I’m not a big fan of the comic John Wayne films.  Guess what I think of this one?

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— Swing Out Sweet Land, NBC Special, 1970

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John Wayne!

August 21, 2012

— Dark Command, 1940

Meet John Wayne, Singing Cowboy.

Two minutes (and one formless melody) into this 1934 film, Wayne puts away the guitar and draws his gun in the coolest way I’ve ever seen.

He saves the sheriff.  Gabby (here George) Hayes has a proposition for him.  Go undercover at a crooked rodeo and find out riders keep ending up dead.  This is not Utah – Lone Pine, maybe?

This is one of those weird westerns where you suddenly realize it’s not set in the old west.  Those telephone poles are not mistakes.  There are cars but most people travel by horseback.  Stagecoaches?  Shoot-outs on mainstreet?  This is 1934?  If you’re looking around the edges, there’s all sorts of clues – an airfield in the background of a rodeo scene, loudspeakers in another…

John Wayne looks very young.  I’m not sure if Gabby Hayes was ever young.

Rare is the B-Western whose title fits the action of the film.  This is one of those lucky few.  Most of this film is set at a rodeo (pronounced row-day-o) and John Wayne is announced as “The Man From Utah.”

There’s also some pretty cool action in this one.

There is a lot that could be said about this 1933 oater, not the least of which is the oddity of naming the horse after the star, but I am here today to write not about that or John Wayne in one of his first Warner Bros. films.  No, I am here today to write about Paul Fix.

Fix is generally credited with helping Duke to create the John Wayne character.  He was his acting coach for years and years, invented the trademark Wayne walk (fashioned after Duke’s impression of Yakima Canutt’s authentic cowboy amble), and even appeared in later Wayne films so that he could coach him on-set regarding line-readings.

Here he is:

And here is with Duke:

This is the feature version of a serial, the 1933 “Three Musketeers”.  Released in 1947, presumably to cash in on Wayne’s star power, it boils hours of plot-twists, surprise character turns and cliffhangers into 70 minutes of muddle.

Pilot Lt. Wayne takes the heat for a gun-running operation in Africa and sets out to clear his name and save his gal from the clutches of the Devils’ Circle, a group of treacherous Arabs and traitorous Foreign Legionnaires.

Check out this cast of Juniors and soon-to-be B-western staples.

I count Noah Berry Jr. , Lon Chaney Jr. (as Creighton Chaney) and Francis X. Bushman Jr., son of the silent film star.  And Raymond Hatton as a Frenchie! He plays Renard, one of the 3 musketeers who are, in this telling, Foreign Legionnaires.

“The Three Musketeers” was one of three Mascot serials which Wayne was reduced to appearing in after the disappointment of his A-picture debut in “The Big Trail”, 1930.  This is early JW and he’s missing many of the trademarks of his later career — no signature walk, no signature gestures.   Which is weird to watch!

But he does have that voice and that cadence.  A lot of the early criticism of Wayne, and a lot of why (as I understand it) his performance in “The Big Trail” was considered a failure, was that his voice was considered high and reedy.  It’s true, the early sound recording really does do a whammy on his baritone.  He just doesn’t sound as tough as he looks.

Robert N. Bradbury directed 126 films featuring western actors like Buck Jones, Tim McCoy, Johnny Mack Brown, Bill Cody and Tom Tyler.  None would achieve anywhere near the superstar status of John Wayne, who Bradbury directed in 13 of his earliest screen appearances.  His son, Bob Steele, built a sturdy career as a cowboy star and later a character actor and noir heavy.

Behold “The Lucky Texan!”

Sadly, this film falls victim to the lame plot-devices of forged contracts, false receipts and passive frame-ups which are epidemic in Charles Starrett’s films.  The thing even ends up in a YAWN trial scene.

There is one super-cool sequence where Wayne/Canutt Inc. grabs a branch and jump into a sluice to pursue a hard-riding foe.

There’s a cool final chase and doesn’t the Duke look all Durango on his white steed?

A sad and lonely Duke.

Some top-rate talk-cute romantic comedies were made in 1935 — “Top Hat,” “Devil Is A Woman,” “Alice Adams” to name a few.  Flirty barbs were exchanged by Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers, Katherine Hepburn, Cary Grant and a bunch of other attractive people.  They were all brim-full of wit and bubbling with chatty charm.

Add one more to the list.  “The Desert Trail”.  The opening scene is five minutes of clever banter between Wayne and his sidekick, more talk than in the entirety of most Westerns of this ilk.

The rest of the film is, at heart, about the relationship between these two men and their pursuit of the hot-headed (and oddly un-attractive) Rosita.

Imagine a Charles Starrett film like this.  Imagine a love-triangle with Steve and Smiley and, say, Peggy Stewart.

Let’s get weirder and imagine a triangle with Steve, Iris Meredith and…Durango!  Whoa!  Did my mind just go there?  What crazy new world is this?  Wasn’t I just writing about John Wayne…

Weirder and weirder.