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Thursday, February 25, 2010

John Wayne's Last Good One

The John Wayne movies after True Grit were kind of a scraggly lot, but people still paid to see them. I remember going with my sister to the Rivoli in Myrtle Beach for Chisum the summer after Wayne got his Academy Award and the place was jammed to rafters. It impressed me at the time that so many would flock to look at a star who’d been around forty years and counting. Television stations were even back to running JW’s old Lone Star westerns from the early thirties as his name leaped again to Boxoffice Top Ten Lists. Wayne was virtually alone for being able to make home movies and call them major features. Most of these were under auspices of his Batjac company. All were done Duke’s way and nobody else’s. Costs stayed under four million as competing studio westerns bloated toward extravagance and loss. Wayne’s son Michael was efficient at producing and Dad didn’t have to worry about accounts being looted (as had been the case when outsiders oversaw previous coffers). The old man was by now well insulated by a team he could trust. So many had been with him from nearly the start. It was a policy great for comfort on location, but less promising as to merit of done product. Wayne got away with frankly weak films just for continuing to be John Wayne, not a small favor to millions who revered him. He promised in trailers that Hellfighters was the hottest picture I’ve made, and most were willing to forgive him the fact that it wasn’t. Understandable then how a man in Wayne’s position wanted to boss his sets, for as mentors like Ford, Hawks, and Hathaway faded fast going into the seventies, who was left he could look up to? I don’t care much for any of JW’s late vehicles save Big Jake. It remains for me the single oasis in a desert otherwise pretty arid. Am I alone for thinking this his best post-True Grit?

Big Jake skims the cream of what worked before for Wayne and much that would appeal to rougher trade stimulated by Dirty Harry and The Wild Bunch. In fact, it was contributors to the former (Harry Julian Fink and R.M. Fink) that wrote Big Jake. Much of their original concept for Dirty Harry anticipated Wayne in that role, but he turned it down to eventual regret. There’s a good deal of Harry in Jake. Both are loners and somewhat outcast. This was a departure for patriarch Wayne, generally in command of whatever environment his characters occupied, be it Chisum-sized ranches or Civil War troops in Rio Lobo. As Big Jake, he’s back to wandering with Hondo’s nameless dog companion after having been exiled off McLintock’s Garden of Eden. Opening credits link us to The Wild Bunch for Jake’s New(er) West time frame (c. 1909) and how the country had changed around him. A surprisingly violent kidnap/massacre demonstrates Wayne’s having made peace with bloodletting now demanded even in family westerns. He despised ethos of The Wild Bunch, but would borrow further from it. For the first time in seeming ages, JW has an opponent worthy of him in Richard Boone. The latter plays kidnapper as though his Frank Usher from The Tall T had merely regrouped from that failed enterprise and was ready to try again with a larger gang. Wayne and Boone’s parrying is by far the most satisfactory either actor engaged during years too often matched with weak partners.

Wayne’s twilight westerns were charm bracelets studded with names (beyond family) he figured would bring luck. Big Jake’s director was George Sherman. Why the italics? I guess just incredulity that such a fossil would be handed reins of an expensive feature at an age nearly Wayne’s own and after so long an inactivity other than short schedules doing television. Sherman brought tradition for having guided Wayne in buckets of Three Mesquiteer westerns for Republic. I’m guessing he was supportive when the star drew smaller checks and this was payback. Directors were by 1971 accustomed to being directed by Wayne. All they needed to do was show up and don the hat, difference being JW’s held ten gallons and he wore it tall. Playing on his team required knowing at all times who the captain was. I’d be curious as to how much someone like Bruce Cabot received for coming down to Durango. And John Agar. And Harry Carey, Jr. ... these and so many others of Duke’s stock company. Wayne liked shooting westerns there because Mexicans he hired worked harder and cheaper than American crews. He was always cash poor, it seemed. Does his family still derive coin from sustained cable runs of Big Jake? I remember when the Atlanta Superstations built primetime schedules around John Wayne. That was twenty-thirty years ago. Before even that, a friend passed along a home address and I chanced a letter to the actor with mention of having collected posters and memorabilia on his films. The letter shown here was John Wayne’s reply. I did reach the phone number he included and spoke to secretary (and later revealed intimate) Pat Stacy. She said he’d gone out to the fish camp for lunch and would be sorry to have missed my call (gulp!). Per request, I sent out my collection such as it was. Not wanting to seem boorish, I didn’t ask him to autograph any of the items (still should be wearing a Kick Me sign for that). Their return included a nice Thank You note, also with bold signature (and I don’t think either were secretarial). For the record, Wayne did not make it to Salisbury for that April 1978 Sportscaster’s presentation.


Anonymous sjack said...

You mean you didn't like "The Shootist"? It's one of the *very* few Wayne films I can actually stomach. He wasn't really my cup of tea but I have softened my harsh opinion of his films with age. A few months ago I happened across a showing of "Big Jake" (on TCM I think) and watched it in its entirety along with a friend. Pretty cut and dried formula type stuff but I did watch the entire film. It's obvious that he knew what buttons to push with the audience to keep them interested.

