Trouble Along the Way (1953): John Wayne as Football Coach

One of the few pictures in which John Wayne plays a morally dubious character was “Trouble Along the Way,” in which he appears geared in suit and a tie.

Wayne portrays a cynical college football coach (Stephen ‘Steve’ Aloysius Williams) who has been fired from previous jobs for violating rules relating to players’ eligibility.

Wayne has always been good with children, who are prominent in his pictures. In this film, he is a divorced father, raising an eleven-year-old tomboy named Carol (Sherry Jackson).

The reliable character actor Charles Coburn plays Father Matthew William Burke, the dean of a financially distressed Catholic college in New York City who hires Wayne to make the college’s football team competitive so that receipts from game ticket sales will supply funds for the college. Donna Reed is cast a social worker (Alice Singleton) who in investigating complaints of child neglect against Williams.

“Winning isn’t everything–it’s the only thing,” says Steve Williams, the college athletics instructor played by Wayne.  Recently divorced, Williams has trouble finding a job due to his “independent” streak, his inability to get along with superiors and get orders. But if he doesn’t find work soon, he’ll lose custody of his daughter Carole (Sherry Jackson).

Meanwhile, St. Anthony’s College, heavily in debt, may be forced to close its doors. Father Burke (Charles Coburn), rector of St. Anthony’s, reasons that the school could get back on its feet if it had a winning football team, thereby securing the support of the alumni.

Williams is hired by the Rector of a Catholic college, Father Burke (Charles Coburn), who wants to save the college from its financial difficulties by establishing an athletic program.

We learn that Williams had used unethical methods to put the college back on its feet, faking academic grades to get good players, and even resorting to blackmail to get good playing dates.  He refuses to admit to any shame, when reproached by the Father for his disreputable means.

Throughout the story, Williams maintains a cynical view of the sports business, refusing to condemn corruption, so long as it is a useful means to win. Some critics and viewers interpreted as a realistic commentary on the corrupt practices of the American sports establishment.

But he does go through a process of “humanization,” which softens him, under the supervision of the social worker Alice Singleton (Donna Reed).

More sentimental and conventional than most Wayne vehicles of that era, “Trouble Along the Way” is a passably entertaining comedy, directed by the prolific Michael Curtiz (“Casablanca”) in a routine, impersonal way.

James Dean

James Dean appears as an uncredited extra in the film, during a scene in the college chapel.


John Wayne as Steve Aloysius Williams
Donna Reed as Alice Singleton
Charles Coburn as Father Burke
Tom Tully as Father Malone
Sherry Jackson as Carole Williams
Marie Windsor as Anne McCormick
Tom Helmore as Harold McCormick
Dabbs Greer as Father Mahoney
Leif Erickson as Father Provincial
Douglas Spencer as Procurator
Lester Matthews as Cardinal O’Shea
Chuck Connors as Stan Schwegler
Bill Radovich as Moose McCall
Murray Alper as bus driver


Running Time: 110 Minutes.

Directed By: Michael Curtiz

Script: Melville Shavelson, Jack Rose

Released: April 4, 1953.

DVD: May 22, 2007 (for John Wayne’s centennial)

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