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DVD Review: The John Wayne Film Collection Box Set

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Warner Bros. John Wayne Film Collection sees six of Duke’s films make their US DVD debut. With one exception, all of Wayne’s post-‘60s output has already been released on DVD, that exception being Circus World, and it isn’t included in this set; it is available on DVD in the UK as The Magnificent Showman however. The films that make up this set are culled from the ‘30s, ‘40s and ‘50s.

So the big question is – have Warners unearthed any lost Wayne classics or are they scraping the bottom of the barrel with this set?

The Films

Allegheny Uprising (1939)

The earliest of the films in the set, Allegheny Uprising came out the same year as Stagecoach and again paired Wayne with Claire Trevor. That’s where the similarities end however, as this is certainly no classic.

Wayne plays Jim Smith and the story details the true(ish) tale of Pennsylvanian frontiersmen at odds with the British authorities over trade with the Indians. The main problem with the film is that not much really happens; in the only big action scene, a siege on a fort by the Pennsylvanians, no one is killed and only Jim Smith is slightly injured.

The performances are variable. Wayne is solid but the script really doesn’t give him much to work with. As the leader of the British troops, George Sanders is a straight-laced, stiff upper lip caricature of an officer. Sanders was a great actor and this part is unworthy of his talent, but then so many of his films were.

Claire Trevor as Janie MacDougall is superfluous to the plot and there simply to add a touch of romance to this adventure story, unlike her pivotal role in Stagecoach. Throughout the film her presence is a constant irritation and it’s hard to see what attraction she could possibly have for Jim Smith.

Faring the best is Wilfrid Lawson as Janie’s father 'Mac' MacDougall. Coming across as more pirate than frontiersman, he could be a distant relative of Captain Jack Sparrow from Pirates of the Caribbean and he’s as enjoyably over the top as Johnny Depp is in that film.

Matching the film's storyline is the dull and uninspiring look of the film. William A. Seiter is no John Ford and his composition has none of the poetic beauty of Stagecoach. Allegheny Uprising looks cheap and uninteresting visually, a quick attempt to cash in on Ford’s classic. Anthony Collins' stirring score does its best to generate some excitement during the few action scenes but there is only so much music can do when hampered by such pedestrian visuals.

This is definitely a minor Wayne film that will only really appeal to the die hard fan.

Reunion in France (1942)

Wealthy socialite Michelle de la Becque is unconcerned about the war and heads to the south of France for a holiday, leaving behind her fiance Robert Cortot. She returns to Paris to find it under the control of the German military with the aid of some influential Frenchmen, including Cortot. Disgusted, she leaves him and finds employment in a clothing store. Walking home one night she chances upon an escaped prisoner of war and is determined to get him safely out of the country.

Make no mistake; this may be part of The John Wayne Film Collection but it is in fact a Joan Crawford vehicle. Wayne doesn’t even make an appearance until forty minutes into the film and even then gets very little to do. He’s not even a convincing love interest for Crawford, as her character is still besotted with Cortot and the film’s half-hearted attempt at that perennial Hollywood favourite, the love triangle, is a wasted effort.

As the spoilt rich bitch who finds herself rubbing shoulders with people she once looked down on, Crawford is rather good. Her character goes through a major life-changing event and she’s equally believable as the pampered aristocrat and the strong-willed woman who risks everything in an attempt to strike a blow against Hitler. She may lack onscreen chemistry with Wayne but she makes up for it with Philip Dorn as Cortot. She gets to play both his lover and enemy, sometimes in the same scene.

Dorn himself has the most unsympathetic role in the film, going from an important position with the French government to being a German toady. He keeps you guessing until the very end about his motivations and the fact the climax works so well is down to his performance throughout the film.

The film is a cheap-looking endeavour, made on studio sets with stock footage used to show the occupation of France. Thus encumbered, director Jules Dassin does a reasonable job, the film's failings down to the story rather than any lack of ability on his part. There really isn’t much excitement to be had and the film works best as a simple love story between Crawford and Dorn with Wayne a mere plot device.

For fans of Duke’s action films this won’t hit the spot. Crawford fans, however, will doubtless find much to enjoy.

Without Reservations (1946)

A writer is heading to Hollywood where her first novel is about to be filmed. On her way there she meets a Marine pilot who she thinks would be perfect for the lead role and (supposedly) hilarious antics ensue.