10:40 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

I figured someone would mention "The Shootist," a film I never could like. Wayne is fine, as are some of the others, but it's really an unpleasant film to watch (at least for me), and I always found Ronnie Howard to be an absolute kiss of death to any theatrical feature.

10:52 AM  
Blogger Kevin Deany said...

Probably my all-time favorite John Wayne movie. Not his best, mind you. I even know that. But it was the first John Wayne movie I ever saw, back as an impressionable nine-year-old one summer evening at the Dolton Theater (on a double feature with the incredibly gory “The Light at the Edge of the World” starring Kirk Douglas and Yul Brynner).

It’s been almost 40 years, but I can still remember the cheers and applause from a packed house when the movie ended with the freeze frame of Wayne and his family and that triumphant Elmer Bernstein music cue kicked in. I can understand when younger people say watching something like “Star Wars” or “Raiders of the Lost Ark” changed their lives, because it happened to me watching “Big Jake.” I’ve been a Wayne fan ever since that night, and it instilled a love for the western genre that has never abated over the years.

I think I like more of the post “True Grit” vehicles than you do, John. He’s great in “The Cowboys.” Often overlooked therein are the beautifully underplayed scenes with his wife, played by Sarah Cunningham. You really feel that the Will Anderson character is at the end of the rope – most unusual for a Wayne portrayal.

“The Train Robbers” holds up very well. I wish he and Burt Kennedy had worked together more. Heck, I wish Wayne and Rod Taylor had made more movies together. In “The Train Robbers” he’s without his usual gang, and the film is all the more intriguing because of it.

“McQ” also contains one of my all time favorite lines of dialogue. Wayne is threatening his informer to always give him the straight skinny or “I’m going to come back and iron your face.” “Iron your face.” I always liked that.

12:07 PM  
Anonymous Griff said...

I think THE SHOOTIST is a terrific motion picture, beautifully directed by Siegel. [I do share your fundamental misgivings about Ron Howard's performance in the film, though.]

In his book John Wayne's America: The Politics of Celebrity, author Garry Wills discusses BIG JAKE at some length; he also feels this is a real touchstone film for the Duke. Wills mentions that when Wayne arrived on the Durango location after production had commenced, he almost immediately instructed that Sherman's early work be mostly reshot. Wills' well researched, thoughtful book -- an unusual work for the political commentator -- is worth a look.

BIG JAKE certainly has the best plot of any of the late Batjac pictures, anyway, and the presence of O'Hara and Boone makes the movie worthwhile. I do wish the film was more carefully made -- it lacks a certain polish and style. Clothier's Panavision photography is very fine, of course (though this doesn't play well on pan-&-scan TV prints) and Elmer Bernstein's score is up to his usual standard.

Speaking of THE COWBOYS, I've always thought back over the years about a mid-'70s Film Comment interview with a Warners production exec (John Calley? Frank Wells? Ted Ashley?) who discussed the studio's tremendous pre-release enthusiasm for the picture (it tested extremely well, seemed like it would go through the roof) and its relative disappointment when it didn't perform that much better than say, CHISUM or BIG JAKE. [THE COWBOYS was a Warners production; Batjac was uninvolved.] Anyway, the executive had considered this matter for several years and had come to the conclusion that the ending of the film was basically misconceived.

[SPOILER for those who have never seen THE COWBOYS:]

At the conclusion of the film, the (very) young cowboys essentially hunt down and, yes, kill Long Hair (Bruce Dern) and the gang of cattle rustlers who murdered Wil (Wayne). This did give some (maybe more than some) audiences pause. Even in early 1972. Can't imagine what the Radio City audiences made of it.

The Warner exec's idea-in-retrospect was that the kids should have hunted down the gang and literally trapped them; he envisioned the last scene of the movie as featuring the young men quietly, soberly taking the cattle drive -- and their prisoners -- into town.


It sounded like a better movie to me, at any rate.

2:04 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Funny thing about "The Cowboys," Griff. Maybe I'm just bloodthirsty, but I felt that conclusion was too soft. After what Dern's gang had done to Wayne, it seemed to me a full-on "Wild Bunch" finish with the boys finishing off the entire lot of them was just the letting off of steam an audience needed. I was all for a much more violent settling of that score, and was disappointed so many punches were pulled.

Kevin, you've made me want to get out "The Train Robbers" and "McQ" and watch them again.

2:18 PM  
Blogger radiotelefonia said...

It is interesting to learn, thanks to these posters (the last one is from my native Argentina) that this film was released outside the United States by 20th Century-Fox.

8:52 PM  
Blogger Christopher said...

Big Jake is probablly the one I like best out my 3 fave 70s -Waynes..the others being The Cowboys and The Shootist..Director George Sherman was a frequent guest on Gene Aurty and Pat Butrams 1980s TNN show,Melody Ranch Theater and mentioned that DOG was actually Lassie(or one of the ones they used on the early 70s version of Lassie)painted black..and that the pooch had issues with Richard Boone as it was trained to react to swearing and loud talk..

11:08 PM  
Anonymous Bill Luton said...

