Hold up there, pilgrim.
Three films recently released by Lions Gate trace the path of John Wayne’s career in the late 1930s. All were originally released by Republic Pictures, with two of them — Westward Ho (1935) and Santa Fe Stampede (1938) — predating Wayne’s breakout Stagecoach performance, and the other coming after: Three Faces West (1940). Although the exterior DVD packaging is that of Lions Gate, the DVDs bear the imprint of Artisan on start-up, reflecting that company’s acquisition by Lions Gate. Each disc also reflects Artisan’s usual mediocre effort on its classic Republic titles. Unless Lions Gate has plans to improve the way Republic’s library has been dealt with to date, that library’s return to Paramount control can’t come soon enough.
* Westward Ho
John Wyatt and his brother Jim find themselves on opposite sides of the law when they are separated as youngsters following a deadly raid on their parents’ wagon train. Jim is taken by the raiders and brought up as an outlaw by the gang. Meanwhile his brother John, stunned by a fall during the raid, is overlooked by the raiders and later grows up to be a respectable rancher in California. John, however, continues to search for the raiders and organizes a troop of vigilantes aimed at rooting out all outlaws in the state. Inevitably, the two groups come into conflict, with dire consequences for both Wyatt brothers.
* Santa Fe Stampede
Dave Carson strikes it rich and offers to split the profits from his gold mine with the Three Mesquiteers who had originally grubstaked him. Meanwhile, crooked town mayor Gilbert Byron has his own designs on the mine and sends one of his henchmen to discover the mine’s real value. Caught and brought to town by the Mesquiteers, the henchman is quickly acquitted of any wrongdoing by the town’s weak justice of the peace, who is controlled by Byron. Disgusted at this result, the Mesquiteers raise a petition for improved law enforcement. One of the Mesquiteers, Stony Brooke, goes with Carson and his daughter to deliver the petition to the governor and to file an official claim on the gold strike. Byron’s men kill Carson and his daughter, and Byron manages to pin the murders on Stony. Stony is jailed and faces being burned to death when the townspeople are roused by Byron and his men to storm the jail.
* Three Faces West
Dr. Karl Braun and his daughter Leni are refugees driven from their homeland and seeking work in areas of the United States lacking adequate care by doctors. A letter from John Phillips, head of the farmers around Asheville Forks, North Dakota, brings the Brauns west. Upon arrival, they are faced with terrible dust storms and the needs of many sick families. These hardships, along with thoughts of her dead fiancé Eric, make Leni want to leave immediately for somewhere better, but her father insists on remaining. Leni soon adapts to the community and even falls in love with John Phillips. Then comes word that Eric is still alive and Leni goes to meet him in San Francisco. Meanwhile, Phillips must face more dust storms and the potential end of a way of life.
Unlike what the back of the Westward Ho disc would tell you, John Wayne did not begin his film career “as a two-fisted pistol-packin’ cowboy in a series of memorable Lone Star westerns.” He did appear in such a series, but it came after five years of apprenticeship at Fox beginning in 1926 and several years of contract work at both Columbia and Warner Bros. It was 1933 when the first of the Lone Star westerns appeared. There would be 16 of them, all released by Monogram, most directed by Robert N. Bradbury (father of western star Bob Steele), and many featuring such players as George “Gabby” Hayes, Lafe McKee, and Yakima Canutt. In 1935, Monogram combined with Mascot Pictures and Consolidated Film Industries to form Republic Pictures. Republic’s first release was Westward Ho which actually had much in common with the previous Monogram Lone Star westerns.
Westward Ho proved to be a pretty decent entry as B westerns go, and a good start for the new Republic operation. Republic budgeted about $34,000, which translated into better production values than the previous Monogram efforts. A plotline involving separated brothers (one played by John Wayne, the other by Frank McGlynn Jr.) provided an interesting twist to the otherwise standard tale of marauding outlaws and vigilante justice. Wayne looked very much at ease in his lead role, no doubt comforted by the cast and crew familiarity after 16 films together. Director Robert N. Bradbury moves the story along briskly with a liberal use of action sequences, effective running inserts during horseback pursuits, and some otherwise fluid camera movement. Yakima Canutt (later recognized as the finest stuntman / second-unit director of the Golden Age) plays one of the leading gang members, as well as doubling for Wayne on occasion. The fistfights are well staged, reflecting Canutt’s and Wayne’s experience with such stunt work over the life of the series. Look for Glenn Strange (who later played Frankenstein on film and the bartender in Gunsmoke on television) as one of the main vigilantes, and Dickie Jones as a young John Wayne. Wayne mouths the words for one song, but his singing voice is dubbed very unrealistically. (The actual singing was likely done by Smith Ballew.)
Wayne would do another seven westerns for Republic during 1935 to 1936, all of a fairly high standard, particularly King of the Pecos, previously released on DVD by Artisan, and The Lawless Nineties. He then moved over to Universal for a half-dozen B pictures that were action-oriented but not westerns. An appearance in one of Paramount’s Zane Grey series (Born to the West, widely available on DVD from numerous public domain specialists) followed before Wayne returned to Republic in 1938. There he took on the role of Stony Brooke, one of the Three Mesquiteers.
