Big John made over 170 films in his career, many of them in the late 1920s and 1930s featuring the actor in bit parts or starring in low-budget B-movie Westerns until his breakthrough in John Ford’s “Stagecoach” in 1939. I mention this because it seemed to me that all 170-odd films had made their way to DVD by now, most of them in collections of one kind or another. Yet in honor of Wayne’s 100th birthday anniversary (1907-1979), Warner Bros. managed to come up with six more titles that apparently hadn’t made it to disc. Needless to say, they are not among the Duke’s biggest hits. But for the dedicated John Wayne fan, no film is too small or too dumb. And, to be fair, there really are some good moments in the set.
Let me briefly tell you what’s in the collection, and then I’ll concentrate on one film in particular, one of the better ones, for the remainder of the review.
Things start out, chronologically, with “Allegheny Uprising” from 1939, black-and-white, directed by William A. Seiter and co-starring Claire Trevor, George Sanders, Brian Donlevy, and Moroni Olsen. Among the movies in this set, “Allegheny Uprising” is the closest we see Wayne to being in his familiar Western mode, only this time it isn’t the American West, it’s the American East in a mountain range that’s a part of the Appalachians, and it isn’t post Civil War, it’s pre-Revolutionary War. Close enough. He’s wearing buckskins, firing a flintlock, and fighting Indians. It is not an unpleasant way to pass a quick eighty minutes unless you sympathize with the imposed-upon Native Americans. 6/10
Next up we get “Reunion in France” from 1942, black-and-white, directed by Jules Dassin and co-starring Joan Crawford (who gets top billing), Philp Dorn, Reginald Owen, and John Carradine. It’s all about Wayne as a downed American aviator and Crawford as a French socialite who reluctantly helps him. Basically, it’s a rather dated War propaganda film and a rather dated romance as well. 5/10
From 1947 we have “Tycoon,” in color, directed by Richard Wallace, and co-starring Laraine Day, Sir Cedric Hardwicke, Judith Anderson, James Gleason, and Anthony Quinn. Here we find Wayne as an engineer who has to blast a railroad through the Andes. Despite the potential for fast action and romance, it’s more of a potboiler than anything else. 4/10
By 1952 the McCarthy Era investigations into alleged Communist activities were in full swing, and folks were finding “Reds” under every bed. Why, your own neighbor could be a Commie! So Big John, patriotic as ever, plays Commie-hunting federal agent “Big Jim McLain,” in black-and-white, directed by Edward Ludwig, and co-starring Nancy Olson and James Arness. The movie may have prolonged the country’s hysteria with Communist witch hunting by years. One should not confuse Big Jim McLain with Die-Hard John McClane or Senator John McCain. 3/10
Then, from 1953 there’s “Trouble Along the Way,” black-and-white, directed by Michael Curtiz and co-starring Donna Reed, Charles Coburn, and Sherry Jackson. This one has Wayne as a football coach in a sentimental piece about his trying to save a small college and trying to save his young daughter at the same time. Mushy stuff. 4/10
Among the bunch, I thought “Without Reservations,” 1946, was the best. It’s in black-and-white, directed by Mervyn LeRoy (“Random Harvest,” “Madame Curie,” “Mister Roberts”), and co-starring Claudette Colbert, Don DeFore, Anne Riola, Louella Parsons, and a few cameos.
Although most of us know Wayne for winning World War II and saving the American West, it’s good to see him in a lighthearted romantic comedy, too. For me, his best role ever was in 1952’s “The Quiet Man,” another lighthearted romantic-comedy romp, so maybe he missed his calling. Uh-huh.
Here, he plays Captain Rusty Thomas, a handsome Marine pilot who just happens to look like the hero, an ace flier, of a best-selling novel, “Here Is Tomorrow,” pictured in her mind by author Kit Madden (Colbert). Kit is on her way to Hollywood, where they are going to make a movie of her book, and she and Rusty meet on the train West. You can guess the results.
