Sunday, October 9, 2011

DVD Review: John Wayne Triple Feature (1932).

John Wayne Triple Feature (1932)


(Released: 2006 by The Warner Home Video)
Another looong DVD Review by Joe Torcivia

Summary: Hit the trail with Leon, The Duke, and “The Other, Original Duke”!

What we have here is NOT “a failure to communicate” as Strother Martin might say, but a trio of dusty old John Wayne B-Westerns, made at the very beginning of “The Duke’s” career – years before boarding the… um, “Stagecoach” that would make him a star!

That alone should mean SOMETHING, with regard to entertainment value, even if the impetus amounts to nothing more than curiosity.

But, there are aspects to this that are far more fascinating!

John Wayne may have starred in these films, but he was not yet “The Duke”. That name was reserved for his HORSE!

Yes, really!

Duke” was the name of John Wayne’s HORSE in this series of short films – each lasting close to one hour in duration. Honestly, I never knew this until learning of this series of films by watching several trailers of them included as an Extra Feature of the “Rio Bravo” DVD set – which I only purchased due to hearing that “Rio Bravo” was John Wayne’s answer to Gary Cooper’s classic western “High Noon”.

The story of how the horse’s name attached itself to John Wayne remains a mystery to me – though, I’m certain SOMEONE out there can shed some light.

The trailers not only seemed to introduce “Duke” (the horse) as nearly an equal co-star to John Wayne – but they seemed to be almost “funny”, in a fast-motion, manic-range-riding sort of way. This is especially so for that for “The Big Stampede”.

These trailers may have piqued my interest in those early western curiosities, offering an very early look at a Hollywood legend and lots of fast-paced action – but it was catching a glimpse at the name of the PRODUCER that sealed the deal for me…

…Would you believe LEON SCHLESINGER?!


Leon Schlesinger… the man behind the Warner Bros. series of LOONEY TUNES and MERRIE MELODIES theatrical cartoon shorts!

Leon Schlesinger… Who appeared as “himself” in the Porky Pig and Daffy Duck cartoon “You Ought to be in Pictures” (1940), and who appeared in the second issue of the LOONEY TUNES and MERRIE MELODIES comic book in 1941!

Was Leon Schlesinger -- THAT Leon Schlesinger – in some way instrumental in giving world the immortal John Wayne – and giving John Wayne his immortal nickname?
Eh…. Could be! (…As they might have said in one of his classic cartoons!)



The films contained herein certainly make the case! Let’s look at them, shall we…

“Ride Him Cowboy” (1932) Runs 55:17.

Duke (the horse) is on trial for his life, after being framed for a violent attack on a ranch hand! (Again… Yes, really!) Actually, Duke was protecting the hand from the thieving gang of “The Hawk”, a shadowy bandit who strikes at night against honest ranchers.

John Wayne (as “John Drury”) rides into town in the midst of these proceedings and, as is his wont, comes to the aid of the horse – just before he is condemned to death. He claims that if he can break and ride him, that Duke will be a danger to no one. Rancher’s daughter “Ruth” is overjoyed and grateful when Drury backs his boast, saving Duke from his unjust reward – and takes the expected “shine” to the handsome stranger.

The rest of the plot lies in deducing the identity of “The Hawk” (Pretty obvious, I’d say, even by 1932 standards – just look for the most vocal anti-Duke voice at the “trial”!), and that guy’s attempt to leave Drury to perish on the desert and frame him for murder. I’d probably not be spoiling much by saying that Duke saves “The Duke” – and the two appear to form a “beautiful friendship” that carries over into subsequent films, such as…

“The Big Stampede” (1932) Runs 53:21.

At the “intersection” of Arizona and New Mexico (marked by a signpost resembling a corner street sign, in a frontier sort of way), settlers are warned to turn back or face the lawlessness of the New Mexico Territory. New Mexico Deputy Sheriff “John Steele” (Wayne) is dispatched to the scene, and finds that “respected rancher” Sam Crew (Noah Beery) and HIS er, “crew” is the chief desperado and rustler. Crew intends to take the cattle of an approaching caravan of settlers, as he has often done before.

Complicating matters is a SECOND band of rustlers, Mexicans led by “Sonora Joe”. Actor Luis Alberni, as “Sonora Joe”, steals the picture (as well as a few head of cattle) with nearly all of the film’s best dialogue:

There is the old saying… When the cat, she works – the mouse, she steals the cattle!”

Already, too many rustlers in these hills! Pretty soon, we cannot make an honest living!"

Where there is smoke, there is fire… from Sonora’s guns!”

Steele converts Sonora Joe and his men to the side of the law, and they are instrumental in bringing Crew’s murdering henchman, “Arizona” to justice.

