Seven Sinners [1940]

He was no one's (including his own) idea of a great actor--one senses that the one Oscar he won, for True Grit in 1970, was as much for his longevity as his talent--but "icon" is an apt description for John "Duke" Wayne, who starred in scores of movies in a career that spanned 50 years. Five of them are collected on John Wayne - An American Icon Collection, a two-disc, no-frills (as in no bonus material) set offered at a very reasonable price. Ranging from 1940 to 1957, these items reveal that although he didn't have a lot of range ("I play John Wayne in pretty much every film I do," he once admitted), Wayne was at least willing to tackle other genres besides the Westerns with which he's so closely identified; here he portrays a coal miner, a moonshiner, and a legendary warrior, along with the more expected military roles. As for the quality of the films, let's just say that "good" and "entertaining" don't always go on the same page, and the set at least has plenty of the latter. Seven Sinners ('40) is the best of the lot, with Marlene Dietrich sly and radiant as the delightfully named Bijou Blanche, a South Pacific cabaret singer who tantalizes naval officer Wayne. At the other end of the spectrum is The Conqueror ('55), generally regarded as Wayne's worst feature ever, but even it is a campy hoot. Sporting a Fu Manchu 'stache and many silly hats and delivering some preposterously stilted dialogue ("Hi, Mom" becomes "I greet you, my mother!"), Wayne plays Mongol warlord Temujin, soon to become Genghis Khan, who's obsessed with a beautiful princess (Susan Hayward as a Tartar? Mayonnaise is more like it) who just happens to be the daughter of the man responsible for the death of Temujin's father. Pittsburgh ('42), again pairing Wayne with the luminous Dietrich, is considerably better, charting the rise, fall, and redemption of miner-turned-captain-of-industry Charles "Pittsburgh" Markham in a story that's both humorous and dramatic before devolving into flag-waving World War II propaganda. Neither The Shepherd of the Hills ('41), sentimental hokum about a clan of drawling, superstitious Ozark hicks, nor Jet Pilot ('57), with a pre-Psycho Janet Leigh as a Russian spy (!), ranks as what you'd call a classic--indeed, there are no classics to be found anywhere here--but the Duke, always a man's man, probably wouldn't mind. "When people say a John Wayne picture got bad reviews," he said, "I always wonder if they know it's a redundant sentence, but hell, I don't care. People like my pictures and that's all that counts." --Sam Graham

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