Initially, the studio in the picture, Arrowhead Pictures, wanted Cary Grant for the lead in Kit’s story, but Grant couldn’t to it, so the studio decided to find a replacement, preferably an unknown. Kit’s intuition tells her that Rusty is just the man. He perfectly fits the image she’s built up of her hero over the past two years. That is, until Rusty opens his mouth. Turns out, he’s far from the perfect, sensitive gentleman of tomorrow this intellectual author envisioned in her book. Instead, Rusty is an old-fashioned, gung-ho masculine type whose idea of romance is, you’ve got a man and you’ve got a woman. What else do you need? He figures the author of “Here Is Tomorrow” doesn’t know a thing about real love and relationships because she writes about it too much in the abstract for him.
Besides, when Rusty hears Kit talking anonymously about the book (she doesn’t tell him who she is at first), he thinks it just sounds silly, and he can’t imagine why anybody of the stature of Cary Grant would ever have wanted to be in such a movie in the first place. We can see he’s going to be a hard sell, along with the love affair. But opposites attract, as they say, and that’s what happens here. Miscommunication and missed trains eventually bring the macho Rusty and the refined Kit together, but not without an hour and a half or more of complications. That’s what romantic comedies are all about.
Rusty’s machismo attitude toward romance rather permeates the whole story line, which makes sense if you consider that it was mostly men who made the movie. So, you do have to get by the fact that Rusty basically gets his way. It’s sort of a “Taming of the Shrew”; it doesn’t set too well with modern audiences with more progressive views toward the roles of men and women. Still, “Without Reservations” is mostly a cute farce, and you’ve got to take it for what it is.
In supporting roles you’ll find Don DeFore as Lt. Dink Watson, Rusty’s best friend. He’s a kind of comic sidekick who’s always hanging around and interrupting the flow of the narrative. Then there’s Anne Triola as Connie Callaghan, a screwball type with an annoyingly high-pitched voice who is also hanging around interrupting things. And there are a bunch of cameo bits by people like Jack Benny, Cary Grant, Raymond Burr, Marvin Miller, Ruth Roman, Erskine Sanford, gossip columnist Luella Parsons, and director Mervyn LeRoy himself among others to perk things up.
Amazingly, Wayne never fires off a shot or raises a fist at anyone in the entire movie. It was probably a first for him, and almost an only. 6/10
As usual, Warner Bros. found a good copy of this RKO picture in their vaults (or somebody’s vaults) and spruced it up a bit for a pleasing appearance. The transfer displays above-average black-and-white contrasts and a clean screen, meaning no age marks, lines, scratches, flecks, or such. The image is a tad soft, though, and there is a mild grain present in the original print that one can see.
The Dolby Digital 1.0 monaural soundtrack is a bit fluttery at times and without much dynamic range. It is also a tad edgy and lacking in deepest bass and highest treble. In other words, it’s a typical soundtrack of its day. Fortunately, there is practically no background noise to speak of, and the disc clearly reproduces the midrange, edgy or no, for dialogue that’s easy to hear.
The bonus items on “Without Reservations” are pretty much in line with the extras on the other discs in the set. They include, first, the vintage Pete Smith specialty short “I Love My Husband, But!” It’s about ten minutes long and in black-and-white. Then, there’s a classic, 1946 Merrie Melodies cartoon, “Holiday for Shoestrings,” by director Fritz Freleng. It’s about seven minutes long, in Technicolor, and contains some good music by Strauss, Chopin, and Tchaikovsky. Things wind down with twenty-six scene selections (but no chapter insert), English as the only spoken language, and English, French, and Spanish subtitles.
You can buy “Without Reservations” in WB’s “The John Wayne Collection” or, like the other films in the set, individually. Personally, since I didn’t care overmuch for the other movies in the group, I’d buy it separately, but, then, I’m not the world’s biggest John Wayne fan, either. My film value rating below is a collective-average score for all six releases.