Sunday, December 11, 2016

Bookends for a Legend

This is my post for the John Wayne blogathon hosted by Hamlette's Soliloquy  and The Midnite Drive-In.  (Today is my birthday, which is why I held off until the last day!!!)

John Wayne had a stellar career.  Beginning in 1926, he began getting small parts and walk-on roles, most of which, in  those early days were non-speaking roles.  Many of his early roles were as a member of the crowd. In 1928, for example, he appeared in the flood scenes in Michael Curtiz's Noah's Ark (which somehow manages to be missed when listing the movies in which John Wayne died... I haven't found this one yet, but since Wayne was not billed as Noah or one of his sons, it stands to reason he must have died in the Flood...)  Also, being a former player for the USC football team, he got several roles as a member of a football team in scenes where the team was on the field.

Wayne's first big break in a major role was as Breck Coleman in Raoul Walsh's The Big Trail.  The film didn't do very well, and Wayne's performance was substandard, so he ended up being relegated to the B picture movie lot.  There he cranked out a lot of typical B westerns, and was garnering a name for himself (albeit only among those, particularly kids, who watched said westerns).

But Wayne had a few fans in the industry, ones who thought they saw star material in the making.  One of these was John Ford, a consummate director who had used the big guy several times before and had even recommended him to Walsh.  For a more in depth coverage the Duke's career up to John Ford's casting of him, please see my blog entry How to Build an Icon (The Hard Way)  Or better yet, pick up one of the excellent biographies published over the last 30+ years.

Stagecoach (1939)

John Wayne had a long career as an actor even before his "big break", but this is the one that really put him on the star map in Hollywood.  9 people overcoming the odds in a hostile atmosphere (not entirely unlike Alfred Hitchcock's Lifeboat, and wouldn't that make for an interesting comparison...?)

Stagecoach was based on an Ernest Haycox story "The Stage to Lordsburg".  John Ford found the story and was enthusiastic about filming it.  But no one in Hollywood wanted to back it because the Western as a film subject was thought to be passe', and only good for filming kid's matinee shows.  It was generally thought that as an adult subject very few would be interested and it was financial folly to even consider it.

In retrospect, of course, it is easy to laugh at the naivete' of these executives.  But consider that for several years, that's about all westerns were good for, as children's flicks.  But even harder on Ford was his decision that the only person to play "the Ringo Kid" was John Wayne.  Even Ford's final backer, Walter Wanger,  balked at the thought, wanting Gary Cooper in the role. But Ford was insistent and won out, although he did have to compromise by billing Claire Trevor's name above Wayne's.

The story begins as the stage to Lordsburg arrives in Tonto.  The stage driver, Buck (Andy Devine) goes off to find his shotgun rider for the next stage of the trip.  But the marshal, Curly (George Bancroft) tells him that his shotgun is off with a posse searching for the Ringo Kid who has just escaped from jail.  When told that the Ringo Kid is headed towards Lordsburg, Curly tells Buck that he, Curly, will be the shotgun rider.

Buck and Curly

Meanwhile, two of the towns most disreputable residents are being driven out of town: Doc Boone (Thomas Mitchell), a doctor who has WAY too much more love for his fellow whiskey bottles than he does for his fellow patients is being evicted from his quarters.  At the same time, also being forced to leave town is Dallas (Claire Trevor), a woman of obviously lower morals than her fellow ladies of the society, (in other words a prostitute, although they couldn't come right out and say it in 1939).

Dallas and Doc Boone

Added to the mix is Lucy Mallory (Louise Platt), the pregnant wife of one of the officers of the Cavalry that is in the next town on the route.  As well as Samuel Peacock (Donald Meek) who is as meek as the name the actor who plays him bears, a whiskey drummer who is constantly being mistaken for a Reverend, a gambler, Hatfield (John Carradine) who has barely concealed designs on the Cavalryman's wife, and a banker, Henry Gatewood (Berton Churchill), who is attempting to abscond with $50,000 he stole from his bank.

Lucy Mallory
Samuel Peacock

Henry Gatewood

These 8 begin the journey, despite warning of Geronimo and his Apache warriors somewhere ahead.  But with the confidence of having a Cavalry troop accompany them, most of them are willing to make the journey. Not too far out on the journey, the stage is brought up short by a man carrying a rifle and a saddle.  It's the Ringo Kid (John Wayne).  due to the fact that the marshal is riding shotgun and the Cavalry is accompanying the stage, however, Ringo is forced to submit to arrest.

