Big Trail, The (1930): Raoul Walsh’s Epic Western, Featuring Young John Wayne in a Part that Did NOT Make Him an Overnight Star

Contrary to popular notion–or Hollywood mythology–John (“The Duke”) Wayne had almost missed the chance to become a leading man, or major movie star.

In fact, Wayne was in many ways a late bloomer, and worked hard for over a decade to make his breakthrough films, Stagecoach, directed by John Ford in 1939, and nominated for the Best Picture Oscar; as is well known, the winner was “Gone With the Wind.”  Wayne was already 32-tear-old.

Photo: John Wayne’s first appearance in Stagecoach, one of the great entrances in American film history.

And it took two decades since his screen debut for Wayne to become a bona fide box- office star, in the 1949 WWII war drama, The Sands of Iwo Jima, which earned him his first (of two) Best Actor Oscar nomination.  At 41, he was not a young Oscar nominee or, for that matter, a movie star.

Photos above: The Sands of Iwo Jima, the movie that made John Wayne a viable star in the next three decades (practically until his death, in 1979).

Why did it take the Duke so long to become a star?

What were the steps and phases in his lengthy and arduous Hollywood experience?

In 1930, Raoul Walsh was casting a big-budget Western, The Big Trail, for which and needed a rugged, handsome guy to play the lead.

The Big Trail
The Big Trail (1930 film poster).jpg

Theatrical release poster

This lucrative part was first offered to Gary Cooper, who reportedly turned it down. Besides, Paramount, where Coop was under contract, refused to lend him out to Fox to make this Western.

John Ford then suggested–with doubts and hesitations–John Wayne, then an unknown quantity–for the coveted part. To that extend, Ford showed Walsh a clip from his film “Men Without Women,” in which Wayne had a small part.  Upon seeing Wayne’s on screen, Walsh then decided to meet the young, inexperienced, but already eager and ambitious, actor.

Walsh later recalled that he had first met Wayne on the studio lot carrying an overstuffed chair into the property warehouse. His first impression was of a “tall young fellow,” who “had wide shoulders to go with his height.”

Walsh watched Wayne “juggle a solid Louis XV sofa, as though it was made of feathers, and pick up another chair with his free hand.” Their first conversation was awkward, with Wayne telling the veteran director that he wanted to get into pictures but “this is as far as I’ve come.” Asked what else he could do, Wayne grinned, “I can play football.” Impressed with his honesty and naivete, particularly “the tone of his voice and the way he carried himself,” Walsh told him to let his hair grow and to come and see him in two weeks.

After watching his first screen test, Winfield Sheehan, Fox’s production chief, was surprised to learn that Wayne had been on the studio’s payroll. Wayne was then asked to take two more tests before landing the part.  The second test was more for checking out his with voice, and for the third he read some scenes from the screenplay.

Assisted by Sheehan’s support, Walsh decided to give him the starring role “partly because there was something about the hang of his shoulders and that shuffle, that I thought I could use in the picture, and partly because I had to find somebody immediately.” “To be a cowboy star,” Walsh held, “You’ve got to be six-foot-three or over, you’ve got to have no hips, and a face that looks right under a sombrero,” and Wayne met these requirements, especially in his masculine look and his “feeling of honesty, of sincerity.”

Photo: John Wayne at his most handsome with Marguerite Churchill; Wayne would co-star again with Churchill in Stagecoach, but not as her love interest.
Tully Marshall and and Churchill

In The Big Trail, the story of a pioneer trek along the Oregon trail, Wayne plays Breck Colman, the leader of the wagon trail seeking to avenge his friend’s, murder.

Narrative Structure (Detailed Synopsis)

Premise and Setting:

Set between 1837 and 1843, the tale centers on the efforts of large caravan to cross the Oregon Trail. while the time is historically accurate–the first wave of settlers on the Oregon Trail took place 1843–the details of the journey in the movie are fictionalized for the sake of a revenge story.

John Wayne plays Breck Coleman, a young trapper who’s just back to Missouri from travels near Santa Fe, seeks to avenge the death of an old trapper friend who was killed along the Santa Fe Trail for his furs, by Red Flack (Tyrone Power, Sr.) and his minion Lopez (Charles Stevens).

At a trading post owned by Wellmore, Coleman, upon seeing Flack, immediately suspects that he is one of the killers. For his part, Flack fears that Coleman might know too much about the killing.

When Coleman is asked by the settlers to scout their caravan out west, he initially declines.  But then he learns that Flack and Lopez were just hired by Wellmore to boss a bull train along the Oregon Trail to a trading post in northern Oregon Territory, owned by another Missouri fur trader.

