture entry from the Herbert Yates racing stable.

Once again, Duke plays a shady character (actually named Duke), determined to carve a personal empire out of the raucous title vicinity – eventually cracking the Snob Hill crowd with two-fisted vengeance.

He almost meets his match in the smart ‘n’ sassy form of Flaxen, played to sensual perfection by the always magnificent Ann Dvorak.  Dvorak shakes it up with as almost a cataclysmic effect as the pic’s other awesome force of nature, effortlessly tossing her hips and one-liners with equal abandon; she even sings in French.  The former Warners pre-Code goddess had literally just returned from the wars, having relocated to Britain with her English husband actor-director Leslie Fenton.  Dvorak spent the years across the pond driving ambulances and going all out for defense.  Like the war, Dvorak’s marriage was over, and back she was in the States fortunate enough to be costarring with one of Hollywood’s now top screen attractions.  It’s a showy role for the actress, one of few that she would be able to attach herself to as she entered her late thirties (of course, some great bits were still ahead: The Private Affairs of Bel Ami, The Long Night, A Life of Her Own, albeit not always in lead parts).  Admittedly, there are flaws in FLAME OF THE BARBARY COAST; action director Joseph Kane seems a bit in over his head anytime four-legged fillies are replaced by the two-legged kind, but the script by Borden Chase, sprinkled with some rather frank dialog, keeps things a-hoppin’ (the lavish, crisp black-and-white photography by Robert de Grasse is another plus).

A strange aspect of FLAME OF THE BARBARY COAST is the third lead, supposed dastardly villain Joseph Schildkraut (as a disgraced aristocrat adept in stabbing folks in the back with stiletto or verbal barb).  That he turns out to be not such a rotten egg is a nod to Chase; of course, even the most unsophisticated cine aficionado doesn’t have to scratch his/her head when faced with the dilemma over who Dvorak would chose, John Wayne or Joseph Schildkraut.  There are many other delectable thespian pleasures, key being the welcoming presence of Virginia Grey.  In fact, the supporting cast is quite superb (notably sleazy Paul Fix and inebriated Jack Norton), featuring a gaggle of B-western faces (Rex Lease, Eddie Acuff, Tom London, Bud Geary, Frank Hagney) mixed in with silent stars long past their due dates (Philo McCullough, Jack Mulhall).  Chief amongst the primo support is William Frawley, as the ace gambler who teaches Wayne the art of grifting.  His sexual references to a deck of cards (“They’re a whole lot like women, usually when you pick one up, you wish you hadn’t”) are delivered with his trademark curmudgeonly crust.  Another exchange about horses prefigures the risque byplay in Hawks’s The Big Sleep, released a year later (“A little hot, very nice, good head…carries herself well”).  And there’s an extremely interesting behavioral facet regarding Wayne’s character’s obsession with the Pacific Ocean (in a way, a precursor of Gabriele Ferzetti’s similar “jones” in 1969’s Once Upon a Time in the West).

Wayne and Dvorak are excellent together and just slippery enough to slosh through both the human and non-human disasters with saucy and rewarding panache.  Should warn you, though – I’d watch Ann Dvorak in anything, so, like the plot points in this movie, the deck was already as stacked as Flaxen (in my favor) before the disc (which looks terrific) started spinning.

All Blu-Rays in black-and-white; full frame (1.37:1; 1080p High Definition); mono (DTS-HD MA).  Olive Films/Paramount Home Entertainment. SRP: @$29.95

 

OVERLAND STAGE RAIDERS: UPC: 887090047401; Cat #: OF474.

FRONTIER HORIZON: UPC: 887090052405; Cat #: OF524.

LADY FOR A NIGHT: UPC: 887090054805; Cat #: OF548.

FLAME OF THE BARBARY COAST: UPC: 887090066402; Cat #: OF664.

 

 

 

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