The Ringo Kid

Upon arriving at the first stage of the journey, the people find that the expected troop of Cavalry that was to replace the ones they have are gone, riding off to defend against Geronimo's Apaches.  The present troop has orders to return to Tonto after this first leg, despite the frantic objections by some of the stage riders.  But they all decide to press on as each has his or her own particular reason for reaching Lordsburg.  To wit:

Marshall Curly: To see to it that Ringo returns to prison.
Ringo:  To extract vengeance on three brothers who killed members of his family.
Doc Boone:  Because he has worn out his welcomes behind him.
Dallas:  To return to her own roots.
Lucy:  To meet up with her husband and to have their child with him present.
Gatewood: To escape with his stolen booty.
Peacock:  To get back to Kansas City and his wife and five children.
Hatfield:  Who knows, but it probably involves some nefarious purposes with Lucy...
Buck, for his part would just as soon go back, but he is outnumbered.

Along the way, at the second stage stop, it turns out that Lucy's baby will not wait for the more opportune time to come into the world, and the group is delayed by a day as Lucy gives birth to a baby girl.  Dallas and Ringo start up a friendly romance and Ringo asks Dallas to come with him to his ranch, after he concludes his business in Lordsburg.  Dallas tries to convince Ringo to escape while he's got a chance and no one is looking.  He agrees, but before he can get away, he sees Apache smoke signals on the horizon, and stays to help.

On the final leg of the journey the Apaches attack the stage.  Surely you have seen the classic stunt scene in which Ringo (or rather a stunt double posing as Ringo) jumps onto the stage horses to retrieve the reins after Buck has dropped them.  If you haven't I generously have added that clip here:  (The actual stunt begins at about the 5:00 mark if you just want to skip ahead.)

Of course, the classic cliche is "The Cavalry rides in to the rescue, at the last minute..." And they do.  But wait!  The movie isn't over.  Want to see how each individual ties up his or her own strings, just hang on, because even after the last minute rescue there's still some loose ends, and they all get tied up nicely.

Wayne's big break as it were comes at a great time.  From here he never had to settle for anything just to make ends meet.  As time went on, he ended up with the ability to write his own ticket, taking the juiciest parts in some of the most iconic Westerns ever made (including several more with John Ford.)

The Shootist (1976)

The last film John Wayne made was, fittingly, about an aging gun man who is dying of cancer.  Although Wayne was in poor health, and had battled cancer once already, he was not, as the rumors go, dying of cancer at the time.  But cancer did eventually overtake him a couple of years later, so the movie is somewhat prescient.

As a result of his fame and popularity and his impending death, many of Hollywood's actors and actresses wanted to be in on what was already being touted as "Wayne's last film".  According to one source, (a documentary on the film from my DVD), at least one actor, Hugh O'Brien,  volunteered to work for free if he could just have a part in the production of the film.  Many of the others took a severe cut in their normal pay for the privilege.  For a movie with a budget of only about $8 million, the cast was an astounding triumph of casting (James Stewart, Lauren Bacall and Ron Howard, not to mention such incredible character actors like Harry Morgan, John Carradine, Richard Boone, Scatman Crothers, Bill McKinney and the aforementioned Hugh O'Brien).

The Shootist was originally a novel, by the same name, by Glendon Swarthout.  The movie was directed by Don Siegel, who had a stellar career as a director.  Included in his resume were the first Dirty Harry and the original Invasion of the Body Snatchers.  Elmer Bernstein came on board for the music, and Robert F. Boyle, the production designer, did such a good job he was nominated for an Oscar (but lost to George Jenkins for is work on All the President's Men.

The final script had a codicil that Wayne had final approval of the script, as thus there were a few changes.  One of the significant ones, if you read the book, is that Gillom Rogers is not quite as rebellious and antagonistic in the film.  This may have been due to Wayne's influence, although I personally think having Opie Taylor in the role made a significant impact on how the character was played.  In the book, Books goes to the saloon and orders white wine, but at Wayne's insistence, in the movie Books orders whiskey.   Also changed, and this WAS definitely at Wayne's insistence, Books does not shoot one of the characters in the back.  Wayne claimed that he had never done it before in a movie and he was definitely NOT going to do it now.  And is this a spoiler?  Not sure... He also insisted that Gillom, who shoots Books at the end of the novel, NOT be the one to shoot him in the movie.

