Second-feature cattle baron
King of the Pecos dates from the period when John Wayne, who had flirted with stardom in Fox’s wagon-train epic The Big Trail when he was chosen by director Raoul Walsh to replace an otherwise-occupied Gary Cooper, was re-consigned, after the commercial failure of that picture (it cost a fortune and was released in 1930 just as the Great Depression hit) to the humble second-feature programmer, of which he made a great number. That sentence may have been a tad long.
It was one of no fewer than 31 pictures Duke did with colorful producer Paul Malvern, a former child actor, stuntman and assistant director.
It was made for Republic and directed by that studio’s reliable helmsman Joseph Kane, 108 feature oaters to his credit. Perhaps not the most inspired or artistic of film makers, Joe Kane (click the link or our assessment of Joe) still was an experienced and professional hand who knew the business inside out.
It’s a Cattle Western, as we were discussing last time (click for those pearls of wisdom) with a greedy and ruthless cattle baron (Cy Kendall, a heavy in all senses, making a barrel look slim, in his first Western) as the villain.
As we said, low-budget programmers did, with rare exceptions, tend to avoid this subject because large herds of cattle are expensive items, but you could just about get away with intercutting stock footage from other, bigger pictures and doing close-ups of the cowless main characters. That’s what they did.
The screenplay, which was admittedly rather, ahem, heavy-handed here and there, was by Bernard McConville (Gene Autry and Hopalong Cassidy regular), producer/writer Dorrell McGowan, and Dorrell’s brother, director/writer Stuart E McGowan, who were Autry/Roy Rogers guys. All the scribblers were B-Western specialists. And it was edited by future A Lawless Street director Joseph H Lewis.
It was all pretty standard stuff, to be brutally honest, and it’s a fairly forgettable 54-minute B made in six days on an $18,000 budget, BUT there were some very attractive Lone Pine locations, shot by reliable Republic cameraman Jack Marta in glowing black & white and the picture has lasted very well and looks really nice on Blu-ray these days.
Mind, those attractive locations don’t quite match the stock footage, in which the cows wander (or gallop in speeded-up film) through dusty desert valleys. Oh well.
Wayne’s great pal Yakima Canutt managed the stunts and also played one of the villain’s henchmen, Pete. I’m sorry to say, though, that there were some horrendous horse falls. It always gives me the creeps.
Pete’s not the principal henchman, though. That’s the thuggish scarfaced Ash, played by Jack ‘Rube’ Clifford, who had started his film career in Cecil B DeMille’s The Squaw Man in 1914. Rube was famous for his ‘hard of hearing’ shtick, with punch-lines based on misheard or misunderstood words, but in this film that piece of ‘business’ was taken over by Herbert Heywood – see below. Rube had a big part and actually, it is he who has the last-reel quick-draw showdown with our hero, not the cattle baron himself, who has perished in a wagon accident, good riddance.
There’s also a shyster lawyer, Brewster (J Frank Glendon) in the employ of the unscrupulous cattleman, getting all those title deeds and such, but he isn’t very good at shystering and he’ll get fired by his boss – permanently.
We are down south on the Mexico border in the 1870s. This is a bit odd because in the plot the railroad hasn’t arrived in Abilene yet (it actually got there in 1867) so cattle drives aren’t a thing. Perhaps they mean Abilene, Texas, but that wasn’t established on a rail line till 1881. Mmm, problematic.
Anyway, we are told in a screen intro text that:
In the seventies, Texas and New Mexico constituted a vast, open cattle range. Land laws and water rights were indefinite and millions of acres of range were often claimed thru a so-called “right of discovery.”
And one crooked, greedy and ruthless cattle baron (was there any other kind?), Alexander Stiles (Kendall), is determined to claim to have discovered the lot, a million acres, and what’s more he has killed a farmer and his wife, the Clayborns, who had a homestead at the only water hole for miles around and he has appropriated the water for himself, the skunk.
The thing is, though, that these farmers had a young son. The crooks beat the young boy and left him for dead on the ground, but he recovered, grew up in Austin to be John Wayne, and became expert with both Blackstone’s and six-guns. A quick-on-the-draw lawyer, that’s an impressive combo, and calling himself John Clay, he comes back to the area he grew up in, determined on, if not vengeance, then at least justice. And if the law books won’t get it for him he may have to resort to the other option.
That’s the plot.
Of course there’s a gal, another rancher’s daughter, Belle (Muriel Evans) and indeed, wedding bells will peal out in the last scene. And equally obviously there are a couple of comic-relief types, the crusty old rancher Hank (Arthur Aylesworth) and his deaf pal Josh (Herbert Heywood), allowing for much misunderstanding.
Earl Dwire the Great was a rancher but disgracefully uncredited.
Well, Joe sure crammed a lot of action into those 54 minutes, and the picture rattles along at a tremendous pace, rushing towards that final showdown in the rocks. Duke rides Duke. I thought it was all rather good.