There is the expected wild shootout in the dark, a precocious kid with a slingshot, his older sister who (all together now), takes a “shine” to Steele, and the wonderful stock footage, fast-motion, titular “stampede” that Steele turns in an unexpected direction that kills Crew!

Oh, yes… and what of Duke? John Wayne’s equine co-star does not appear until 17:33 of the 53:21 film, but he makes the most of his screen time. In short order he:

• Herds cattle.

• Shoves bandits.

• Knocks on a door to provide a diversion.

• Sees Steel get ambushed, and gallops off to get help!

What a horse!

“Haunted Gold” (1932) Runs 57:28.

We begin, rather uncharacteristically, with an ANIMATED BAT (…and a cartoony one, at that) flying directly at us, over the opening credits sequence. “John Wayne and Duke in Haunted Gold” is our title, and done-up in something resembling a horror-like dripping effect. Five more animated bats accent the list of players and other credits, finally dissolving into the image of a black hooded and cloaked “Phantom”. Again… Yes, really!

This time, Wayne is “John Mason”, Duke is still “Duke”, and they are joined by his hand “Clarence” played by actor Blue Washington, as an unfortunately stereotypical black character who exists to be scared by the horror trappings of the piece, employing the expected wide-eyed wild takes. Indeed, one wonders if there were no wild, scared takes to be done, would the character of “Clarence” even BE in this film.

Alas, as expected, Clarence gets to deliver lines like: “The SPIRIT am willin’ – but the FLESH am stallin’!”

While John Wayne gets the more stalwart lines like: “Looked to me like somebody was getting’ a dirty deal – thought I’d CUT IN!” (Sigh!) That’s Hollywood in the ‘30s.

That aside, and I fully realize that not everyone will be able to put that aside, “Haunted Gold” is actually a fun picture, full of “fast action silent-era stock footage”, old buildings with sliding panels and secret passages, a creepy old mine, a would-be heiress who (once again) takes a “shine” to John Mason, a slimy villain, and (best of all) the aforementioned black hooded and cloaked “Phantom”! …No animated bats appear anywhere in the film – more’s the pity!

If anything it takes a cue from the 1930 Floyd Gottfredson Mickey Mouse newspaper strip continuity “Race to Death Valley” – and is more in a “Dell Comics Adventure” mode than any John Wayne vehicle has a right to be.

Indeed, THIS 1950 Dell comic book may very well have been influenced by “Haunted Gold”. …And Porky Pig WAS created on Leon Schlesinger’s watch!

Oh, and as for “Duke”, he merely saves John Wayne TWICE, tips Clarence off to where a gang of bandits is holding Wayne, goes back to the ranch to get additional help – and dives a bad guy off the edge of a cliff, where he falls to his death! Not a bad day’s work for a movie “wonder-horse”!

As is our custom in these reviews, we’ll break it into CONS and PROS.

The CONS:

An Absolute Lack of Extra Features: Okay, so we DO get THREE John Wayne movies for about 12 bucks, but NO Extra Features whatsoever? At this time, Warner was pumping out lavishly loaded sets for the “Big Pictures” – and even for some of the “Not So Big Ones”, so why is not as much as a trailer for each film included here? Too bad, because, as anyone possessing the “Rio Bravo” set will attest, these are VERY entertaining trailers!

My standard for a movie DVD’s Extra Features is the inclusion of a theatrical trailer for the film, a commentary track, and “making-of” or background featurette. Despite some good entertainment value for the dollar – especially as it is from a major studio then known for its copious Extra Features – John Wayne Triple Feature (1932), nevertheless, receives a major CON for its “Nega-Trifecta” in this area.

The closest this package comes to supplying any information on these films is a paragraph of TEXT on the rear or the package:

Twenty-Five Year old John Wayne saddles up in three of six early 1930s shoot-‘em-ups made for Warner Bros. and previously filmed with silent-screen cowboy Ken Maynard. [ The three films are described in one-sentence synopses ] Billed with Wayne in each of the three films is the white stallion Duke (chosen to match Maynard’s horse in intercut footage from the earlier films).

Given the future mega-stardom of John Wayne, not to mention how Duke the Horse came to give Wayne his name, let alone the near-forgotten live action productions of Leon Schlesinger, the lack of such features to discuss these aspects is regrettable indeed.

The PROS:

It’s John Wayne: See the future legend as a young “rookie”! The qualities he rode to stardom were present even then!

It’s Leon Schlesinger: You could just imagine what Tex Avery or Bob Clampett could have done with these very same plots, just a few years later, in the service of Mr. S.

