John Wayne’s stature as an iconic movie star continues to grow with the passage of time and this July, five features from Wayne’s early filmography make a welcome return to DVD & Blu-ray at JB Hi-Fi.
DARK COMMAND (1940) – Directed by Raoul Walsh
Following John Wayne’s standout performance in John Ford’s landmark western Stagecoach (1939), Republic Studios took advantage of their rising star’s success and cast him in their first A-western, Dark Command. With a proposed budget of $700,000 the studio brought in the respected director Raoul Walsh, who ten years earlier had given Wayne his screen name. The film was a historical drama loosely based on the Missouri border raider William Quantrell during the American Civil War. Wayne plays Bob Seaton, an illiterate drifter who finds approval from the townsfolk of Lawrence, Kansas, and becomes their elected federal marshal. Seaton’s adversary and romantic rival is Will Cantrell (Walter Pidgeon) – both men vying for the hand of Mary McCloud (Claire Trevor). Walsh’s sharp eye for action delivers some well-staged sequences including an incredible stunt of a wagon careering over a cliff (performed by the expert stuntman Yakima Canutt), and the grand finale of Cantrell’s burning of Lawrence. Look out for character actor George “Gabby” Hayes providing comic relief as Wayne’s sidekick, and the singing cowboy Roy Rogers in one of his early serious roles. The film was a box-office hit and received two Academy Award nominations.
FLAME OF BARBARY COAST (1945) – Directed by Joseph Cane
This film was touted as the crowning achievement of Republic’s first decade in the movie business. The story concerns the romantic adventures of cattleman Duke Fergus (Wayne), who comes to San Francisco to collect money owed him by the owner of a rip-roaring gambling saloon. Whilst there he meets the beautiful Flaxen (who gives the film its title), played by Ann Dvorak. Cheated out of his money due to his gambling inexperience, Duke is not one to be beaten so easily. The film is a mix of gambling, fights and shoot-outs, culminating in an impressive staging of San Francisco’s famed 1906 earthquake. Wayne delivers a fine performance as do the supporting cast, which includes Butterfly McQueen, who played Prissy in Gone with the Wind.
WAKE OF THE RED WITCH (1948) – Directed by Edward Ludwig
By the time this film was released, John Wayne was ranked fourth in a poll of most popular stars. He returned to Republic to make this panoramic tale about fortune hunters in the South Pacific. Wayne’s role of Captain Ralls is a man who inspires passionate extremes – hated by his enemies and worshipped by the South Pacific islanders. When Ralls and ship company owner Sidneye (Luther Adler) meet the island governor’s daughter, Angelique (Gail Russell), both fall passionately in love with her. Thus begins the bitter, poisonous enmity between the two men. They eventually converge on the sunken wreck of the Red Witch, perched on a rock shelf, which contains a cargo of gold bullion. Sidneye agrees to share the bullion if Ralls salvages it. But the islanders warn Ralls that the wreck is the home of a huge octopus. Wayne named his film production company Batjac after the name of shipping company in this film. The movie also features a first for Wayne – due to his gradual hair loss, he now wears a toupee.
THE FIGHTING KENTUCKIAN (1949) – Directed by George Waggner
Set in Alabama in 1818, Wayne stars as John Breen, a rifleman with the second Kentucky Regiment who is marching back home. Whilst in Mobile he falls for a girl who is the daughter of a French general who, following the fall of Napoleon, has led a number of exiles from France to settle in Alabama. An Act of Congress in 1817 granted these French settlers four townships in the state. However, wealthy and powerful businessmen plot to dispossess the French of the lands they intend to settle. This flares into conflict but Wayne and his Kentucky riflemen come to the rescue. The film contains a great performance from Oliver Hardy, playing Wayne’s sidekick in a rare solo turn for the rotund comic without his partner Stan Laurel. This was also the film that Chuck Roberson first doubled as a stuntman for Wayne, which would continue for the next three decades.
RIO GRANDE (1950) – Directed by John Ford
The third and last of Ford’s renowned US Cavalry trilogy, all starring Wayne. Here he plays Lt Col. Kirby Yorke, commanding officer at Fort Starke, who is frustrated by the Apache raiding homesteads and escaping across the Rio Grande back into Mexico. Yorke is not allowed to cross the border to pursue them. His son, whom he has not seen for fifteen years, has joined Yorke’s command as an enlisted man after having flunked West Point. Yorke’s estranged wife (played by Maureen O’Hara) arrives to retrieve her son and take him home. Their break-up resulted after Yorke was ordered – during the Civil War – to burn the family plantation of his Southern-born wife, an act for which she has never forgiven him. When several women and children are captured by the Apache, the rescue effort is heroically aided by the daring efforts of young Trooper Yorke. This is first of five films that Wayne was teamed with O’Hara, which would immortalise them as a memorable screen couple.