Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Overlooked Films: John Wayne in THE BIG TRAIL (1930)

In reading Scott Eyman's 2014 bio John Wayne: The Life and Legend, I was struck (once again) by the injustice heaped upon young "Duke" following the failure of The Big Trail. Prior to this film he'd had bit parts in 19 movies (18 of them uncredited), and appeared in only one western, The Great K&A Bank Robbery, as an extra.

Legend has it director Raoul Walsh wanted Tom Mix or Gary Cooper for the lead in The Big Trail. When he couldn‘t get them, he settled for the relatively unknown 23-year-old Duke Morrison (rechristened, especially for this picture, John Wayne). Wayne was paid only $75 a week, a move that allowed Walsh more money for production. The film eventually cost $4 million, and was released in the bloom of the Great Depression. Ouch.

“The Most Important Picture Ever Produced” didn’t quite meet expectations. Had the film been a success, Wayne’s star might have risen right then. But because it lost money, much of the blame was dumped on Wayne. Sheesh. Sure, he was a little stiff, a little awkward, and no great shakes as an actor, but it wasn't his fault the movie bombed. Still, he was made the goat, and relegated to cheap serials and B-pictures for the next nine years. Even then, he was damn lucky John Ford gave him a break in Stagecoach.

The Big Trail was filmed in an early version of 70mm widescreen. Since most theaters didn’t have the equipment to play it, a 35mm was released at the same time. The widescreen version was unavailable to the home market until a few years ago, but here it is, with thirty minutes of footage not included in earlier releases. Among the supposedly 20,000 other cast members are Ward Bond and Iron Eyes Cody. And (surprise!) it has absolutely no connection to the Continental Op.


Bill O said...

Surprising how well Walsh uses the new wide format. Constantly having action in the background from one end to the other, as he'd do later in Cinemascope films like Tall Men. One shot, of someone standing in the doorway in the background, prefigures Leone.

Anonymous said...

Duke - sorry, Marion - shoulda known he was in trouble when his billing was no bigger than that of Swedish dialect comedian El Brendel.
Art Scott

Evan Lewis said...

True. That Brendel guy is pretty funny, though, and a better actor. Of course, at this point, dang near everybody in the film is a better actor.

Anonymous said...

It was unfair to cast such an inexperienced actor as the lead in a big budget epic. They should have used Mix, George O' Brien, or Buck Jones.

Fortunately, when Wayne got his big break in Stagecoach, he had gained some experience, having starred in "B" Westerns for years.

The only other movie I remember with El Brendel was Just Imagine, a weird combination of science fiction and musical comedy.

Paul Newman also had the disadvantage of starring in a major movie (The Silver Chalice, a Biblical would-be epic) when he was just starting out. He and Wayne both deserve credit for going on to have successful careers.

Rick Robinson said...

I seem to be going through Op withdrawal.

Evan Lewis said...

Well, Mr. R, it's almost statistically positive than some of the cast, crew, the 20,000 extras, or the viewers of this film then and since had read or heard of at least one of the Op stories or novels, or seen the TV miniseries. Does that help?

Cap'n Bob said...

I've seen this a couple of times and what stood out to me was the actors' over-emoting. I had the impression they had a background in theater and were still using the techniques needed to reach the cheap seats.
You appreciated Brendel a lot more than I did, Evan.

Oscar Case said...

You have to start somewhere and for some it takes longer.

Rick Robinson said...

Nope. Now I want you to move on to Chandler, or Ross Mcdonald, or...?