Some "Bad" John Waynes On DVD --- Part 1
With all the excitement and anticipation focused on the forthcoming John Ford/John Wayne DVD box from Warners, it’s easy to overlook these runts in the Wayne litter, but what could Universal do? They own but a handful of Wayne titles, so its catch-and-catch-can on their own John Wayne --- An American Icon Collection. I’ve just looked at some harsh customer reviews on Amazon. They advise against purchase of these five obscurities. But don’t listen to these sourpusses ... go buy this neglected and woebegone group today! They’re the ones to best illustrate fabled ups and downs in a career with as many false starts and appalling role selections as any major star ever got away with over fifty working years. There’s not a one that won’t fascinate you --- they sure did me. Despite my expressed reservations to come, I thoroughly enjoyed seeing them again. Yes, it’s easy to admire Wayne in She Wore A Yellow Ribbon and The Searchers, but after three dozen or so rounds with those acknowledged classics, there’s a real sympathy factor that kicks in for deer-in-headlights uncertainty he projects in these early almost-leads. JW's near-heroic blending of resignation with a get-it-done determination as displayed in Jet Pilot and The Conqueror makes us admire indomitable Wayne spirit all the more. I only wish Universal would stupefy naysayers and give us really obscure John Wayne titles, as they own several --- Idol Of The Crowds, California Straight Ahead, etc. --- that would truly be something to see!
Seven Sinners is a Code-addled, would-be lampoon of much better shows played straight in the early thirties. It spoofs the Marlene Dietrich of Shanghai Express out of necessity of placating the PCA. Instead of Clive Brook, we get Mischa Auer. Warner Oland becomes Billy Gilbert. Dietrich had to know her act was being denuded. Male consorts are now feckless eunuchs, seemingly incapable of achieving sexual congress with any woman, let alone Marlene’s siren of the tropics. She’s been run out of every port for "inciting riots" and questionable character, but lunkhead camp follower Broderick Crawford assures us (and censors) that Bijou is a lady and buys her own dresses (presumably to establish that she’s nobody’s mistress). As with the prototype Dietrich hit of the previous year, Destry Rides Again, everything is pitched decidedly low for comedy. There's aforementioned Mischa Auer, Billy Gilbert, Vince Barnett, Brod Crawford --- everyone, it seems, but Shemp Howard. They’re all straining to be funny and deflect any audience notion that Marlene may intend to have, or has had, sex with anyone. Romance with youthful John Wayne, besides the usual May/December concerns (she was nearly six years his senior, and looks more so), is laughably chaste, his last reel "sacrifice" on her behalf altogether pointless and nonsensical in view of their abstinence. Wayne had just broken into "A’s" by 1940, and director Tay Garnett seems content to let the relatively inexperienced actor go his own way. JW's playing it like one of the Three Mesquiteers, and there are moments when you wish a Ford or a Hawks would come in and crack the whip on him. Still, he’s good in a boyish way, and Dietrich’s customary seduction of her leading men seems to have carried on for Wayne’s benefit, though I can’t imagine what these two would have had to talk about (that may not have been an issue in any case, as JW referred to Dietrich late in life as "the best lay I ever had").
If Ozarkians were really as anti-social as they appear in Shepherd Of The Hills, you wonder how they managed to reproduce. This first time in Technicolor John Wayne still finds him among a performing ensemble, as in Stagecoach and The Long Voyage Home. Thank heaven he forfeits any attempt at a Southern accent. That’s always death to us real-life cornpones hoping for realistic depictions of mountain culture. Moonshining is an initial narrative focal point, dumped summarily in favor of feud palaver I never fully comprehended. Everyone’s so down in this --- never was there such a morose lot of hillbillies. The only tilt at humor is a donnybrook where Wayne gets conked in the head and, perhaps for the first time, does the cross-eyed comic take later to be so overworked. Big Bear Lake and the San Bernardino Mountains stand in for locations, and this is truly some of the best Technicolor I’ve seen rendered on DVD. Betty Field is way sexy as sole eligible female amongst the clans. She’s reason enough to have Shepherd Of The Hills, despite dialogue laden with stix-flavored mannerism (there’s nothing more irritating than self-consciously verbose rural philosophers forever clarifying everything they say with some off-putting analogy --- either in movies or real life). Surprising is fact robust mountaineers (Ward Bond among them) aren’t fighting like wildcats over Betty instead of meekly ceding her to Wayne. You keep wishing he’d grab the gal (They’ll be no locks nor bolts between us) and get on with a consummation. As it is, we’re dealing yet with Wayne the juvenile, his screen persona still not fully formed, so mild audience frustrations are more keenly felt by us in hindsight than would have been the case for 1941 viewers.
I’m all for comeuppance on the screen when it’s deserved. Gary Cooper filled Karl Malden full of holes at the end of The Hanging Tree, kicked him off the side of a mountain, and that was fine. Frenchie needed killing. On the other hand, there are shows where humbling gets excessive. John Wayne eats much crow in Pittsburgh, served up by a gallery of insufferable prigs we like far less than Duke’s overreaching coal tycoon. They’re punishing him for failure to join the group effort --- everyone’s shoulder to a common wheel --- and basis for all wartime preachment circa 1942. If it won’t help win the war, forget it! reads a banner we see as the picture opens on Randolph Scott's rah speech to munitions staff, words no doubt hammered into Universal scribes con-fabbing daily with military consultants assigned by the Office Of War Information. Never were films so compromised by outside dictates and policy as during this conflict. Even reviewers of the time lamented heavy dollops of propaganda inherent to virtually all Hollywood output. Any screen character reluctant to pull collective weight was brought to heel. It’s no fun seeing go-getter Wayne bow to OWI policy, but there was a war on, and big business freebooters of the Wayne/Pittsburgh/Gable/Boom Town pattern suggested profiteering more than patriotism, and thus needed harnessing for the good of all. Duke’s like a forerunner to Jett Rink, minus whining and sucker punches, and this being Universal, gets Louise Allbritton for a wife, plus Samuel S. Hinds for a father-in-law (his avuncular presence an absolute given in any motion picture bearing a Universal logo). Might we all petition the company to get started on a nineteen volume Samuel S. Hinds Legacy Collection? Leading lady Marlene Dietrich looks matronly beside youthful Wayne, burdened as she is with cumbersome "fashions." Was a woman ever so overly coiffed as Dietrich? One fur collar threatens to swallow her head. It seems she's changed outfits between one end of a corridor and the next. Dietrich would not be the only aging actress consumed by prevailing styles as passing years made her otherwise less relevent.