“Why that’s Singin’ Sandy…the most notorious gunman since Billy the Kid.”
The break that John Wayne received by being cast in the lead role of Fox’s large scale, widescreen 1930 western The Big Trail failed to propel him into the ranks of major stars — it was not until 1939’s Stagecoach that that would happen — and for the rest of the decade, he appeared in a succession of B films for both major and minor studios. Most of these films were westerns including some roles at Columbia supporting that company’s current B western stars — Buck Jones and Tim McCoy; a series of six starring roles for Warner Brothers that relied on stock footage from the company’s older Ken Maynard westerns; and a number of lead roles for Republic including seven entries in that company’s popular “Three Mesquiteer” series. During the period 1933-1935, Wayne hooked up with Monogram Pictures to star in 16 low-budget westerns called “Lone Star Westerns.” Columbia TriStar has now packaged five of these films (Riders of Destiny, West of the Divide, The Trail Beyond, Paradise Canyon, and Desert Trail) along with a single Columbia production (Two Fisted Law) into a two-DVD box set called John Wayne: The Duke.
Two Fisted Law (1932) — Rancher Tim McCoy along with assistance from hired hand John Wayne attempts to catch a crooked cattleman who has cheated McCoy out of his ranch.
Riders of Destiny (1933) — A secret service agent (John Wayne) is sent from Washington to work undercover at wresting ranchers’ water rights from a crooked gang leader.
West of the Divide (1934) — A young man (John Wayne) returns to his boyhood surroundings hoping to solve the murder of his father and the disappearance of his younger brother.
The Trail Beyond (1934) — John Wayne attempts to find a missing girl and gold mine in the Pacific Northwest.
Paradise Canyon (1935) — A government undercover agent (John Wayne) tries to catch a counterfeit ring operating near the Mexican border.
Desert Trail (1935) — Rodeo performer John Wayne finds himself involved in trying to solve a holdup.
This DVD release by Columbia is a rather curious one. It consists of one film that was originally a Columbia production, but the other five are all originally Monogram films that have received numerous DVD releases by way of the various public domain specialists (although it should be noted that this box set indicates that all the Monogram films included in it are copyright 1985 by Fox/Lorber Associates, Inc. — Classics Associates, Inc.). It is of course good to get all these films available on DVD from one of the majors, although the transfers are only slightly better than some of the public domain ones. Why, however, Columbia chose to release those titles when the company had four other Columbia films with John Wayne featured in them is strange indeed. How much better it would have been to have had a Columbia-only box set containing relative John Wayne rarities like Men Are Like That (1931, AKA Arizona), Range Feud (1931, starring Buck Jones), Maker of Men (1931, a football story starring Jack Holt), and Texas Cyclone (1932, starring Tim McCoy), in addition to Two Fisted Law included in the current set. For whatever reason, Columbia chose not to do that, however, so let’s look at what they did give us.
Columbia’s Two Fisted Law is the oldest and best of the six films in the box set. It is a Tim McCoy western and shows some care in its production, definitely standing out from the assembly-line look of some of the B western series of the time. John Wayne has a small supporting role and it’s also interesting to see Walter Brennan as a crooked deputy sheriff.
The other five films have much in common. They all originated with the same unit at Monogram, with Paul Malvern as producer, A.J. Stout as photographer, and in most cases with Robert N. Bradbury (cowboy star Bob Steele’s father) as director. Recurring cast members are George “Gabby” Hayes, Paul Fix, Yakima Canutt (who acted as a villain and also was Wayne’s stunt double so he sometimes ended up chasing himself on screen), Earl Dwire, and Lafe McKee. John Wayne, of course, has the starring part in all of them and frequently appears in an undercover role. Once, he even appears as singing cowboy, “Singin’ Sammy” (obviously dubbed by someone else), and we get the rather silly sequence of Wayne singing as he engages one of the bad guys in a shootout during Riders of Destiny. The films contain straightforward plots and are generally pleasant to sit through, clocking in at less than an hour in length for the most part. They are variable in action content with The Trail Beyond being best in that regard. An interesting note concerning this series of films is the fact that we start to see more realistic fight sequences than had heretofore been the case on screen. Yakima Canutt and John Wayne developed the techniques of the “pass system” that eventually became standard procedure for throwing on-screen punches. The real pleasure of the films, however, is seeing a gradual progression in Wayne’s comfort level on camera and the effort he puts into the roles. He was paid $2,500 per film, each of them having a total budget of $10,000 and a five-day production schedule.
Would that Columbia had put the same effort into delivering cleaned-up DVD versions of these films. While Two Fisted Law looks about the best of them, that’s not saying much. The other transfers are only slightly better than the numerous public domain versions already available. While watchable, much of the time, the images look soft with poor contrast and shadow detail. Scratches and speckles are the order of the day throughout, and there is the occasional distracting vertical line that pops up. All films are presented full frame in accord with their original aspect ratio and each has eight scene selections.
Mono sound tracks are provided for each film. These are subject to age-related hiss and crackling, and overall, they sound rather thin. Despite all that, though, dialogue is fairly clear and understandable. The real disappointment lies in Columbia’s decision to give us the versions of the Monogram films with the pathetic synthesizer music accompaniment — the ones that have been running on the likes of AMC and Encore Westerns of late. It’s not that there’s a lot of music in the films — it only tends to kick in during the chase sequences — but it just sounds so out-of-place (not to mention thin and wavery) that it can actually spoil the mood of the film. It’s just another piece of evidence that Columbia didn’t give much thought to this DVD release. English, French, and Spanish subtitles are provided.
Supplementary material is limited to a disc insert pamphlet that provides a two-page summary of the production background.
Despite the rather curious decision by Columbia to issue these films and the cavalier way they’ve been treated, I am pleased to have them available on DVD in other than completely substandard and questionable public domain versions. I can’t imagine that we’re ever going to see really cleaned-up versions of these films on DVD. Unfortunately, the decisions on the sound tracks may be a deal breaker for devoted John Wayne fans and being one, I can’t in all conscience endorse this set.