The Genius That Is Big Jim McLain's
To think we English speakers have gone years thinking Big Jim McLain was merely John Wayne fighting Communists. Little did I realize BJM was an all-purpose commodity easily adaptable to market needs here and over there, as evidenced by Euro posters at right and below. Marijuana, their reimagining of Jim McLain as drug-buster thanks to overdubbing and judicious edits, was customized for German, Italian and who knows what other foreign sites. Makes sense inasmuch as continentals vested little in our stateside struggle with Red hijinxs, a punk enterprise for Yank-heroic Wayne to be concerning himself with in any case. Look at Big Jim McLain (currently a Netflix HD stream) and see how easy its jigsaw might mix or match. Remove opener/closing portions, revolved around HUAC hearings, and this pic could be about anything, so devilishly simple are changes you'd apply to its one-size-fits-all format. John Wayne produced the show with partner Robert Fellows, his first independent under that banner, and I'm wondering if he thought up the idea. Overseas money was vital for breaking even by the fifties. Restricting appeal to US markets was no viable option. Watch Big Jim McLain and note how flexible it is to any topic in the deck. Hawaii-bound Wayne could be investigating contraband pineapples for choices handlers enjoyed with scissors and subbed voicing here, Big Jim McLain itself more than a ripe candidate for 2011 You Tube mash-upping.
Variety reported the film as having come about as result of Warners being unable to find a "suitable yarn" for Wayne to fulfill his 1952 installment of a one-a-year deal they'd shook on earlier. Operation Pacific had been the last, with follow-up overdue. WB proposed The Sea Chase, featuring Wayne as a trade-described "Nazi sea captain," said part understandably Duke-nixed (he'd play it in modified mode later). The star had been spoiling toward independence after a fashion of names he'd surpassed (or nearly so) boxoffice-wise. New dealing would call for he and Fellows to deliver a brace of shows in addition to ones Wayne was previous pledged to, first of which, Jim McLain, was found and developed by the team. Warners agreed to advance $750,000 toward its making, a crew headed for extensive location in the Hawaiian islands, that site also used for Fox's Bird Of Paradise and MGM's Pagan Love Song, both then-recently in release. Wayne wouldn't cheat on scenics for Big Jim McLain. Virtually all his outdoor stuff, and much of the interiors, were shot against real background, process screens used but sparingly (only a week to ten days scheduled for studio lensing). All this was fill-up for audiences who'd not experienced island vistas so generously ladled out, Wayne himself and not mere second units enjoying it with his public. I'm guessing Big Jim McLain did a lot for Hawaii tourism. Watching it now, especially in HD, makes me almost want to fly there ...
Let's forget politics and consider what's delightful about Big Jim McLain. First, it's John Wayne with what's left of his hair down (age forty-five circa 1952) and as relaxed here as ever I've seen him in modern dress. That last is a key. How often did this actor go jaw-busting in casual attire we could shop for in hometowns? (and yes, there were fashion tie-ins). JW spends much of BJM in Hawaiian shirt and sandals, one punch at a low-level Red administered not in reprisal for espionage, but for the guy's having rumpled Duke's sportswear. Big Jim McLain wasn't meant then or now to be taken too seriously, whatever its ideological licks at beginning and end. Clear forecast is here of a laid-back Wayne to come, his performance keyed to make clear this star's recognition of what fans most enjoyed seeing him do. JW-produced comfort westerns ahead were very much built on foundation of Big Jim McLain.
I'll hand it to Wayne for casting even-taller James Arness as investigating sidekick, rendering the pic's title something of a misnomer for the latter's being real-life Big(er) Jim. There is Nancy Olson for Wayne's love interest (an unmarried couple here, but for all the world, they seem to be living together). Of his non-Ford romantic pairings, this may be JW's most appealing. Much time goes to sight-seeing and terrace dining with the pair, obvious plants to show off Hawaii and never mind slowing of pace, this is like observing courtly Wayne off-hours dating, a privileged glimpse fans might do well treasuring (JW's second marriage cracking up as BJM was being shot). A segment I particularly liked has Wayne and Olson walking full length of the Royal Hawaiian Hotel's elegant lobby, gawking tourists in lower-lit background no doubt storing memory of this encounter with movie stars on location. Big Jim McLain pretty much gives up on action quotient given fact that heavies here are of intellectual bent, being Communist after all, and where's sense of having Wayne lay fragile Alan Napier out cold? Fists connect seldom, and mostly with straw henchmen put there as punch bags for Duke and staff who'll be doing stills and trailers. Big Jim McLain was/is a model star vehicle on autopilot setting. They couldn't all be Red River and The Quiet Man, after all. Ticket sales would make up for doubts expressed in reviews (buncha snooty easterners, as dismissed by Wayne), with two million in domestic rentals, $661,000 foreign, and ultimate profit of $1.2 million. Warners rewarded Big Jim McLain's success (and that of Plunder Of The Sun, also from Wayne-Fellows) by extending pact with the producing pair to four years, which would give WB and Wayne among their biggest paydays of the 50's.