Dave Lewis is back again with the fifth part of his look at the early days of the Duke - hard to imagine Wayne was every a virtual unknown, which makes this series of articles particularly fascinating. And so over to Dave -
After his escape from (or sacking by) Harry Cohn at Columbia, John Wayne landed a supporting role in boxing film for Paramount, then made another 12-chapter serial, The Hurricane Express, for Mascot. Wayne was under a non-exclusive contract which at the time paid $150 a week whether he worked or not. Since these serials normally took less than a month to film, it was a good deal, especially since the average American took home about $21 a week.
Wayne's agent then hooked him up with Warner Brothers. The studio wanted to remake several of their Ken Maynard silent westerns into sound films. The Maynard movies had been relatively high-budget, with great action sequences and lots of extras. Maynard had been a fine stunt man, with a signature trick of dropping under a galloping horse, hiding until his enemies thought him gone, then swinging up the other side into the saddle. Warners planned to build the remakes around these impressive action scenes, filling in with close-ups and dialogue scenes. Since Maynard was then under contract to another studio (and getting a little paunchy besides), Warners needed someone new.
The studio liked Wayne for the part, but he almost didn’t get the job because of his reputation as a drinker and skirt-chaser. Still, they signed him up and dressed him in outfits matching those Maynard had worn in the originals. They also teamed him with Duke, a double for Maynard’s famous horse Tarzan. The first picture filmed was Haunted Gold, with spooky elements, so they decided to start the series with the second film produced, the more traditional Ride Him, Cowboy.
Ride Him, Cowboy (released in the UK as The Hawk) was a recycled version of Maynard’s 1926 film The Unknown Cavalier, based on a novel by Kenneth Perkins. The devil-horse Duke has been accused of murder, and Wayne saves him by proving he can be ridden. As Wayne sets out to catch the real killer (The Hawk), he’s framed as a murdering barn-burner and almost lynched.