"Each man has a song and this is my song." (Leonard Cohen)

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Wagon Wheels (Paramount, 1934)


Fighting Caravans redux

Paramount released a series of movies in the early 1930s adapted from Zane Grey stories, to which Jesse Lasky had bought the rights, and starring a young Randolph Scott (well, quite young: he was 34 when the series started, with his first Western, Heritage of the Desert in 1932).  There followed Wild Horse Mesa, The Thundering Herd, To The Last Man, Man of the Forest and Sunset Pass, and then in 1934, Wagon Wheels. The production company was Favorite Films and they had made Fighting Caravans with Gary Cooper in 1931. Wagon Wheels was a remake, using much of the original footage. They even made Scott wear the same (dreadful) costume as Coop so the shots would match.
Watch it if you have to
Wagon Wheels was a creakier version, however. Randy was good as Clint Belmet but he wasn’t Coop. The first picture was a big effort with a 90-minute runtime and a cast of thousands. It was a talkie The Covered Wagon and Paramount's answer to Fox's The Big TrailWagon Wheels, on the other hand, was a one-hour B programmer directed by an unknown (Wagon Wheels was Charles Barton’s first feature) and with a cast that was far from stellar. It’s an(other)  Oregon Trail epic but without the epic part.
Randy trying to be Coop
The whole look of the thing is old-fashioned. It’s like one of the first talkies (though talking pictures were by then the norm) and has wooden acting, melodramatic music and some pretty clunky lines. The screenplay was by Jack Cunningham who wrote several of the other Zane Grey pictures for Paramount and many other B-Westerns. His best-known effort was Union Pacific in 1939 but in fact he had worked on The Covered Wagon back in '23.

Another major weakness is the fact that far too many of the only sixty minutes are devoted to bad songs.
Oh Lord, not another song
As for the acting, Scott was OK trying to be Coop. He did his best. The dame was Gail Patrick, who was also in To The Last Man. She takes the Lily Damita part in Fighting Caravans but isn’t French. She has a rather amusing young son, Sonny (Billy Lee), who manages to pick off attacking Indians with his slingshot. The Ernest Torrence/Tully Marshal duo of old-timer pards of the hero from Fighting Caravans is this time played by Raymond Hatton and Olin Howland. They are satisfactorily cranky and amusing.
The old-timers Ray and Olin
Best actor (well, sharing the acting honors with the little boy) was Monte Blue as the bad guy Murdock who sells the wagon train out to the Indians, the cad.
The best actors: Monte Blue (above) and Billy Lee (below)
In the pre-VCR days of 1953 a shortened version of this movie was re-released in 16 mm format for home consumption.

The New York Daily News of the day said, "It is a well-made, nicely photographed piece, written and directed with a lack of originality that will probably insure its success." That was probably erring on the side of generosity.
If you want to see an early wagon-train movie, you’d do much better with Fighting Caravans or The Big Trail with a young John Wayne. This one is really for historic interest only, or for seriously hard-core Randolph Scott fans, poor things, of which, however, I must confess to being one.

Happy families


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