Allegheny Uprising [1939]

Genre: Adventure, History, Western
Pilgrim, let's talk. John Wayne starred in something like 150 feature films, and the most loyal Duke devotee cannot insist that all of them were U.S. Grade A, even if the man himself never stinted. So what we have in this boxed set--now that the classics have been corralled in previous collections--is a mixed bag. A couple of these movies should be happy discoveries. A couple are honorable misfires. A couple are downright (to borrow a disturbing word from McLintock!) unprepossessing. But all are new to DVD and all are welcome, because there's no such thing as a John Wayne movie that isn't worth checking out. The likable Allegheny Uprising (1939) was made at RKO half a year after Wayne achieved stardom in Stagecoach. It's an odd little picture: a "Western" set in Pennsylvania, a "forgotten footnote of history" about a rebellion against King George III's forces a decade-and-a-half before the American Revolution, and a basically B-movie production (over and done with in 80 minutes) with some middling-large action scenes and lots of fresh air and sunlight. Wayne plays a thoughtful fellow named Jim Smith who leads his "men of the Conococheague" in a brief shooting war in which they scrupulously strive not to kill anybody; they're still loyal British subjects, for all their buckskinned orneriness. Just as buckskinned and just as ornery is love interest Claire Trevor, and George Sanders gives yeoman service as the obdurate Brit officer responsible for a lot of the civil unrest. Reunion in France (1942) finds Wayne out of his element at chintzy MGM in a Parisian-set WWII melodrama conceived for and dominated by Joan Crawford--the only occasion these stars worked together. She's a cosseted but curiously principled fashionista shaken by the Nazis' inconsiderate invasion of France--and still more by the willingness of her millionaire industrial designer fiancé (Philip Dorn) to collaborate with Hitler's war machine. The Duke makes a delayed entrance as a Yank whose RAF plane has crashed in the French countryside. Crawford shelters him, against her better judgment, then begins to be drawn to someone with even more imposing shoulders than her own. In later years everybody involved in this film preferred to forget it had ever happened, but its wackiness can be endearing. In Without Reservations (1946), the Duke again is essentially a featured player in a woman's picture, with Claudette Colbert as a novelist searching for "the Man of Tomorrow" to play the main character in the film version of her visionary bestseller. That turns out to be the Marine she bumps into on the transcontinental train taking her to Hollywood. The script, like their much-interrupted journey, is all over the map, and the comedy scenes are shockingly mishandled--though it looks as if director Mervyn LeRoy was trying to imitate Preston Sturges in some of them and Ernst Lubitsch in others. Cary Grant has a charming cameo, as himself. Tycoon (1947) inspired a sublime one-sentence review from James Agee: "Several tons of dynamite are set off in this movie; none of it under the right people." Wayne's an engineer trying to drill and blast through the Andes, and his worst obstacle is the aristocratic railroad magnate (Sir Cedric Hardwicke) he's working for--chiefly because Wayne and the magnate's daughter (Laraine Day) have fallen for each other. The script spins its wheels (the film runs two hours plus), and neither the corporate politics nor the romance makes a lick of sense, but fans of vibrant Technicolor will O.D. on this movie's psychedelic palette. The supporting cast (able but wasted) includes James Gleason, Anthony Quinn, Judith Anderson, and Paul Fix, and the Andes are played by the Alabama Hills at Lone Pine, Calif. The kindest and most damning thing to say about the 1952 Big Jim McLain is that it's a Cold War artifact, a snapshot of that American moment when Sen. Joseph McCarthy could pass for a patriot and a hero. Wayne, companioned by equally big Jim Arness, actually plays an investigator for McCarthy's House Un-American Activities Committee, searching out Commies in Hawaii. The Red agents on view are a robotic bunch who look as if they couldn't menace a dog pound, but that was consistent with such contemporary portrayals of fifth-column lifestyle as the TV series I Led Three Lives. Latterday liberal sentimentality about the Party can be as absurd as '50s paranoia was, so the point here is not to condemn Wayne's politics, but to deplore how completely he lost his moviemaking savvy whenever he set out to crusade. This personal production of the actor's own company is an embarrassingly shoddy piece of work. Still, it is a window into its time. Even John Wayne fans have tended to skip the dubious-sounding Trouble Along the Way. Well, don't. This comedy-drama about a former big-time football coach signing on at a venerable Catholic college turns out to be an intriguingly complicated entertainment. The title invokes the sentimental classic Going My Way, with the great Charles Coburn taking the doddering-but-sly priest (and school administrator) role. Besides the threatened shutdown of the college, there's the vicious campaign of Wayne's ex-wife Marie Windsor to regain custody of daughter Sherry Jackson, who pretty much lives out of the bar where her disreputable dad runs a bookie operation. Donna Reed plays a social worker who has to make the call in this contest. The script by future Bob Hope writers Melville Shavelson and Jack Rose and direction by Michael Curtiz combine to scuff up Wayne's heroic image, and instead of the sappy big-game climax we think we see coming a mile away, the movie veers toward a finale in which several "happy endings" are put on hold. For his part, Wayne gets to deliver more syncopated dialogue than usual, and seems both refreshed and startled by the experience. The packaging of the six feature DVDs falls a mite short of the wraparound "Warner Night at the Movies" extras in other collections: one live-action short, one cartoon, and sometimes the movie's trailer. The cartoons are fine, and the live short packaged with Allegheny Uprising is one of those Technicolor history lessons featuring studio contract players that Warners used to win awards for--the 1939 "The Bill of Rights." There are no commentaries. --Richard T. Jameson

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