Just to set the record straight John, I believe the dog from Hondo was actually called Sam in the film.

1:07 PM  
Blogger Dugan said...

"Big Jake" is not my favorite late career John Wayne western, I would also have to give it to "The Train Robbers" which looks great thanks to Duke's longtime employee William Clothier. I also have to single out "Brannigan" Wayne's cop out of water in London England film, which is a pleasant time killer and it does have the odd couple team of Wayne and Richard Attenborough.

1:48 PM  
Blogger Greg said...

The Cowboys is probably my favorite John Wayne film. Ever. maybe because I saw it at an immpressionable age but to this day I have an instant dislike for Bruce Dern on site. In the back?

4:11 AM  
Blogger JoeM said...

I am (and have been for decades) a HUGE John Wayne fan. I am actually a big fan of his films from all periods including the last decade of his career. I would claim everyone a classic, but I think the last ten years of his life saw three of his best films-True Grit, The Cowboys, and The Shootist. Of the rest of his output I consider two above average-Big Jake and Rooster Cogburn and the rest (with one exception) being fair to good.

That exception is Rio Lobo, which I like a lot. Even with it shortcoming I would put it somewhere between good and above average. If Howard Hawks had been a little young and had a slightly bigger budget, I think Rio Lob’s reputation would be a lot better today.

Of all these films, I feel the most underrated is Rooster Cogburn, which is usually dismissed as a combination sequel to True Grit and remake of The African Queen, but is is so much more. Wayne was excited to be back in the role that won him his Oscar, beauty location filming and I loved the shootout on the raft with the Gatling gun.

Not usually mention in Duke’s post True Grit films are the documentary No Substitute for Victory and his cameo in Bob Hope’s Cancel My Reservation.
The Shootist was not intended as his final film.

When he became ill, he was working on a project entitled Beau John, which would have also featured Ron Howard.

11:27 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Joe, I always thought the first twenty minutes or so of "Rio Lobo" was fantastic, with the bees in the boxcar, the guy with the broken neck, etc. If only the rest of it could have been as good ...

Dugan, I recently saw "Brannigan" for the first time on HD Net Movies. Some good scenes there, but Wayne seems much older in his modern dress police pics than in the westerns. Especially when he's having to chase suspects on foot and that sort of thing.

Bill, thanks for setting me straight about Hondo's "Sam" --- guess I just have an affinity for nameless dogs.

12:17 PM  
Blogger Christopher said...

I gotta throw Rio Lobo in there too..David Huddleston delivers one of the all time great lines as the dentist when he gives the Dukes tooth a good yanking with pliers to get him to holler more when hes only supposed to be pretending to,and says.."Well if you'd been a good actor I wouldn't have used it" which Wayne gives him that Whats THAT supposed to mean?" look..

11:01 PM  
Blogger normadesmond said...

a great letter from wayne!

11:18 PM  
Blogger Filmfanman said...

JoeM is right about 'Rooster Cogburn': it really is so much more.
Consider that the Cogburn character goes after the gang without any help from his community at all - the promised help from the community, the posse, never appears - and yet Cogburn continues on despite that lack on his now-suicidal mission, knowing full well that there are nine guys in the gang he's after, and without any kind of a plan of action.
Consider also that after her father and friends are killed, Hepburn's teacher/missionary entirely ignores what she has been taught and (presumably) has taught others - as stated in the Bible's Book of Proverbs: "Vengeance is mine, sayeth the Lord, I will repay"; instead she decides on, in fact insists on, accompanying Cogburn on his suicidal mission into the wilds "to see that justice is done". This aged schoolmarm/missionary is soon seen shooting gang members in the back from hiding as calmly as if she had done so a hundred times before.
In fact, it seems that the only cast member who actually follows a sane and rational course of action - as in methodically following a previously thought-out series of intermediate steps to reach a desired final goal - is Richard Jordan's gang leader character; but yet, due to the way Jordan plays the character, he's the one who comes across during the film as being crazy. On reflection, I now read Jordan's character as being not so much crazed as simply exasperated - by the crazy and irrational, indeed apparently suicidal, pair of old coots working against him.
So I see Wayne and Hepburn playing oldsters literally driven crazy by the violence they have witnessed or have been a part of during their lives in the Old West; and, being crazy, they have both become reckless of any personal danger, and so they go after the gang. In the film, the mental state of the oldsters is made clear: as to Cogburn, by the Judge when he strips Cogburn of his law enforcement job right at the outset of the film, and as to Hepburn, by her actions in standing up to the gang's angry, gun-firing leader while she loudly recites the Lord's prayer.
And yet, their aged and crazy recklessness in the pursuit of their ideals turns out to be what saves their community from the damage threatened by the calculated and cold-blooded crimes undertaken by the youthful villains in their pursuit of material gains. And so there's a satisfying happy ending to all the tragic craziness.
It is an underrated film. Age versus youth, 'winging it' versus calculation, crazy old idealists versus calculating youthful materialists, good versus evil - this film has all that - plus there's some beautiful scenery to look at once in a while, too. Great fun.

2:39 PM  

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