It’s Duke the Wonder Horse: Watch Duke undo a saddle, run off his competition, rescue John Wayne – do everything but TALK! We’ll have to wait until “Mister Ed” for that! That is ONE SMART horse!

It’s Hand-Cranked, Artificially Sped-Up, Silent-Era Action: With all that collection of descriptive words entails! …And, we’d never know, if not for a paragraph of text on the box!

Overall:

John Wayne and Duke made these three “Cowboy-Quickies” in 1932, and made three more in 1933. They are marvelously entertaining for what they are, and give us an early view of “The Duke” that one hardly ever sees! …And a view of “Duke” (the horse) that, outside of those six pictures, no one ever sees!

In addition, the films are cleaned-up and remastered to an amazing degree! Great job by Warners!


John Wayne Triple Feature (1932) is recommended for fans of John Wayne, old western films, trick-horses, hoary western plots with lots of fast action, campy western characters – both slimy and of the comedy relief variety, Old Warner Bros. films, Leon Schlesinger and the early Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies he produced… and the curious! Perhaps, most of all “the curious” – like me!

9 comments:

Pete Fernbaugh said...

Wow!! Truly fascinating stuff, Joe. Where did you purchase this set?

I like your three requirements for a good DVD set. How many times has Disney failed with its TV shows in this regard?

Anyway, great unheralded find. You beat Maltin to the punch on this one. :)

Joe Torcivia said...

Pete:

Always glad to see you in my comments section. For the life of me, I can’t figure why this post didn’t draw more comments than it did, considering the many layers of film, animation, and comics oddity that it presented.

Perhaps I hid those “surprises” too well, and my normal constituency simply glossed over (or outright skipped) the notion of a John Wayne review. And, hey… John Wayne made some GREAT FILMS. Try “True Grit” sometime, or go all the way back to “Stagecoach”.

Meanwhile, I'm glad you were as surprised and delighted as I was over the contents of this collection, and the many ways that it intersects with my more typical pop-cultural interests.

As for finding the set, after seeing those wonderful trailers I described in the post, I searched on the titles at Amazon and found that THREE of them are together on one set (1932 films), and the other three (1933 films) are on another – which I hope to review someday.

Also note those “three requirements” of mine are for a MOVIE DVD set. Sometimes an animation set meets them, but more often (especially lately) it does not. Warner’s was once the best at that, but no longer. Though, the upcoming TOM AND JERRY and LOONEY TUNES Blu-ray sets show great promise in that regard.

And, no… I don’t think ANYONE could beat the great Leonard Maltin to the punch, but I AM surprised that these films are unknown to Looney Tunes enthusiasts. Their existence (or more to the point, the producer of them) sure came as a surprise to me.

…Now, if only someone could tell me how Duke the Horse’s name attached itself to John Wayne!

Joe.

Anonymous said...

Actually, I believe Wayne was nicknamed "Duke" before he even went into show business. More than one biography of him said that, as a boy, he owned a dog named Duke, and that friends called the dog "Little Duke" and Wayne (then Marion Morrison) "Big Duke."

Joe Torcivia said...

Yes, I’ve since learned that to be true (...at least as “true” as any Hollywood legend might be!) from an Extra Feature on “The Big Trail” 2-disc DVD set. It also goes into the origins of the name “John Wayne”.

Though, I’ve still gotta wonder about the name “Duke” for the HORSE! Coincidence, or by design?

I have a review written and stored for “The Big Trail” – just waiting for the right time to spring on my unsuspecting public.

“The Big Trail”, as I’ve also since learned, was an amazing “A-Picture” epic that predated the “B-Pictures” discussed here – and, while virtually forgotten today, is a very post-worthy topic!

Anonymous said...

There is also a version that says the dog was "Big Duke" and young Morrison was "Little Duke." But I've never seen an article or blog that explained the horse's name.

Niels Hansen said...

Great review. I'm thinking of picking up this set (along with the 1933 collection), but there are not many reviews out there for these films. I would like to know one thing: do these films contain subtitles or is only closed captions?

Joe Torcivia said...

Welcome aboard, Niels!

As you can see, I enjoyed these films very much. In fact far more than I thought I would. I’d certainly recommend the set very highly!

As for subtitles, I’m not in a position to check that now but, if you come back by the end of the weekend, I’ll have done it and will post the answer here.

Joe.

Joe Torcivia said...

Niels:

I checked both the 1932 and the 1933 sets and, alas, there are no subtitles.

It’s basically just the three films, without even trailers – though, they can be found on the “Rio Bravo” set. But, for the price, it’s well worth it!

Joe.

Niels Hansen said...

Thanks for the answer, Joe. I'm going to pick up these sets along with the Randolph Scott sets.