Sunday 6 June 2010

The Big Stampede (1932)

Director: Tenny Wright
Stars: John Wayne and Duke

Another Four Star Western featuring John Wayne and his horse Duke, this one has him trying to keep law and order on the Arizona border. It's 1932 though, so this is no political comment on the controversial SB 1070 law passed by Governor Jan Brewer. Instead of the Mexico border and illegal immigrants, we're on the New Mexico border where legal settlers are trying to escape the drought in Arizona by shifting over to New Mexico, only to fall prey to organised cattle rustlers. The bad news is that the head of the rustlers is Sam Crew, the biggest cattle baron in the area, so there's nobody powerful enough to stand against him. The good news is that Governor Lew Wallace sends in a tough deputy sheriff with a tough name, John Steele. Guess which part John Wayne plays in this affair? What's surprising is that he gets to team up with a Mexican bandit to take down Crew and his crew, Sonora Joe by name.

Yet another remake of a Ken Maynard silent, this time 1927's The Land Beyond the Law, Wayne seems at home in the role of the deputy sheriff who leaves his mark everywhere just to torment his opponent. It's like the opposite of many of the pulp thrillers of the era, where the villain torments the hero by leaving notes or symbols. This time it's the good guy doing the tormenting, even before they meet, turning up ahead of a 5,000 strong herd of cattle to etch his star on the bar and slap another on the back of the bartender. It's fun watching the Duke pretend to be a drunk and disappointing that he doesn't get more than a scene to do it, given that he only has a mere 54 minutes to work through the entire story. That's not long for him to hire a deputy, catch the murderer Arizona Frank Bailey, bring the cattle rustlers to justice, stop the big stampede and get the girl, but then he's John Wayne. Even in 1932 he could do anything he set his mind to.

This is a straight western, so it omits all the genre hopping trappings of Haunted Gold, along with its frenetic pace. It does include more examples of the excellent stuntwork seen in that film but they look very much like producer Leon Schlesinger merely inserted some of the footage from The Land Beyond the Law as the grain is different and the frame rate much higher. Some of the long shots, especially of the big stampede itself, look like they were reused too as the cattle keep changing colour and speed. Sometimes I wonder if this production used any live cattle at all or whether every steer we see had already been turned into steak over the five years since the original film. Mostly it's pretty capable stuff but such antics make it feel cheap, something rather surprising to me after the apparently high production values of Haunted Gold, especially compared to the films Wayne would make for Monogram during the middle of the decade.
Where this film succeeds over Haunted Gold is in the sidekick. Instead of atrocious stereotyping with the black coward sidekick Clarence Washington Brown we get atrocious stereotyping with the Mexican cattle rustler sidekick Sonora Joe. However Spanish actor Luis Alberni has a ball with the role in a way that Blue Washington couldn't in the previous film. Short and stocky, Alberni is hardly an imposing figure but he dominates his vaqueros through sheer presence and a great sense of comic timing. The comedy is apparent even in his speech, which is more authentic than most Hollywood attempts at a Mexican accent but reminds of nothing less than Chico Marx's Italian caricatures, especially when getting his maths wrong and peppering his speech with sayings that he alters just a little. 'There is the old saying,' he tends to begin and then follows up with something like, 'All is fair in love and war but no slingshot.'

Sonora Joe takes to the lawful life rather quickly but then this is a 54 minute B movie. We're not here to watch a subtle transition, we're here to watch little villain Joe surprise the bigger villains with his badge and so aid in the capture of Arizona. We're here to listen to lines like, 'There is the old saying. When the cat she works, the mouse she steal the cattle,' or 'Why all this silence? Is this a saloon or somebody she's dead?' We're here to watch him temper the antics of the other comic relief character, young Pat Malloy, the younger brother of the film's love interest. She's Ginger Malloy, who's played by the suitably demure Mae Madison but is also kept mostly out of the way to keep the story moving. Pat, on the other hand, played by Spud from the Our Gang films, Sherwood Bailey, tries to get into a gunfight, takes part in a chase scene and even steals his sister's undergarments to leap around in. His first act in town is to lasso a sleeping Arizona.

On the villainous side, the villains are suitably villainous, hardly surprising given that they're played by well known actors. Sam Crew is Noah Beery, the elder brother of Oscar winner Wallace Beery, but while Wallace usually played the hero, Noah usually played the villain. This was one of ten movies he made in 1932, already a couple of decades into his film career. By the time he died in 1946 he was being credited as Noah Beery Sr, because his son had followed him into the business. Arizona Frank Bailey is played by Paul Hurst, who would go on to appear in five films over the years with the Duke, as late as Big Jim McLain in 1952. By this time he'd already written six silent films and directed over fifty, but was most prolific as an actor. His first credited role was in 1912 and he'd racked up over 150 films by this point. They're both memorable but they can't compete with Luis Alberni, who instead of stealing horses steals the show from the Duke.

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