Almost simultaneously released with Warner Home Video's John Ford / John Wayne Collection, Universal's John Wayne: An American Icon is nothing if not eclectic. The Duke was almost unique among big-time Hollywood stars of his generation in that during his long career he worked all over Hollywood, at just about every studio in town, including Poverty Row, where in the mid-1930s he made dozens of low-budget Westerns. Where the Warner Bros. set includes such seminal Westerns as Stagecoach, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, and The Searchers, Universal was limited to those heretofore unreleased Wayne titles in its Universal and pre-1948 Paramount libraries, none of them Westerns. The result is a hit-and-miss five-film set that includes three Wayne features from the early-1940s made at Universal and Paramount: Seven Sinners (1940), The Shepherd of the Hills (1941), and Pittsburgh (1942); and two of Wayne's most infamous '50s films, Jet Pilot (filmed in 1950 but not released until 1957) and The Conqueror (1956). Though scattershot in terms of quality, all five films are very entertaining in their own, often peculiar ways, and Universal's transfers are uniformly stunning. One of the films in the set is a real buried treasure, worth the bargain $26.98 SRP all by itself.
Seven Sinners is very representative of Universal's would-be A-picture output of the early-1940s. Around this time the studio became something of a "last stop" for fading Paramount stars: Marlene Dietrich, Mae West, and W.C. Fields all made the uneasy transition from the European glamour of Paramount to the sausage factory that was Universal at the time. After scoring a big hit with Destry Rides Again, Universal's policy of making the same successful pictures over-and-over again is apparent here: Seven Sinners is basically Destry in the South Seas, with star Marlene Dietrich joined by Duke in Jimmy Stewart's role and Oskar Homolka in the part essayed by Brian Donlevy in the earlier Western.
The film is basically a Dietrich vehicle with her the glamorous nightclub singer deported off one island after another, and whose admirers include dumb lug "Little Ned" Finnegan (Broderick Crawford, obviously trading on his stage role as Lennie in Of Mice and Mice; Universal would soon do likewise Lon Chaney, Jr.); a sympathetic if alcoholic ship's doctor (Albert Dekker); and roguish grifter and pickpocket Sasha (Mischa Auer).
Second-billed Wayne plays Navy Lt. Dan Brent, whose reputation might go down the drain if he chooses Dietrich's disgraced "entertainer" over wholesome Dorothy Henderson (Anna Lee), daughter of the colonial governor.
The film is a South Seas fantasy, the kind they don't make anymore, full of barroom brawls and not a lot of story. For something probably shot entirely on the Universal lot, it's a feast for the eyes. Cinematographer Rudy Mate and director Tay Garnett (the English version of S.O.S. Iceberg) vividly infuse a lot of exotic atmosphere, and the film is handsomely produced. Dietrich sings several good songs: "The Man's in the Navy" and a much-overworked "I Can't Give You Anything But Love, Baby," the same song heard throughout Bringing Up Baby.
1941's The Shepherd of the Hills, directed by Henry Hathaway from Harold Bell Wright's novel, is easily the best of the bunch, and a real surprise on many levels. Though Wayne is top-billed, the film really belongs to screen veteran Harry Carey Sr. as a gentle stranger whose arrival in a tight-knit community deep in the Ozarks is initially met with great suspicion, especially by Young Matt (Wayne), whose family has been haunted by a "curse" and whose life has been devoted to killing the man who abandoned his dying mother.
Though its story is entirely predictable, the attention to character detail, the performances, the delicate writing of many of its vignettes, and especially its three-strip Technicolor photography are all outstanding.
For those who think Wayne didn't learn to act until Hawks' Red River (1948) and Ford's The Searchers (1956) will be surprised by Wayne's very good work here in a role that has much the same kind of self-destructive determination as those later films. And if you ever wondered why Ford decided to dedicate his 3 Godfathers (1949) to Carey, "Bright Star Of The Early Western Sky," The Shepherd of the Hills exemplifies the actor's extraordinary paternal appeal, and his scenes with both Wayne and perennially barefoot co-star Betty Field (Of Mice and Men) are quite mesmerizing.
