'Duke Days' Indeed!

Saturday, November 22, 2014

'Duke Days' Indeed!

John Wayne Western title card

One of the Encore brand of cable television channels is "Encore Westerns" which, as most could figure out, is devoted to the Western genre of movies and re-runs of those television shows from the late '50s through the mid-'60s.

("Encore Westerns" is seen on channel 353 on the local cable system.)

This month they've been heavy on John Wayne Westerns, and will culminate with a day-long "Duke Marathon" on Thanksgiving.

What's particularly caught my attention has been the blocks of low-budget programmers made between 1933 and 1935 at Monogram Studios and released beneath the banner of "Lone Star Westerns," the most notorious of which is "Riders of Destiny" in which Wayne appears as "Singin' Sandy Saunders," the screen's second-ever singing cowboy1 with a reputation as a feared gunfighter but in reality an undercover Federal Marshal.

(Wayne was no more a singer than was Clint East­wood in "Paint Your Wagon," and his voice was dubbed by one of the director's sons, Bill Bradbury.

The movie's highlight was Wayne striding grimly down the street, tunelessly in­ton­ing "There'll be guns a blazin' and singin' with lead. Tonight you'll be drinkin' your drinks with the dead," while hatchet-heavy Earl Dwire awaits with ever increasing uncertainty.)

Perhaps the most interesting of the Lone Star/Monogram package cablecast this month is "The Star Packer," a 53-minute entry with "John Travers" (Wayne) as an under­cover U.S. Marshal trying to break up a gang of road agents led by an unseen brains heavy known only as "The Shadow."

What makes this oater unusual is that a whisker-less George "Gabby" Hayes, in a rare departure from his "yur durn tootin'" sidekick roles, is revealed as the gang's boss, and legendary stuntman Yakima Canutt plays Wayne's mono-syllabic "faithful Indian companion" with the con­venient cognomen of "Yak."

Canutt and Wayne from "The Star Packer"

And for the role, Wayne donned a white stetson and rode a silver stallion... this less than 18 months after "The Lone Ranger" made its January 30, 1933 debut on WXYZ radio station in Detroit, and three years before the character first appeared on-screen in a 1938 15 chapter Republic movie serial.

(I've never been one for coincidences!)

Also of note is the oft-repeated music track... I've counted it in at least eight separate John Wayne westerns from that 1933-35 time frame, and given an unusual end credit, William Barber1.

It took a little poking around but the reason is that Barber, a multi-Emmy-winning composer and musical director came up with the horn-heavy instrumental tracks that were added for the 1985 packaging of the Lone Star/Monogram films for TV.

"Duke Days" is a spendid idea, and Encore's programmers are to be applauded.

  1. Ken Maynard had the distinction of being the first, in 1929's "The Wagon Master."
  2. Barber is probably most noted for composing the theme song for "All My Children" in the 1990s.


1. Malcolm Robertson said...

Have you ever read "John Wayne: American" by James S. Olsen, and Randy Roberts?

Normally I don't go for celebrity biographies, but "the Duke" is one of the very rare exceptions, and that book is particularly insightful. What I find interesting is that after Wayne took his first starring role in "The Big Trail" under the direction of Raoul Walsh, John Ford wouldn't speak to him for a few years. That combined with a feud that Wayne had unwittingly entered into with Harry Cohn was what consigned him to the dustbin of B-movies for the better part of a decade. However those B-movies saw the vast majority of their play in middle America among the poor and working class. When Ford cast him as "Ringo" in "Stagecoach," Duke already had a built-in audience that was likely thrilled to see him in a quality production.

On a related note, I always found it an affront to reality that the AFI placed John Wayne as thirteenth on their list of the greatest film stars. There was no screen actor more iconic than the Duke, let alone 12 of them.

That volume will be next on my reading list as soon as I finish this dreadfully-written one about Lynn Bari!

As far as the ranking thing, you have to remember that AFI came out of the period immediately following Viet Nam, and he paid the price several times over for his outspoken patriotism.

(He even passed on the role of "Major General Joseph W. Stilwell" in Steven Spielberg's "1941," subsequently played by Robert Stack. Wayne felt the role was unpatriotic and an affront to WWII vets.)

#13? In my never quite humble-enough opinion, only Bogey, Chaplin, Tracy and Gable might legitimately out-rank Wayne... he'd be tied for fifth with Henry Fonda and Jimmy Stewart.
– Dean

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