Monday 7 June 2010

Somewhere in Sonora (1933)

Director: Mack V Wright
Stars: John Wayne and Duke

John Wayne and his devil horse Duke made six B movies for Leon Schlesinger in 1932 and 1933, labelled Four Star Westerns and distributed through Warner Brothers. I've already noted in my reviews for The Big Stampede and Haunted Gold that these films show notably higher production values than the films he made for Lone Star Productions immediately afterwards, a company that made movies for poverty row studio Monogram. Yet as I read up on each of these films, I quickly realised that each of the six was a remake, keeping the budgets down by reusing footage from the original films. What struck me most was that each was a remake of a recent film, made only four or five years earlier, starring Ken Maynard, someone I hadn't even heard of. Apparently he was a huge star in the silent westerns but he had an ego and temper of epic proportions and so instead of becoming what John Wayne became, he died penniless and forgotten.

Here Wayne is John Bishop, who works at Bob Leadly's ranch and is tipped to win the stagecoach race at the upcoming Twin Forks rodeo. However even though he has the lovely Mary Burton and her annoying friend Patsy Ellis to cheer him on he finds himself in jail after his opposition's coach comes a cropper during the race. Before the race he innocently suggested to Mary that with her rooting for him the other coach would probably fall to pieces, which just goes to prove that you should always be careful how you word things. Fortunately for him Leadly remembers the fate of his son Bart, who also went to jail for something he didn't do but who ended up working for the notorious bandit Monte Black and his outfit south of the border, a crew that you can join but not leave that's known colloquially as the Brotherhood of Death. Leadly doesn't want Bishop to succumb to the same fate so he and his bickering cronies, Riley and Shorty, spring him.

Leadly wants him to head north to Nevada but he decides to head south into Sonora instead to return the favour by locating and bringing back home Bart. Even when Riley and Shorty track him down on the way to point out that the sheriff has caught the real culprit so his name has been cleared, he continues on his quest and of course they go with him. Naturally in a 59 minute B movie there are plenty of conveniences so we can finish up in time with room enough for everyone to strut their stuff, including Duke. Monte Black is conveniently sitting back having a drink in the first cantina the trio stop at across the border. Just as they try to establish their tough credentials in conveniently waltz Mary and Patsy on the way to the silver mine that Mary's father Kelly runs, conveniently located close to Black's hideout. The Rurales are about to hit the Brotherhood of Death so Bishop has to act quickly and conveniently runs into Black on the way.
But hey, we're not watching for intricacies of plot, we're watching for action, romance, stuntwork and hopefully a complete lack of the racial idiocy that plagued Haunted Gold. Fortunately this plays it pretty straight, the comedy being provided by Riley and Shorty who are idiots, albeit well meaning ones. The biggest name in the film belongs to Henry B Walthall, a veteran actor almost at the end of his long screen career that began as early as 1908 in a film that still exists today, Rescued from an Eagle's Nest. Almost three hundred films later, he played Bob Leadly well but deserved a bigger part. Australian actor J P McGowan is a capable villain, though he was a versatile talent, racking up a couple of hundred credits both as an actor and a director and dabbling in producing and editing too. As Monte Black, a play on the name of the silent film actor Monte Blue, he's more than a little ruthless, even executing men who try to leave his gang.

The romance isn't too sappy, Shirley Palmer bringing a sense of surprising toughness to the part of Mary Burton, like the ruthlessness of Black a recognisable precode element that dates the film to before 1934 just as effectively as looking it up at IMDb. She had a surprisingly brief career, 23 films from 1926 to 1934, this being her last credited role. Perhaps she followed the path of many actresses by retiring from the screen when they got married, her husband being the English screenwriter John Collier who made an impact with his first film, Sylvia Scarlett in 1935. It's Mary's friend Patsy who's the token annoying character here, this thankfully being Ann Fay's final film. She's supposed to be from back east so her lack of western experience can set up a couple of bad gags, but we just want to stone her off the screen. Even Riley and Shorty point out how annoying she is and when the characters agree with us, we know we're right.

Wayne, as always is capable, but he doesn't get much to do here. In The Big Stampede he got a great chase scene, tried to play drunk and had fun with a Mexican bandit sidekick. In Haunted Gold he got to be tied up a couple of times and fight a memorable fight while suspended from a cable car. Here he doesn't really do anything of note, merely hang around and play the hero in very thick make up. He's still far more capable than the man he's trying to rescue, given that Bart Leadly merely falls off his horse while trying to escape and loses his gun to boot. He does get a single shot at redemption and he takes it but it's a second of screen time that doesn't hint at the future of the actor playing the part. He's Paul Fix, who went on to be a major name in the genre, not least for playing Micah in The Rifleman but also for being John Wayne's acting coach. In return the Duke gave him parts in over two dozen movies. You wouldn't guess it from this.

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