A Reconstruction-era Western with John Wayne battling a scurrilous carpetbagger, the meaninglessly titled* The Lonely Trail (1936), is fairly good, early Republic production. Though cheap ($20,000, of which Wayne received $1,750), it lacks the sausage factory mechanicalness of many of that studio's later Westerns. The company style hadn't quite set yet, and the picture is fresher and a bit more adult, if creaky and less fine-tuned.
As with other John Wayne-Republic-Olive Films releases, The Lonely Trail looks terrific, with only dissolves and other opticals on the soft side, while everything else is bright and razor-sharp.
Opening with impressive stock footage, possibly from The Birth of a Nation, of Civil War battles, our story begins in Texas during the Reconstruction. Carpetbagger Benedict Holden (Cy Kendall) has taken control of a huge swath of Texas, seizing land of those unable to pay his crippling taxes. Holden's mounted state troopers arrest those opposing his dictatorial rule, with the prisoners always shot while "trying to escape." Dick Terry (Denny Meadows) leads a small band of bushwhackers, but Holden declares a state of martial law and confiscates everyone's weapons. Holden really does want to take everybody's guns away.
Returning home from the war, local boy John Ashley (John Wayne), accompanied by his bald sidekick, fellow soldier Jed Callicut (Jim Toney), is scorned by his former neighbors, especially one-time fiancÃ©e Virginia (Ann Rutherford) because he joined the Union Army instead of siding with the Confederates.
He arrives home to find his ranch dilapidated and with Holden about to assume ownership unless John can come up with $416 in back taxes. He and Jed visit Holden's vast compound, where Holden offers them a job as troopers. Later John and Jed witness the murder of a prisoner by state troopers and decide to accept Holden's offer, but only to go undercover in order to warn the honest ranchers of the troopers' movements.
Despite its low budget, The Lonely Trail doesn't look as cheap as it was. Scenes are populated by dozens of elaborately costumed extras. Holden's compound/fort appears to be the same large set used in the Buck Jones Western The California Trail, a Sony Choice Collection DVD-R this writer reviewed here only recently.
The picture has several components working in its favor. Barrel-chested Cy Kendall excelled playing morally bankrupt characterizations, and he's as wonderfully sleazy here as he was in another early Wayne picture, King of the Pecos.
Yakima Canutt, the great actor-stuntman-second unit director who helped shape Wayne's screen persona, plays Holden's main henchman. In an early scene, Canutt gets to demonstrate his dexterity with a pair of six-shooters that still impresses today. And it might very well have been him doubling for Wayne in a terrific stunt where Wayne's character leaps from a galloping horse onto a runaway buckboard.
Video & Audio
Once again, Olive's video transfers of these early Republic productions are top-notch, and The Lonely Trail is no exception. The black-and-white, 1.37:1 image is pristine almost in every shot, save only for the handful of dissolves and other opticals in this 56-minute second feature. 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.
It looks great and, for fans of B-Western, loads of fun, The Lonely Trail is heartily Recommended.
* Reader Sergei Hasenecz argues, "It's not meaningless. I've explained this before, but I'll do it again. Titles for Westerns often invoke not plot or situation, but often instead mood or a sense of place: 'Neath the Arizona Skies, Red River, In Old California (three from the Duke). It is a long tradition with Westerns, movies and literature and both: The Light of Western Stars, The Rainbow Trail, Under the Tonto Rim (three of Zane Gray's novels made into movies)."
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.