For film buffs, one of the picture's great assets is that it's not only stacked to the rafters with great character actors, but that Hathaway uses most of them in unexpected ways. Marjorie Main for instance, usually the indomitably hardy and outspoken backwoods woman typified by her Ma & Pa Kettle films here plays a frail, blind grandmother. The late Marc Lawrence, the ultimate pockfaced movie gangster, is quite good as a mute, apparently feeble-minded son of Beulah Bondi's Aunt Mollie, whose lifelong bitterness is clearly written on her face, and a role far removed from the idealized, nurturing mothers and grandmothers she usually played.
W. Howard Greene and Charles Lang's Technicolor cinematography is among the finest of the early-'40s, artfully subtle yet vivid, making great use of the film's Big Bear, California locations (which don't much resemble the Ozarks), and which are supplemented by excellent glass paintings and matte shots.
Pittsburgh reunites Dietrich and Wayne with their co-star from The Spoilers (1942), Randolph Scott, though this follow-up isn't half as fun. Something of a dumbed-down Citizen Kane and likewise told in flashback, third-billed Wayne plays a salt of the earth Pennsylvanian coal miner-turned-ruthless collier magnate unhappy that nobody loves him anymore, and obsessed with a woman (Dietrich) he treats like dirt.
By Universal's standards of the early-1940s, Pittsburgh is quite lavishly produced. There are lots of elaborate coal mine sets, wonderful matte shots of Pittsburgh in the Roaring Twenties, and excellent use of second unit footage shot in real coal mines. The first third of the picture, with cocky Wayne and partner and pal Randolph Scott bluffing their way into financing their first business ventures, is enjoyable and plays to Wayne and Scott's strengths. The film is resolutely inauthentic trying to capture the era but several early scenes, especially a lively boxing match at a Vaudeville house, have a great sense of fun.
That fun evaporates, however, when Wayne's title character becomes a two-timing heel and for no good reason alienates and antagonizes the coal miner's union (led by Thomas Gomez, very good), his father-in-law (Samuel S. Hinds), and eventually his wife (Louise Allbritton), all while mooning over Dietrich.
The picture goes downhill further once the story catches up with current events, and Wayne puts his ego aside to aid in the war effort. At this point the film becomes hopelessly weighed down with talky propaganda, with preachy narrator Frank Craven (as Wayne and Scott's doctor friend) saying we should put aside our differences and pull together until victory is achieved. (Incidentally, Craven's character also conducts oddball research developing a "medical cure-all" derived from coal.)
The film's main asset is the great likeability of its cast. Besides its leading and major supporting players, several other familiar faces turn up, including Shemp Howard of the Three Stooges, in the sizable role of a beleaguered tailor, and Nestor Paiva as a café owner. Longtime Wayne friend Paul Fix is both in the picture as a coal miner, and served as dialogue director.
The hilarious - and hysterically anticommunist - Jet Pilot encapsulates in 112 glorious minutes all of producer Howard Hughes obsessions, from the latest feats of aircraft engineering to the engineering of co-star Janet Leigh's breasts. The credits state, "Starring John Wayne, Janet Leigh, and the United States Air Force," but "...and Janet Leigh's Knockers" would have been equally apt. As Randy Roberts and James S. Olson described them in their indispensable biography, John Wayne: American, "Throughout the film Janet Leigh wears bras that look as if they had been built out of reinforced concrete."
In this Cold War Ninotchka, Wayne plays an Air Force colonel assigned to look after Leigh's Soviet MIG pilot (!) who may or may not be defecting to the West. The film's evil-doers versus freedom-lovers simple-mindedness (that might play well today, come to think of it) is so ridiculous as to be almost impressive. Quoting Roberts and Olson again, "[Wayne] soon discovers that beneath every hardened Communist is a budding capitalist yearning for a freedom to spend."
Leigh, all that brassiere engineering aside, really is a knock-out, and the production is nothing if not great to look at. The aerial footage that Howard Hughes so obsessed over that he had to delay Jet Pilot's release for seven years is still pretty impressive, and the film's way over-the-top scenes inside Russia are a wonder to behold.