One of the things that really grabs your attention is the voice-over, at the beginning of the film, by Gillom Rogers (Ron Howard) detailing the life and career of John Bernard "J.B." Books (John Wayne).  The voice-over is accompanied by clips from John Wayne's extensive movie career. Each clip, although not actually playing J.B. in them, serves as a video montage of the career of Books as a "shootist".  (Two of the movies used for clips have been previously reviewed here under the blog entry title of The Valiant Few : Rio Bravo and El Dorado).

John Bernard Books (John Wayne) arrives in Carson City, Nevada, on January 22, 1901, a significant date because that was the day Queen Victoria of England died, and a newsboy is hawking a paper with that headline.  Books buys a paper then seeks out a doctor (James Stewart) who turns out to be an old aquaintance, but whom Books wants to examine him medically.

Books and Doc Hostetler

It is revealed that Books has prostate  cancer and has only a couple of months to live.  On Doc Hostetler's recommendation, he seeks out a room at Mrs. Rogers' place.    There he meets Gillom (Ron Howard) whom he had earlier encountered with Gillom's belligerent sometimes boss, Cobb (Bill McKinney).  He acquires a room from Gillom's mother, Bond Rogers (Lauren Bacall), to whom he gives as a name William Hickock.

Mrs. Bond Rogers

Gillom Rogers

Gillom and Moses (Scatman Crothers) soon discover that the man is really Books, however, and against the hopes and wishes of Books, it soon becomes the day's gossip that the legendary gunfighter is in town.  Mrs. Rogers is not pleased to have been fooled, and enlists the support of Marshal Thibido (Harry Morgan) to oust him from her property and get him out of town.  But Books tells Thibido he intends to stay and die, telling of the cancer.

Marshal Thibido

Over a period of just one week, Books manages to acquire an attraction of would-be desparadoes who want to earn a name by being the one to kill the famous shootist.  In one dramatic scene two men try to attack him while he is asleep, but he manages to kill them both.  Afterwards, Books starts to implement his plan to die with dignity.  He invites three of the most proficient gunmen in town, Cobb, Jack Pulford (Hugh O'Brien), a faro dealer at the local saloon who thinks he is hot stuff as a gunman, and Mike Sweeney (Richard Boone), who holds a grudge against Books because Books killed Sweeney's brother.

Mike Sweeney

J. B. Books.

Jay Cobb
Jack Pulford

The final showdown between Books and the three gunmen in the local saloon is classic John Wayne gunfight.  If you take time to watch this don't miss out on appearances by John Carradine, looking every bit the 40 years older that he was from his appearance in Stagecoach.  Sheree North, a prolific character actress who guested on a plethora of TV shows appears as a hooker whom Books once loved.  If you are an avid watcher of the soap opera  The Young and the Restless, you can catch a very young Melody Thomas (Nikki Newman) in a brief role.

Between Stagecoach and The Shootist, Wayne appeared in so many movies it would take a year to watch them all...but these two represent some of the best, and definitely the best way to see how he progressed from being just a bit player and Saturday matinee B-movie star to the legend he is remembered as today

Well, that wraps up the view from the back seat this time folks.  Have a safe trip home.  BTW, today is my birthday, so be kind on the comments...:-)



  1. Two fabulous films to bookend a remarkable career. I like that you included both of these in one post.

    As for "The Shootist", I've only been able to watch it through once. It had that big of an effect on me.

  2. Happy Birthday sure hope you had a great day.

    1. Getting to be an old man. I'm eligible for some senior citizen's discounts now...

  3. Sorry it took me a couple of days to read and comment. While Stagecoach is dear to my heart, I've never managed to like The Shootist much because it just makes me horribly sad. Your review hits all the good points, though, and I'm sure that some day I'll watch it again.

    Hope you had a good birthday!

    And thanks again for including me as co-host of this blogathon. It's been a pleasure.

    1. Thanks for doing all the hard work for me. And thanks for reading. Glad you enjoyed it.

    2. Glad I could be there to help while your computer was on the fritz!

  4. Really enjoyed reading your reviews of these two movies back to back. It brings home what a great career he had.

    When I saw The Shootist, I was really impressed at the cast and it was interesting to know how that came about. It's hard to imagine too many other actors with that kind of respect that so many people wanted to be part of his last movie.

    I hope you had a wonderful birthday!

    1. Surprising that I've only covered 4 of his movies so far. And both of those were for blogathons. I need to post some more often. Thanks for reading.


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