The Mesquiteers were the creation of western novelist William Colt MacDonald, who had obviously drawn on Alexander Dumas’s Three Musketeers for inspiration. There were a couple of early filmizations, including RKO’s all-star Powdersmoke Range in 1935, before Republic bought the rights. Republic would make a total of 51 films in its series during the period 1936 to 1943. When John Wayne became one of the Mesquiteers, he replaced Robert Livingston and joined Ray Corrigan and Max Terhune. The latter two along with Livingston are usually regarded as forming the best Mesquiteer trio. The likes of Bob Steele, Tom Tyler, and Duncan Renaldo among others would later take turns playing one of the trio’s three characters.
Wayne’s involvement came at a time when his career was at a low ebb. After the Universal films, he tried to hold out for something better, but offers for work in A pictures never came and reluctantly he returned to Republic. His replacement of Robert Livingston happened because Republic saw star potential in Livingston. Obviously it didn’t see such potential in Wayne, and Wayne realized it. The Mesquiteer films were superior B western efforts, but they were still aimed at the Saturday matinee crowd. Wayne would do eight of them, four of which appeared in 1938: Pals of the Saddle, Overland Stage Raiders, Red River Range, and Santa Fe Stampede.
While most of the 1938 offerings tended to have modern story elements (e.g., planes, refrigerated trucks) otherwise set in western locales, Santa Fe Stampede was a more traditional western with a fairly predictable plot. Despite that, it is an entertaining effort because of good chemistry among the star trio, and the presence of a number of familiar and welcome faces in supporting roles. Look particularly for Republic workhorse LeRoy Mason as the crooked town mayor, Tom London as a sympathetic marshal, and silent star William Farnum as miner Dave Carson. More importantly, Republic was starting to hit its stride, and its westerns had taken on the polished and action-filled characteristics for which the studio would become famous. Santa Fe Stampede contains, for example, an excellent climactic set piece involving an assault on the jail where Wayne is being held captive. William Lava’s fine scoring of the action sequences (another Republic characteristic) is also in evidence throughout, but particularly during several exciting horseback chases. The film’s only misstep is its rather rushed wrap-up.
Soon after this, the film that would finally mark John Wayne’s breakthrough — Stagecoach — hit North American screens. John Ford had shot the film in mid-fall 1938 after Republic reluctantly agreed to loan out Wayne’s services. Stagecoach was an immediate popular and critical success, with Wayne receiving a large share of the credit. But for a while, it didn’t seem to help. Wayne was still contractually tied to Republic, and the immediate order of business was the completion of his four remaining Three Mesquiteers pictures. With these finally in the can, Wayne struck a new arrangement with Republic that would see him become the studio’s A films star, with the right to also do films outside the studio each year. The first of these would be Allegheny Uprising for RKO, a decidedly pedestrian story of the Revolutionary War that particularly paled in comparison to John Ford’s Drums Along the Mohawk released at about the same time. Wayne then turned out the first of his Republic A pictures, Dark Command — a superior western entry (available on DVD from Artisan). The follow-up to that was 1940’s Three Faces West.
Three Faces West is not a western as the title might suggest, but an at-times awkward blend of the Okie-like struggles from the The Grapes of Wrath and the aspirations of political refugees from war-torn Europe. The film starts off well in its depiction of the plight of the European refugees, their placement across the United States, and particularly the dust storms that affect the community to which the Brauns (Charles Coburn and Sigrid Gurie) are summoned. There is at times a spare and almost documentary feel to these images, and the dust storm sequences bring particular credit to Republic’s special effects department (headed by Howard Lydecker). As the story progresses, it becomes more formulaic with its love triangle plot, and also harder to swallow as the long-suffering farmers seem to just fall into possession of good land further west by magic. Nonetheless, with its blend of socialism, melodrama, and propaganda, the overall effect is different from nearly anything else you may have seen from this era. Wayne seems quite assured in his starring role, and he gets good support from Coburn. Sigrid Gurie is adequate as Wayne’s love interest, although it’s never clear exactly what attracts him to her.
Lions Gate’s presentations of these films shows no imagination whatsoever. The films have just been thrown out on DVD with no effort at restoration, no subtitling, and no supporting material. With only Three Faces West (at 80 minutes) taking up more than an hour, it’s not as though disc space was at a premium. But then, we’re accustomed to this from Artisan, and Lions Gate appears to be making no effort to improve things. The full frame transfers (all in accord with the original aspect ratios) range from fair to middling in terms of both video and audio. Westward Ho is workable but suffers from an image that’s too dark at times, sports numerous speckles, and is lacking in shadow detail. Its mono sound is characterized by very noticeable hiss, although dialogue is generally quite intelligible. Santa Fe Stampede is an improvement on both fronts with clearer and cleaner audio, and a sharper image with somewhat better contrast. Three Faces West actually features quite a decent image — crisp with good shadow detail, although the usual speckling is present. The audio is about average for a film of this vintage.
In terms of the merit of the films themselves, John Wayne fans will doubtless want to have these three discs, and certainly Three Faces West will appeal to a wider audience. Unfortunately, their DVD presentation by Lions Gate (Artisan) offers little added inducement if you already have the films on VHS.