This is a lightweight piece of romantic comedy fluff, the kind of formulaic filler Hollywood churned out by the dozen. Wayne by this point in career is effortlessly comfortable onscreen but, as I’ve said in previous articles, the role of a romantic leading man was ill suited to his talents. Few of his classics have much romance in them and those that do mostly featured Maureen O’Hara. Here he plays Rusty Thomas, the Marine officer, and while he’s charismatic and even amusing at times, there is no onscreen spark between him and Claudette Colbert as the author Christopher 'Kit' Madden.

I’m sure she has her fans, but Colbert does nothing for me and this may be the reason the love story failed to engage my interest. You don’t care what happens to characters you don’t like and Madden is annoying almost from the opening scene. It’s hard to believe this airhead could write her own name, let alone a bestselling novel.

Don DeFore plays Wayne’s Marine buddy and is obviously supposed to provide comic relief. Sadly the script lets him down, it’s just not funny. It’s a shame as he makes a pretty good comedy sidekick but you can only work with what you’re given and a comedy without a funny script is a sad thing indeed.

Crime thrillers were the forte of director Mervyn LeRoy and his best film was I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (1932). He seems as wrong for the film as Wayne does, and with a duff script and stars lacking in chemistry, he doesn’t really have a hope of making anything memorable out of the film. In fact the longer it goes on the worse it gets and the ending feels as though it was cobbled together just prior to filming.

This was the sort of film studios put Wayne in a lot during the forties, made by workmanlike directors who lacked any real vision, they are time wasters for rainy weekend afternoons at best and at worst mind-numbingly banal. Not long after this Duke made Red River and finally found a director (other than John Ford) who knew what to do with him.

As with Reunion in France this will only really appeal to the true Duke fanatic and it’s doubtful even they would watch it more than once. Cary Grant fans may be interested to know he makes a brief cameo appearance in the film playing himself.

Tycoon (1947)

John Wayne is Johnny Munroe, an engineer trying to build a railroad tunnel through a mountain in South America. Things get complicated when he falls for the boss's daughter, played by Laraine Day. When he marries her he finds himself fighting both the mountain and Cedric Hardwicke as Day’s father, who’s determined to break him.

This is the kind of potboiler that Hollywood produced to a set recipe; a couple of appealing stars, a little action and plenty of romance, all mixed together by a prolific but uninspired director. It was an expensive film to make and yet, save for the model work and the fact it was shot in colour, it doesn’t look it. With the exception of the exterior of the tunnel, the other locations in the film are only as exotic as the studio back lot. To make matters worse, the sets look like sets; no one was going to win an Oscar for the production design on this film, that’s for sure.

As Munroe, Wayne isn’t called upon to do much acting. There’s no deep character study here, no delving into what makes this man tick. It’s a performance that requires smiles, scowls, and the patented Wayne quizzical look, along with lots of movie star charisma.

Equally underdeveloped is Laraine Day’s Maura; all she has to do is look beautiful while wearing a succession of designer outfits (I’m sure she never wore the same one twice) and it’s a task she’s more than capable of.

Anthony Quinn has a small role as Hardwicke’s nephew and Wayne regular Paul Fix is on hand as an explosives expert but neither has the opportunity to make any impact on the film.

Sometimes putting actors with very different acting styles together pays off (just look at Sleuth with Olivier and Caine), at others it fails miserably. This falls into the latter category, with Wayne's natural style at odds with the more mannered performance of Cedric Hardwicke. Only one can come out the winner and it isn’t Cedric, who appears stiff while at the same time over the top, resulting in many of his scenes being unintentionally funny.

He’s not helped by some shockingly bad dialogue. That the script was written by the great Borden Chase comes as something of a surprise. Chase wrote Red River as well as many of the classic James Stewart/Anthony Mann westerns and it’s shocking to see his name on something as badly written as this; one can only assume he was hampered by the source novel.

This is another unimaginative use of Wayne’s talent by Hollywood bigwigs. Thankfully Red River was finally released the following year (it’s was held up for two years by Howard Hughes) and Wayne fans finally got to see him act. If not for that film and John Ford calling on him again for Fort Apache, he might have been consigned to this kind of thing for the remainder of his career.

Big Jim McLain (1952)

Wayne and James Arness head to Hawaii to sniff out communists as federal agents for the House Committee on Un-American Activities and while there, Duke falls in love with Nancy Olson.

This is a snapshot of a reprehensible time is US history and a shameful period for Hollywood in particular. It’s also a truly awful film with no redeeming features.

Badly written and ineptly directed, this ranks alongside The Conqueror and Jet Pilot as the worst films of Wayne’s career. The film is trying for a Dragnet-style documentary feel but with at least three people doing voiceovers, it takes it too far; it almost feels like a parody of that type of story.

