Friday, September 08, 2023

Book Review: The John Wayne B-Westerns 1932-1939

John Wayne worked in "B" Westerns for the better part of a decade, but these films have tended to be dismissed by fans and historians as a sort of meaningless blob of work.

James L. Neibaur hopes to change that with THE JOHN WAYNE B-WESTERNS 1932-1939, recently published by Bear Manor Media.

Neibaur, author of FRANK SINATRA ON THE BIG SCREEN, THE GEORGE RAFT FILMS, and THE FILMS OF JUDY GARLAND, presents a film-by-film review of Wayne's '30s Western work, in which he developed "as both an actor and an image."

As many film fans are aware, after starring in Raoul Walsh's impressive "A" picture THE BIG TRAIL (1930), the movie's lack of financial success -- for reasons not having to do with Wayne -- meant that instead of more big-budget leads, the next major phase of Wayne's career was playing leads in "B" Westerns.

Although I'm a longtime Wayne fan, I admit to ignoring those films myself for many years, until I was drawn to them through my time in Lone Pine, California. Over the past decade I've visited and photographed Lone Pine locations for multiple Wayne "B's," including THE MAN FROM UTAH (1934) and KING OF THE PECOS (1936). I've also been able to visit other locations from Wayne "B" films such as Iverson Movie Ranch.

As I watched Wayne's films in conjunction with my location visits, I came to realize that some of them are actually quite good, and even the lesser Wayne films are of interest for various reasons, including watching the young Wayne's growing ability to command a camera. It seems almost paradoxical, but as Wayne learned to be more subtle and reactive, he simultaneously became more interesting to watch.

Neibaur makes similar points in his introduction, noting "a careful look at these films reveal them to be much better than their general reputation." He goes on to mention that some of my favorite Western directors, such as Robert Bradbury and George Sherman, "were able to exhibit some impressive creativity within the confines of a threadbare budget," and he also makes mention of the location cinematography providing "striking visuals."

Neibaur's book covers over three dozen of these early Wayne Westerns, with each movie receiving its own chapter. At the top of each chapter there are cast and major production credits along with a list of each film's locations, which for probably obvious reasons I especially appreciated.

In addition to plot descriptions, Neibaur provides information on aspects such as budget, shooting time, and exhibitor response, and in some cases there are relevant quotes from cast members. He also supplies some critical thoughts on each movie.

Each of these angles combines to provide a picture of the development of Wayne's career throughout the decade, along with the fact that he seems to have been universally liked by his coworkers.

I found a chapter on John Wayne's "Year of Non-Westerns" at Universal Pictures to be particularly informative. My older Wayne books contain relatively little about these movies; the 1976 book JOHN WAYNE AND THE MOVIES by Allen Eyles probably does the best job previous to this. Wayne came to feel his sojourn at Universal stalled his development as a Western star, so I was quite interested to read about that aspect of his career and hope to seek out the films.

Although I wasn't there, it's fun to note that the rarely seen ADVENTURE'S END (1937) from this Universal era was just screened at the Cinecon festival over Labor Day weekend.

As an additional side note for fellow fans of Wayne's "B's," the 2018 edition of LONE PINE AND THE MOVIES focuses entirely on the "lost" Wayne Western THE OREGON TRAIL (1936), including extensive photos. As Neibaur notes in his book, the film was well received, and I keep hoping a print will turn up unexpectedly.

Neibaur's book concludes with a chapter on Wayne's "graduation" to John Ford's STAGECOACH (1939) and a brief summation of his superstar career, for which Wayne's work throughout most of the '30s had provided the foundation.

This softcover book is 268 pages including bibliography and index. There are numerous black and white photographs which are well-reproduced directly on the pages.

In the interest of completeness, I'll mention I felt this book could have used a proofreader to clean up punctuation and typographical goofs, which I found a bit distracting from the book's very worthwhile content.

THE JOHN WAYNE B-WESTERNS 1932-1939 is an informative and useful book which achieves its goal of explaining these films' significance in the context of Wayne's career. It's a book that very much needed to be written, and I'm glad James Neibaur took on the project. I read it cover to cover, and I'm glad to add it to my Wayne bookshelf as a future reference.

Thanks to James L. Neibaur and Bear Manor Media for providing a review copy of this book.


Anonymous Barry Lane said...

Many of these B pictures were available on television during the late forties and early fifties. I saw them all as Westerns were regularly scheduled. It was an education. I gravitated to Bob Steele and Tom Keene, with Tim McCoy and Buck Jones near them. All were a pleasure. But then, at the theatre and big screen, came Randolph Scott, no more need be said.

10:44 AM  
Anonymous Shawn Hall said...

I saw Adventure's End at Cinecon and had a blast with it! It was funny to see Wayne play a character named Duke in a non-Western. Definitely made me want to check out more of his 30's work.

12:20 PM  
Blogger Jerry Entract said...

Many of the Lone Star westerns were shown on UK TV years ago with a horrible imported musical soundtrack that put me off the films for a long time. Happily I have since seen many with their original soundtrack and found myself increasingly enjoying them.

By 1938 Wayne had built his reputation steadily and was moved into Republic's Three Mesquiteers series where Wayne's name was in big letters. It was in the midst of making that series that Ford took him out of the mighty 'B's forever.
Mr. Neibar is to be applauded for shining a light on this productive period.

2:27 PM  

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