January 22, 2013

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Marion Morrison had to work hard to become John Wayne. His earth-straddling lope and taffy-stretched line readings were not invented by John Ford or Howard Hawks, only finely exploited by them. The flood of Republic Pictures movies released on Blu-Ray by Olive Films illustrates this fact, filling in the blanks of the evolution of one of the screen’s most indelible personalities. Following the box-office failure of the Raoul Walsh masterpiece The Big Trail (1930), Wayne would have to wait nearly a decade before his delayed acceptance as part of Hollywood’s firmament in John Ford’s Stagecoach (1939). The period in between shows him sliding into obscurity, from Columbia and Warners down to the resourceful Poverty Row studios Mascot, Monogram and the slightly more reputable Republic. Olive has so far transferred sparkling editions of seven of the Republics, most of which finds him stepping in to play Stony Brooke, the leader of the long-running Western trio The Three Mesquiteers (he already played in a modern dress Three Musketeers for a 1933 Mascot serial – endless remakes are nothing new). Stony Brooke is lithe and quick where the classic John Wayne figures are slow-moving monuments, visible in Olive’s gorgeous 4K scan of The Quiet Man, out today on Blu-ray, but his Mesquiteers voice exudes the chummy warmth and presence of Wayne-ness, not yet weighed down with history.

The Mesquiteers films were Wayne’s second go-round at Republic, after a series of low-cost A action films at Universal failed to ignite audience interest. He told Maurice Zolotow that “the exhibitors wouldn’t touch a John Wayne movie with a ten-foot projector”, so when his Universal contract expired, he returned to Republic at a lowered salary. He considered his return the lowest point of his career, and was suitably dismissive of his work in this period, saying “Christ, they were awful. They were kids’ movies.” Secretary Mary St. John recalled that Wayne looked like a “wounded puppy — sad, frustrated and unhappy. He felt like his career has bottomed out.” Yet these are marvelously entertaining works, with spectacular stunts directed with speed and clarity by George Sherman, Joe Kane, and other Republic craftsmen. Wayne may have been in a depressive funk, but on film he registers with his lighthearted, almost lilting delivery, emitting from a powerfully angular frame knifing through the wilderness.

While John Ford’s Wayneare always haunted by the past, his step slowed to allow his pained memories to emerge around him, the Republic Wayne is engaged in the perpetual now of a chase. Stony is without past or future, each Mesquiteers film a new beginning. Paired mostly with fellow upright gent Tucson Smith (Ray Corrigan) and comic ventriloquist sidekick Lullaby Joslin (Max Terhune), these three earnest cowhands inevitably get roped in to save their community from evil land developers of one shade or another. These quickies are strongly pro-New Deal, pitting the Mesquiteers against a parade of oily land speculators and tin-pot dictators. In this series Wayne is, above all else, a community organizer.

Ostensibly a Western series, the constant need for stories (Wayne made 8 in less than two years) incorporated all manners of cliffhanging dramatics, from the crime procedural of Red River Range (where Stony impersonates a gangster) to the surreal circus comedy of Three Texas Steers. By the end of the Mesquiteers’ time-folding run, they were fighting Nazis. The most elaborately strange of the Wayne Republics would have to be The Night Riders (1939), which imports a Mexican revolution narrative onto the Western U.S. A disgraced cardsharp is convinced to impersonate a Spanish nobleman in order to claim a “Western Empire” of 13 million acres from forged land grants. So what starts as a riverboat gambling brawler ends up as a revolutionary war drama, complete with the Mesquiteers donning masks as a violent protest group, redistributing wealth with the verve of a 99-percenter. The vigilante trio even stumbles into the bedroom of a slumbering President Garfield, who can only offer back channel support against the Western Empire dictator, his hands tied by the isolationist mood of the government. Screenwriters Betty Burbridge and Stanley Roberts stole not only from pulp novels but from the headlines, as FDR was battling isolationist sentiments even as Hitler had invaded Czechoslovakia in March ’39. The Night Riders was released on April 12th.

Wayne’s career was at a standstill until his friend John Ford cast him in Stagecoach. Eager for the chance to star in an A picture, he accepted the part of Ringo Kid for the low salary of $3,000, barely above his Republic pay. In comparison, the female lead, Claire Trevor, would receive $15,000. Republic agreed to release him to film the project in return for $600 a week. Herbert Yates had no expectations that the film would raise Wayne’s standing. In fact, by the time Stagecoach was released in March of 1939, Wayne was already back making the Mesquiteers quickies Three Texas Steers, Wyoming Outlaw and New Frontier. But eventually the film’s overwhelming success, both critically and at the box office, made Wayne a valuable commodity, and he became their A feature star, for the one or two big budget features they produced each year. Dark Command (1940), one of the first results of this new contract, reunited Wayne with director Raoul Walsh, who had tapped him for stardom ten years previously in The Big Trail.

Wayne’s performances, perhaps chastened by the incessant insults Ford would throw at him on set, became more deliberate and thoughtful, as if he weighed each word before letting it loose. This makes Wayne’s characters seem haunted from the first frame in Ford’s works, even in the sprightly Irish romance The Quiet Man, in which Wayne is dogged by an accidental murder in his past. Winston Hoch’s luminous cinematography, which elaborates an endless palette of greens, can do nothing to prettify the striding husk of Wayne, who drags his violent history along with him into every frame. When he sees Maureen O’Hara emerge like a flame-haired ghost in the open plain though, some of that Mesquiteers lightness returns.