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West of the Divide (1934)

CRUMBLIES…2 crumblies

I doubt many people watch John Wayne‘s B movie period willingly. The films are basic and kinda bad, the plotting plotty and the emotions superficial and trite. So, as a dutiful reviewer to the senior generation, old Jack here thought he’d give one a go. Enter West of the Divide, the Duke’s 52nd (or thereabouts) film. He’s been at it for eight years, lost his great opportunity just four years before (The Big Trail, in which Marion Morrison became John Wayne), and is five years away from great opportunity number two, Stagecoach, the one that worked.

But he’s got the thing, you know. The boy is only twenty-seven, tall, lean and heavy-pretty. The drawl and the heroics speak to the men, and you can see why the women were happy to spend their Saturday morning cinema time with him. The story is appalling, obvious, trite and cringe-triggering, all of which is better than the stand-in-a-line-for-the-camera direction, but the Duke…he makes it fun.

Of the plot. Hmmm. Duke is Ted Hayden, who impersonates a murderer (Gad Ganns. Really) to get in with the evil Gentry gang. Gentry is played by Lloyd Whitlock, who appears to have walked off a British colonial set in a fit of schizoid confusion. Gentry wants his neighbour’s land and also the hand of his daughter, Fay, played by Virginia Brown Faire with thin-lipped piety and a look trapped in the late 1920s. Still, it took a long time for things change out west, and she is busy being supportive of her olde-timey dad, Fred, played by the always-a-sweethearted-father, Lafe McKee. Gentry plainly killed the Duke’s dad a few years back, and he and his gang have a boy on hand about the same age as the Duke’s missing brother…

Most of this is covered in a scene of jaw-dropping exposition at the head of the film, Duke and ancient friend Dusty (Western legend, beardy and quality chewer-spitter Gabby Hayes!) resting on the ground and explaining each other to each other for a full five hours. Bless the B movie and its scenes for the special people in the audience…

West of the Divide lasts just under an hour and more of the plot would spoil things a cliché too far. Take it from me that the film is full of unwitting laughs (Fay is shot through an artery, but the doctor earnestly explains its not too bad an injury), weird character moments (Duke is asked to fall in love, flick from hate to worry to full-on punch-a-bastard acting), and stunts for the kids. Which, whilst being appallingly dangerous (Yakima Canutt is in the cast, film fans), are fascinating: the Duke’s stuntman chases after the bad-guy and, rather than getting off the horse and kicking in the door, elects to fling himself through a window; the kid (okay, the brother) loses control of horses and buggy and the Duke, coming to the rescue, elects to jump between horses, then onto their wooden brace thing, then off the carriage and spins to a stop with the boy in his arms. Okay, part of that was a lie. The baddie’s laugh is a bit special as well.

The film is agonisingly bad in modern terms, but it’s the cheap telly of its day. Old Jack here found himself having flashbacks to the smell of old cinemas, the yelling from the kids in the crowd, the sea of cowboy hats and toy guns going off as the baddie bites the dust (or does he…?). So, for the oldsters, it’ll be awful and brilliant. And there’s the added joy of kindly old folk who say “gosh darn it” and “darn tootin'” whilst chewing through mighty white whiskers.

And the kid says, “Gee, ain’t that swell?”

Give it a go. It’s on Amazon Prime and the YouTube. Keep your expectations really really low, but enjoy the Duke serving his time.

John Ford and the Ringo Kid are waiting…


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