Depression of the Frontier: Overlooked Westerns from Warner Bros., 1930-1935.
During the early Depression years, Warner Bros. was off to a good start, coasting on the popularity of their innovative sound films, though the financial crisis would eventually hit them too. While cashing in on gangster films and musicals, the studio did not do many Westerns during this time. The Westerns made between 1930-1935 with A-list stars barely qualify as Westerns, while the true genre pictures starred then B-lister John Wayne. Therefore, Warner Bros. had more or less unintentionally helped provide the groundwork for the biggest icon of a genre the studio was only minimally interested in. With the recent publication of Scott Eyman’s extensive biography on Wayne, it is useful to look at these little known films in addition to two A-list films, River’s End (1930) and Frisco Kid (1935).
River’s End, produced in 1930 and directed by Michael Curtiz, is a difficult film to find and I was able to screen it at the Wisconsin Historical Society. This was a vehicle for rising star Charles Bickford and Warner contract director Curtiz. The film is classified as a drama, romance, and Western. While the film doesn’t take place in the true Wild West, the town in the film closely resembles the frontier towns in traditional Westerns. The story takes place in 1918 Canada and revolves around a predictable and largely un-engaging plot about the Bickford character having to pretend to be the deceased Mountie. The film, however, is useful because it is tightly directed and the sound is excellently synchronized for 1930. The story could have resonated with Depression audiences simply because this film begins with an extremely difficult situation and through perseverance the main characters all have a happy ending.
The definitively Western films at Warner Bros. during these years were six quickie productions by Leon Schlesinger, each starring John Wayne (as a character named John) and a horse called Duke (named after Wayne, of course). All made between 1932 and 1933, the films are about an hour long each and utilize old footage from 1920s Ken Maynard films for the action sequences. These films, while minor, all show us glimpses into the star that would rise in the coming years. Wayne’s simultaneously confident, strong, and yet gentle persona shines in each of these films. Also, these stories have a sense of cautious optimism found in many Warner Bros. Depression-era movies.
The first of the Wayne/Schlesinger collaborations is Ride Him Cowboy (1932). This 55 minute yarn is a tale of the wrongfully accused, beginning with a horse (Duke) that is actually put on trial for murder and John Dury (Wayne) saves him from execution by proving he can be tamed. The truth in this initially silly plot is exposed when an attacked man came out of his coma and said bandits, not a horse, tried to kill him. The rest of the narrative is about Wayne getting the facts to the authorities and of course, falling for a girl at the end. Depression-era audiences may have been interested in this film because Americans felt wronged and double-crossed just like some of the characters in this story. Remember, this is shortly before the FDR induced confidence that would come in 1933.
Following that same year is The Big Stampede where Wayne plays John Steele, a local sheriff who needs to find out who is killing local lawmen and stealing (rustling) the cattle. The goal is to help New Mexico get settled and end lawlessness in the region. This was going to be a standard frontier settling narrative in years to come. The wilderness versus civilization conflict, first analyzed at length by Jim Kitses, becomes a primary struggle. One scene stood out in The Big Stampede that gives us insight into Wayne’s later roles. There is a standoff in a bar reminiscent of one in Rio Bravo – where one guy in the front, the other the back, tough-guy phrases are thrown about, and then the sheriff and his guys have to guard a prisoner from getting rescued from his men. The Big Stampede ends with John and his sidekicks saving a large herd of cattle from getting stolen, and of course, he falls for a girl.
The strangest of the six Wayne films, and one of the weirder Westerns I’ve seen, is Haunted Gold (1932). This is a mystery/western that is much more escapist than the other films in this genre at the time. The story begins with an odd letter attached to a horse without a rider provokes John to investigate an abandoned mine. The letter reads, “ let the fate of this rider be a warning to anyone entering the Sally Ann mine.” Meanwhile, treasure seekers are looking for gold in the haunted mine. The film is notable for its supporting African-American actor, which was not common at the time. The problem, however, is that the character suffers from some stereotypical lines and mannerisms. In the end, Wayne defeats a villain by throwing him off a suspended coal cart hanging over a canyon. Duke pulls the unbelievably right ropes to get Wayne to safety. And also, John gets the girl in an extremely rushed ending.
The most modern of the Wayne films of this period is The Telegraph Trail (1933). The villain, Gus Lynch, wants to stop telegraph because he gets rich with the help of the Indians by stealing goods that travel through the area. The potential building of new telegraph lines threatens modernization, which will be bad business for robbers. John Trent (Wayne) is sent it to mediate and is emphatic about Westward expansion. Here we can see a more developed wilderness versus civilization dynamic found in many later Westerns. This notion of Manifest Destiny that is passionate in this film could resonate with Depression audiences because of a shared desire to push forward, regardless of current economic obstacles.
The next film, Somewhere in Sonora (1933), is most notable for its imagery. The film was adapted from a story in the Saturday Evening Post, with the studio keeping with their trend of turning newspaper and magazine stories into films. In order to foil a plot where thieves plan to steal from John’s (Wayne) girlfriend’s father, he joins them. The gang ran by Monte Black, accepts John who is able to thwart their plans from the inside. For a B film Somewhere in Sonora has impressive cinematography. During the second half one can easily imagine John Ford, Howard Hawks, and Anthony Mann watching this film and getting inspiration for their future Westerns.
The last of the Wayne films of this period is The Man From Monterey (1933). John (Wayne) helps save a family’s ranch from opportunistic land grabbers when the family’s land is about to become public domain. Therefore, John hopes to save people from social and political changes that come along with the growing civilization. Like with The Telegraph Trail, this story deals with some problems of modernization and expansion. The landowners are kidnapped and held, with hopes that the rights to the land would lapse and be up for grabs. In the final scenes, we can see Warner’s interest in risqué depictions with a character that decides to disguise himself as a woman to sneak into a party – an interesting precursor to what Billy Wilder would do with Some Like it Hot decades later. As usual, John quickly wins a girl at the end.
Without any Westerns from Warner Bros. in 1934, the studio put A-list star James Cagney in Frisco Kid in 1935. Directed by Lloyd Bacon, the film loosely fits in the genre (similar to River’s End). The story here takes place in San Francisco’s Red Light District during the Gold Rush, the later days of Westward expansion. With the newly enforced Production Code, it was difficult to depict the setting in a newly developed town where gambling, drinking, and prostitution are big business. Also, the film displays the inevitable powers of modernization where the new powers (law) are forcing out the old powers (corruption and mob rule). One character states, “it’s better to have vigilance with law, than a mob with anarchy,” which feels like the thesis of the film. In Frisco Kid, we see Cagney’s character rise from nothing (similar to the gangster narratives) to prominence by getting ahead by any means.
By 1935, the production code made it difficult to dive into the themes that Warner Bros. would likely have been interested in (those that push the boundaries of decency and ask difficult questions). Therefore, since Warner Bros. was focused on other genres, Westerns would not become part of the studio’s canon again until years later as they moved forward with other genres in the late 1930s (spy movies, contemporary social dramas, gangsters, and musicals.) Regardless, the Wayne films are a mostly fun and easy way to see origins of the persona that came from the actor in the decades to come. River’s End and Frisco Kid were experiments in a growing genre for Warner Bros., but all of these films give us a glimpse into what the most socially relevant Depression-era studio would do with the Western.