If you’re going to call a character Big Jim McLain, you’d expect him to be the biggest guy in the film, but Arness was a good two inches taller than Duke. This obviously gave the scriptwriter cause for concern, so we repeatedly have characters asking how tall Wayne is (6’ 4”) to avoid any misconception that he may be a midget.

Wayne looks like he’s having a good time and with much of the film shot on location in Hawaii, it’s no wonder. From an acting point of view he seems uninterested, but this isn’t a film about character, it's about making a political statement. Big Jim McLain makes Wayne’s The Alamo and The Green Berets seem positively restrained by comparison.

The plot is almost nonexistent and you get the feeling the romance with Nancy Olson is only there to pad out the running time. Its “communism is bad” message is repeated incessantly, with Wayne encountering a couple of people who used to be commies but came to their senses and realised they were being exploited.

This is a curio and essential viewing for anyone interested in the communist witch-hunts of the ‘50s as it gives a real sense of the paranoia of the times. As a piece of entertainment however it’s sadly lacking and ranks as the worst film in this set.

Trouble Along the Way (1953)

Divorced ex-football coach Steve Williams (Wayne) is making a less than respectable living as a bookie when he receives an offer from Father Burke (Charles Coburn) to build a football team at St. Anthony’s College. Wayne takes the post, mainly to try and stay one step ahead of Children’s Court Officer Alice Singleton (Donna Reed) who’s trying to take his daughter Carol away from him.

This is a feel good comedy that, while incredibly clichéd, still manages to be a lot of fun. It helps that the film had a first rate director in Michael Curtiz (Casablanca, The Adventures of Robin Hood) who manages to make the most of the witty script while downplaying the sentimentality inherent in the story.

In Williams, Wayne has a role unlike any other he played. There’s a touch of the con man about him and yet he’s also a loving father who puts his daughter above all else. His scenes with Sherry Jackson as his daughter are among the film's highlights, and thanks to the playing of both actors are far less saccharine than you’d expect. It’s Sherry Jackson in fact who steals the film as Carol, a girl wise beyond her years.

The romance angle is underwritten and this leaves Donna Reed with little to work with. One minute she’s trying to take Carol away from Williams, the next she’s in love with him and it’s too big a leap to be convincing.

Charles Coburn is as reliable as ever playing Father Burke. The part is hardly original – think Barry Fitzgerald in Going My Way with a little extra padding round the midsection – but Coburn is charming. His plan to save the college by building a winning football team in the hopes it will bring in enough money to avert the impending closure is what brings the characters together.

The film also features small roles for a couple of actors who would go on to bigger things in TV westerns. Leif Erickson (The High Chaparral) plays one of the clergymen who plan to close the college while Chuck Connors (The Rifleman) is an old friend of Williams who he recruits to help train the team. Neither actor makes much of an impression but they don’t really get much of a chance with such minor parts.

This is the best film in this box set. It’s far from a classic but it is an enjoyable way to spend a couple of hours and shows Wayne at the height of his stardom in a refreshingly different role.

The DVDs

Video

Warners are to be commended for the excellent transfers on these discs. The print damage is negligible and the films look incredibly good for their age with plenty of detail and minimal grain. Tycoon, the only colour film in the set, is probably the best of the bunch with the vivid Technicolor palette presented nicely. The worst transfer is ironically for the best film — Trouble Along the Way looks a little soft at times but it’s really only a minor complaint.

Audio

All the films feature only the original mono track and they do the job well. A 5.1 mix wouldn’t add anything to these films and the audio is clear enough with little audible hiss. There are also English and French subtitles.

Extras

All the films contain a vintage short film, running 10 to 15 minutes each, and a classic Warners cartoon. In some cases the cartoon is more entertaining than the main feature, particularly "Holiday for Shoestrings" that appears on Without Reservations. Some of the DVDs contain the original theatrical trailers and it gives you an idea of how Wayne was marketed by the studios at the time.

The absence of any extra features directly related to the films is a shame, if perhaps understandable. These aren’t classics and this is a fairly inexpensive set; all one could really ask for are good transfers so the addition of any extras is a bonus.

Summary

There are no lost classics in this set. The films range from very bad (Big Jim McLain) to moderately good (Trouble Along the Way), but for a true Wayne fan they are all essential viewing and it’s the Wayne fan this set is aimed at. There is nothing here to attract the casual viewer and the set won’t convert any new fans but it will fill a few gaps in the Duke completist’s collection.

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