Author and naturalist Zane Grey has been called the "greatest storyteller of the American West," drawing on his colorful past and rich life experiences to capture the elusive spirit of the "Old West" in the written word. In 1872 Pearl Zane Gray was born in Zanesville, Ohio, a town named for his mother's ancestors who settled it. Growing up, he took great delight in fishing and the American pastime, baseball. The latter would lead to a scholarship to the University of Pennsylvania, where he majored in dentistry, and a brief stint in the minor leagues. It was after a fateful hunting trip to Arizona that Gray fell head over heels for the western frontier and its history and, with the support of his wife, turned his attention to writing full time. Under the pen name Zane Grey he would go on to popularize the western genre in literature and become one of the first millionaire authors.
Throughout the teens, '20s and '30s, Grey had at least one bestseller in the top ten at any given time and like most successful writers, his works inspired several films. Many of the earliest adaptations were made during the silent era and were produced by Zane's own motion picture company, which he later sold to Paramount Pictures who would then go on to adapt dozens of Grey's works. Wagon Wheels (1934) was a fast and loose remake of the very expensive and very successful Gary Cooper vehicle Fighting Caravans produced just a few years prior. Cooper is replaced with up and coming western star and Cary Grant's infamous "roommate," Randolph Scott, who actually delivers a better performance than Cooper.
Scott plays Clint Belmet, an ace scout who along with his fellow trackers Bill O' Leary (Olin Howland) and Jim Burch (Raymond Hatton) must lead a wagon train of from Indiana to Oregon. The recently widowed Nancy Wellington (Gail Patrick) takes the opportunity to steal her son away from her deceased husband's wealthy parents who've been keeping the child from her. Clint and Nancy get off on the wrong foot at the beginning, as her meager carriage doesn't meet his stringent requirements for the harsh journey ahead. A mysterious "trader" named Murdock (Monte Blue) comes to her aid and offers her one of his additional wagons for the trip. However, Murdock, a half-breed Indian, actually wants to help his Indian brethren maintain their lively fur trade by dooming the wagon train and discouraging future settlers.
Over the course of the journey, Clint takes a shine towards Sonny (Billy Lee) and does his best to watch out for him. Nancy sees their developing relationship and is afraid to get close to Clint due to his free-roaming nature and seeming distrust of women. Unlike the earlier Fighting Caravans which stayed faithful to Grey's book, Wagon Wheels isn't afraid to stray in new directions even going so far as to add a love interest for Clint's fellow scout Jim in the form of the spinster Abby Masters (Jan Duggan). By introducing the character of Abby, director Charles Barton plays up Clint's own aversion to commitment and sets the stage for his eventual change of heart.
Wagon Wheels is strictly a B picture and is comprised mostly of B-roll footage from the earlier Fighting Caravans which was shot on location in the Sierra Nevada Mountains of California. Surprisingly, there are a number of large set pieces, including a huge brawl at a frontier way station and an Indian attack as the caravan makes a daring river crossing. There are also several "campfire" songs, including Duggan performing "Under The Daisies" and the title track "Wagon Wheels," which help to quicken the film's already brisk pace. There's certainly a lot packed into Wagon Wheels modest 56 minute running time, but by embracing it's B picture status it outshines the overly dramatic Fighting Caravans as pure entertainment.
Picture: This movie is presented in a 1.33:1 full frame aspect ratio, with some edge enhancement and a nice B&W picture, but as a full restoration wasn't performed there are still places where the film shows it's age.
Audio: This film is presented in 2.0 Dolby Digital Mono.
Extras: Lions Gate Home Entertainment has included some nice Extras on this DVD, including "Outdoor Adventures," which was filmed during two of Grey's extended fishing expeditions and is introduced by his son Loren Grey, another shorter fishing film "Fisherman's Pluck" and the biography, "Zane Grey: An American Legend." "Outdoor Adventures" and "Fisherman's Pluck" are in B&W, while "An American Legend" is in color, but all of these shorts show their age.
Conclusion: Wagon Wheels is a worthy addition to Lions Gate Home Entertainment's growing library of classic westerns. Unlike some of their previous releases, Santa Fe Stampede for example, they've even provided a nice assortment of extras offering some background on author Zane Grey and his contributions to America's "Western" culture. For the western lover or even the curious Wagon Wheels comes Recommended.