Ron Scheer's website, Buddies in the Saddle is essential reading on the Wild West Web. The site contains a lot of information on the early B-westerns and here he tells us of his love for those early Wayne B's and one film in particular.
I enjoy watching John Wayne’s B-westerns from the 1930s when he was not a “star” and far from being an icon. He threw himself into these low-budget action pictures with such energy and enthusiasm. They are best when there’s not a lot of dialogue but plenty of riding, chasing, fights, and shooting. The stunts, when they are daring and original, are often worth everything else in the film put together.
Sagebrush Trail (1933) is a good example. The plot could have come straight from a pulp magazine – and maybe did. Wayne plays an escaped convict who’s been doing time for a murder he didn’t commit. He’s come out West to find the actual killer. Hoping to get some leads on the guy’s whereabouts, he gets involved with a gang of train robbers who have a hideout in a cave in an isolated canyon.
The film also stars Lane Chandler, who was to have a long career as a character actor in Hollywood. The script allows the two men to meet and become friends, then to compete for the affections of the same shop girl. In typical B-westerns, cowboy pardners are foils of each other, and the good looking one gets the girl. These two guys are similar in appearance and character. In that way, it’s sort of an early buddy film. Wayne still gets the girl, but not until his brave buddy has died from gunshot wounds in his arms.
Also in the cast is the incredible Yakima Canutt, who was a champion rodeo rider and stuntman in Wayne's early movies. He also plays the leader of the gang. After a serious injury in the 1940s, Canutt went on to become a celebrated stunt coordinator, responsible for the chariot race sequence in Ben-Hur.
A highlight of the film is an unusual underwater scene in which Wayne hides from two pursuers while sucking down air from above through a reed. Canutt (doubling for Wayne) does rear mounts of horses with acrobatic leaps. He also performs a stunt with a moving stagecoach that I believe he perfected. Lying in the road, he lets the coach and team pass over him and then climbs on board, going up the back and onto the top where he draws a gun on the driver.
There are fistfights, chases, gunfights, and leaps from trees onto riders passing below. All is played out in the rocky, dusty terrain not far outside of Los Angeles, long since surrendered to sprawling suburbs and shopping malls. And the extras in these scenes often look like actual working cowboys, who came to the shoot that day in their own clothes and hats.
If you know even a little about filmmaking, you can appreciate the go-for-broke immediacy of these films, with one-week shooting schedules and limited budgets. When some clever idea of director and crew clicks for them or time has been taken to frame a shot nicely against a scenic background, you sense the heart that often went into these movies. And that is also part of the pleasure.
Sagebrush Trail and a dozen or more other John Wayne B-westerns are available from netflix and amazon. Some prints are better than others, and often a modern-day music track has been added. But the good ones are a fun way to spend sixty minutes. Treat yourself sometime.