John Wayne made eight "Three Mesquiteers" movies for Republic Pictures during 1938-39, before, during, and after his game-changing role in John Ford's Stagecoach (1939). Wayne, who worked hard to reestablish himself following his disastrous starring debut in The Big Trail (1930), a financial flop for which Wayne unfairly received much of the blame, was not a happy Mesquiteer. Replacing actor Robert Livingston in what he regarded as a series of kiddie films, especially after Ford's acclaimed and popular success, was a career move he could have done without.
Oddly, though, the series was, like Republic generally, capable of a few startling surprises amidst these most formulaic of program pictures. Considering the last entry, the goofy Three Texas Steers (1939), had our three heroes (four, if you count Elmer, ventriloquist Max Terhune's dummy) helping out circus folk and their frisky gorilla, Wyoming Outlaw (1939) is a pleasant surprise.
Though it doesn't serve Wayne particularly well, the picture itself is an unusually grim, topical, mostly serious fact-based tale. It's more a showcase for Don "Red" Barry, who plays something like a cross between The Grapes of Wrath's Tom Joad and High Sierra's Roy Earle. It was the perfect vehicle for Barry, who became a leading man at Republic and other lower-end studios until the '50s, switching to character parts after that.
Once again, Olive Films offers interested parties another dazzlingly pristine high-definition transfer. This one has warping issues but like their other '30s John Wayne titles is extraordinarily sharp.
An epic dust storm forces cattle drivers, including Three Mesquiteers Stony Brooke (John Wayne), Tucson Smith (Ray "Crash" Corrigan) and Rusty Joslin (Raymond Hatton), into a small shack, where Stony talks about how bottomed-out wheat prices have turned this one fertile land into a never-ending dust bowl of despair.
After the storm the trio realize one of their steers has been rustled and slaughtered on the spot, but that the beef has been stolen and hauled away by a lone (and impressively strong) man. Stony traces the trail of blood to the destitute Parker family, where young Will (Don Barry) steals beef to feed his family. There Irene (Pamela Blake), the adult daughter of Luke and Mrs. Parker (Charles Middleton and Katherine Kenworthy), resorts to stealing $20 from Stony's wallet. Stony, feeling sorry for the family lies to Irene's parents claiming she'd won the money in a dance contest.
The family is destitute because Luke and Will refuse to appease political appointee Joe Balsinger (LeRoy Mason), who'll only provide public works jobs to those willing to enhance his personal fortune.
But rather than focus on the Mesquiteers' efforts to expose and arrest Balsinger, the movie instead is concerned with Will's last-ditch efforts at honest employment, which are continually thwarted by corrupt local government agencies in Balsinger's back-pocket. Arrested for shooting a deer intended to feed his family, Will breaks out of jail and heads for the mountains, deciding that, if he's going down in flames, he's going to do the community a service and take Balsinger down with him.
Despite its serious tone and notably downbeat ending, Wyoming Outlaw was the highest grossing of the season's 82 B-Westerns. Reportedly, Will Parker was based on a real fugitive who had similarly fought graft while a wanted man, but details about that case are sketchy. Regardless, it was the perfect part for Red Barry. He was short, stocky and redheaded like Cagney, and like Cagney possessed a hair-trigger violent temper that, in Barry's case, spilled over into his personal life. He always appeared to have a chip on his shoulder the size of the national debt (as Rod Serling would say) and completely lacked Cagney's breezy charm. He was by all accounts an angry yet egotistical man (he committed suicide in 1980 at age 68), all of which made him an unlikely, unappealing leading man but perfect as Will Parker in Wyoming Outlaw.
The film's other big asset is its cast, several in atypical roles. Charles "Ming the Merciless" Middleton is that villain's polar opposite, a sensitive, dispirited patriarch. The great stuntman Dave Sharpe has a prominent but oddly inert role as Newt, a café counterman, while Yakima Canutt is more in his milieu as henchman Ed Sims. Screendom's first Tarzan, Elmo Lincoln, turns up as a U.S. Marshal in his first credited role since the silent era.
Video & Audio
Olive's video transfer of Wyoming Outlaw is another eye-opening, pleasurable viewing experience. Once again it's really great to see B-Westerns like these looking so sparklingly good. The black-and-white, 1.37:1 image is pristine throughout, with only minor warping issues inherent to the original film elements. Detail, blacks, and contrast are all very impressive. The Region A disc has decent audio, English only with no subtitle options, and No Extra Features.
Considering it was such a hit, it's unfortunate that Republic didn't steer the Mesquiteers toward more serious topical stories instead of the increasing trifles made after Wayne left the series. But Wyoming Outlaw is a fine example of its genre and Highly Recommended.
Stuart Galbraith IV is a Kyoto-based film historian whose work includes film history books, DVD and Blu-ray audio commentaries and special features. Visit Stuart's Cine Blogarama here.