Coleman agrees to scout for the train in order to keep an eye on the villains and ultimately kill them. The settlers’ caravan of in their Prairie schooners would follow Wellmore’s ox-drawn train of Conestoga Wagons, as the first group to move west on the Oregon Trail.

Coleman is smitten with Ruth Cameron (Marguerite Churchill), whom he’d kissed accidentally, but she gets close to a gambler acquaintance of Flack’s, Thorpe (Ian Keith), who joined the trail.

Coleman and Flack lead the settlers west, while Flack does everything he can to have Coleman killed before he finds any proof of his past.  Clearly, the villains’ reason for going west is to avoid the hangman’s noose for previous crimes.

In the happy ending, the settlers trail ends in a valley, where Coleman and Ruth settle down amidst giant redwoods.

Despite location shooting, good actors (Tyrone Power Sr. and Marguerite Churchill), polished production values, and big marketing and publicity campaigns, the movie was not a big hit the box-office, mainly due to its large budget (close to $2 million).

It was released in two versions: the conventional 35mm print size and the large 70mm print, then called “Fox Grandeur.”

Some critics claim that the movie underperforms because it opened during the Depression, November 1, 1930, and very few houses could afford to buy the new expensive projector, particularly that they had just recently wired their houses for sound, which was very costly.

Indeed, The Big Trail was one of the two major pictures produced in 70mm–King Vidor’s epic Western, “Billy the Kid” at MGM was the other–but after several showcase runs, it was distributed in the standard 35mm gauge.

Wayne managed to score top billing, though he was still an inexperienced actor. It would take another decade until he would achieve that again; in most of his 1930s and 1940s picture, it’s his female co-stars (Claire Trevor, Stanwyck, Jean Arhur, Claudette Colbert) who were placed above him.

Contrary to popular notions, neither Wayne nor the movie received unfavorable reviews. The N.Y. Times critic, for instance, wrote that Wayne “acquits himself with no little distinction. His performance is pleasantly natural.” The picture was described as “an overwhelming task,” “a monumental work,” one “that is stimulation in much the same way as that old silent film classic, The Iron Horse, was in its time.”

Indeed, in scope and action, The Big Trail was one of the most impressive westerns to date.  The movie’s Indian battle scenes were later used to pad out numerous cheaper Westerns.

The Times critic felt, nonetheless, that the authentic details and sweep of the action were let down by the standardized “B” plot.

Ultimately, The Big Trail turned out to be one of the few Wayne movies to have commercially under-performed in the American film market, though it proved to be a greater success in Europe due to the technical and artistic novelties.

Credits:

Directed by Raoul Walsh
Produced by Winfield R. Sheehan
Written by Hal G. Evarts (story), Marie Boyle, Jack Peabody, Florence Postal, Fred Sersen

Music by Arthur Kay, Reginald Hazeltine Bassett, Peter Brunelli, Alfred R Dalby, Jack Virgil

Cinematography: Lucien Andriot, Arthur Edeson

Edited by Jack Dennis
Distributed by Fox Film Corporation

Release date: November 1, 1930

Running time: 122 minutes, 70mm version; 108 minutes, 35mm version
Budget $1,250,000

 

Cast
John Wayne and Marguerite Churchill

Tully Marshall and Churchill
John Wayne as Breck Coleman
Marguerite Churchill as Ruth Cameron
El Brendel as Gus, a comical Swede
Tully Marshall as Zeke, Coleman’s sidekick
Tyrone Power, Sr. as Red Flack, wagon boss[5]
Frederick Burton as Pa Bascom
Ian Keith as Bill Thorpe, Louisiana gambler
Charles Stevens as Lopez, Flack’s henchman
Louise Carver as Gus’s mother-in-law
John Big Tree as Indian Chief (uncredited)
DeWitt Jennings as Boat Captain Hollister (uncredited)
Ward Bond as Sid Bascom (uncredited)
William V. Mong as Wellmore (uncredited)
Marcia Harris as Mrs. Riggs (uncredited)
Iron Eyes Cody as Indian (uncredited)
Alphonse Ethier as Marshal (uncredited)
Victor Adamson as Wagon Train Man (uncredited)
Helen Parrish as Honey Girl Cameron (uncredited)
Marilyn Harris as Pioneer Girl (uncredited)
Jack Curtis as Pioneer (uncredited)
Jack Padjan as Pioneer (uncredited)
Robert Parrish as Pioneer Boy (uncredited)
David Rollins as Dave Cameron (uncredited)
Russ Powell as Windy Bill (uncredited)

 

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