The Conqueror is most famous for its awkward casting of Wayne as 12th century Mongolian warlord Temujin, later to become Genghis Khan, and as the film that "gave everybody cancer," the picture having been shot out in the Nevada desert close to a nuclear test site.
The movie made Harry and Michael Medved's list of The 50 Worst Films of All-Time, but really isn't half as bad as its reputation suggests. Yes, the dialogue is incredibly stilted and Wayne's halting delivery only makes matters worse ("Let us have...no more of this...I will need...your wisdom...henceforth."), but remember this was a time when such arcane language was the norm in religious epics, Tarzan movies, and pirate swashbucklers, to name three examples. It didn't seem quite as silly then as it does today.
Ultimately, the film does deliver the goods in terms of spectacle, and as one of the first CinemaScope productions (it was shot in 1954), it's fairly representative of the kind of empty-headed epic exoticism so popular at the time. Seen today, watching Wayne and an equally miscast co-star Susan Hayward (who makes like Maria Montez in an Arabian Nights movie) lusting after one another with jutting eyebrows in traditional Mongolian yurts is a bit ridiculous, but back in 1956 Mongolia was so remote for most Americans that it might as well have been another planet. To see such big-scale battles about a faraway people on a giant wide screen in stereophonic sound was a real novelty. It's no surprise that The Conqueror was a huge international hit.
The Conqueror may be the silliest of Wayne's career, but by no means is it his least entertaining.
Video & Audio
All five films in this set have been given knock-out transfers. The black and white Seven Sinners and Pittsburgh are absolutely pristine and nearly flawless. The movies may fall short in other ways, but they sure are pretty to look at, and their handsome production values really shine in these transfers. The Shepherd of the Hills is equally eye-popping, suggesting Universal may have gone back to the original color separations. Only once shot in the entire film is misaligned, and the film shows no signs of damage or age-related wear.
It's interesting that Universal would opt for a 16:9 widescreen transfer on Jet Pilot, a film shot for full frame presentation (though not released that way), yet at the same time release other '50s films definitely released in wide screen - most famously Universal's upcoming This Island Earth - in inappropriately full-frame transfers.
In any case, the fact is that Jet Pilot was released in cropped widescreen, though the framing, for the most part, holds up just fine. (It's possible director Josef von Sternberg's compositions may have optically been realigned.) The use of three-strip Technicolor is quite dazzling: indeed, as ludicrous as the film is, Jet Pilot is one of the best-looking postwar Technicolor films, and this transfer is a knock-out, an easy 5-stars.
Like Jet Pilot, The Conqueror had previously been released to DVD in a 4:3 letterboxed transfer by Goodtimes. This 16:9 enhanced transfer puts that one to shame. The image is great, one of the best-looking early CinemaScope movies out there, with strong color (original prints were by Technicolor) and clarity, with little age-related wear. (Incidentally, this version retains the original RKO logo at the head and tail, a welcome sight.) The reproduction of the original 4-track magnetic stereo track is also a knock-out, with Victor Young's underrated score booming away over much directional dialogue and sound effects. This is a real winner.
All five films offer optional subtitles in English (with Universal's trademark "directional" subtitles, that do a great job indicating who's speaking), French, and Spanish.
Supplements are limited to a few trailers. It appears Universal never held onto their own original trailer elements, as those for the '40s films are in rather sorry shape. The ones for Pittsburgh ("Drama! Fiery as a blast furnace!") and The Shepherd of the Hills are filled with spoilers, so beware. The trailer for The Conqueror is complete with text and narration, but presented in 4:3 letterboxed format.
Those new to the films of John Wayne are better off starting with Warner's Wayne/Ford set, but more hard-core fans of the iconic actor and classic movie buffs will find much to like in John Wayne: An American Icon. Highly Recommended.
Stuart Galbraith IV is a Kyoto-based film historian whose work includes The Emperor and the Wolf - The Lives and Films of Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune and Taschen's forthcoming Cinema Nippon. Visit Stuart's Cine Blogarama here.