Saturday, July 20, 2013

Stubs – Overland Stage Raiders

Overland Stage Raiders (1938) Starring: John Wayne, Ray Corrigan, Max Terhune, Louise Brooks. Directed by George Sherman. Produced by William A. Berke  Screenplay by William Colt MacDonald  Run Time: 54 minutes. U.S.  Black and White.  Action, Western

Before John Wayne became a household name by starring in John Ford’s Stagecoach (1939), he played Stony Brooke in a series of B-Westerns called the Three Mesquiteers (think Mesquite and Musketeers combined) produced by Republic Pictures. There were 51 films in the series, 8 of which starred Wayne. The series ran from 1936 to 1943 and was not what I would consider to be a true Western. As a rule, a Western takes place between the end of the Civil War and the turn of the 20th century or stretching it to World War I. In the Three Mesquiteers series, the trio ended up fighting Nazis, which is World War II. In addition to horses, there are cars, buses and planes used in the series, at least there is in this episode.

In Overland Stage Raiders, the Three Mesquiteers are Stony Brooke (John
Wayne); Tucson Smith (Ray Corrigan) and Lullaby Joslin (Max Terhune).
Buses have replaced stagecoaches as transport, which is how the Oro Grande Mining Company ships its gold. But just like stagecoaches, these shipments have been robbed, so much that a reward as high as $1,000 is offered. The bandits are disappointed at the low price, but still plan to rob the three o’clock “stage”. Cut to Tucson Smith (Ray Corrigan) and Lullaby Joslin (Max Terhune).riding along, pulling Stony’s horse, complaining about everything. Stony has been gone for a few days, cattle prices are down and they had just withdrawn their money from the bank. They’re on their way to meet Stony at the bus depot, but a plane flying overhead by “crazy” pilot Ned Hoyt, has a parachutist jump out. Thinking it’s Hoyt, Tucson and Lullaby ride over, but discover instead that it is Stony Brooke (John Wayne), who took the quickest way down after seeing the bus was about to be robbed in the pass.

In Overland Stage Raiders, they travel by horse, train, plane, bus and even parachute.
The bandits are indeed chasing the bus, firing indiscriminately as the driver tries to outrun them. Meanwhile the Three Mesquiteers ride to the rescue, foiling the robbery. Stony and Tucson take chase, but the bandits are too far ahead. Stony tells the bus driver to return to Oro Grande. The Mesquiteers collect their reward, but Stony suggests to mining company president Dave Harmon (Roy James) that they switch from a bus to a plane flown by Ned Hoyt, who runs the airport with his sister. The mining company is skeptical, since Ned is a relative stranger, but Stony announces that he and the other Mesquiteers have half ownership in the Summit Airlines. Harmon is still skeptical, because Hoyt’s plane is flimsy and, it is suggested, might fall apart at any second. Stony suggests they buy a more substantial plane and fly passengers. In that case, as long as the pilot is bonded, Harmon agrees to go along with the plan.

Tucson and Lullaby ask Stony how he plans to afford a new plane, but Stony has other things on his mind, in the form of the shapely Beth Hoyt (Louise Brooks). Tucson and Lullaby are then confronted by Mullins (Gordon Hart) who owns the Oro Grande Bus Lines. He congratulates them on stopping the robbery and goes into the mining office to pacify Harmon. Mullins doesn’t know that the Mesquiteers’  plans would put him out of business.

Meanwhile, Stony continues to talk up Beth. She tells him that she and Ned have probably lost the plane to repossession and will probably be leaving town soon. Stony tells her that they haven’t lost their plane but instead picked up three new partners with plans for a bigger plane. Back home, Ned (Anthony Marsh) tells Beth that while he welcomes their new partners and dreams of a bigger plane, it’s just not in the cards. He’ll have to give it up because of his past, which is never really spelled out. But Beth reminds him that the jury cleared him and he even got his pilot’s license back. Ned in turn reminds her that he served a year in prison. But Beth’s optimism prevails and Ned agrees to put up with the “Hoyt masquerade” since they can’t kill you for trying.

Back to the idea for the new plane, Stony wants their fellow ranchers who are all “cattle poor” to round up their herds, sell off the cattle and buy into the airlines with the proceeds. It proves to be an easy sale as neighbors, some reluctantly, sign on. The cattle are rounded up and headed for town. But Mullins, who is not keen on the airplane, puts into motion a plan to keep the herds from getting to market.

The train arrives and the cattle are loaded aboard. Meanwhile, Ned goes ahead and buys the new plane which comes with a new pilot, Bob Whitney (Ralph Bowman), who knows that Ned and his sister Beth's real family name is Vinson but keeps their secret about Ned's prison time out of friendship. Radio operator Joe Waddell (Archie Hall), a former flyer who lost his nerve six years previously, wants to co-pilot with Ned, and is jealous when Ned instead chooses Bob. Mullins, who turned down a chance to buy into the airlines, approaches Joe with an idea, and shortly thereafter the cattle train is commandeered.

One of the cattlemen, Pete Hawkins (Sam Whitaker), is wounded but still manages to ride to the airfield. There the Mesquiteers are relaxing with friends and watching Lullaby do a ventriloquist act with his dummy Elmer dressed like a pilot. (I’ve seen photos, so I think Elmer was also a constant in the 20+ Mesquiteer films starring Terhune as Lullaby Joslin.) Pete tells them of the robbery and the three with a posse go after the train. Mullins tells Joe that they’ll be too late to stop it, but the posse does catch and stop the train, with Stony jumping onboard the Engine taking back control. Mullins’ gang surrenders and the cattle are saved.

Soon the "air express" opens and is a great success. One day, on the bus, Mullins overhears two eastern gangsters, Dutch (Dirk Thane) and Gat (Edwin Gaffney), talking about Ned after seeing his name in the paper and enlists their help. A short time later, the same two men hold up the passengers and hijack the plane . Even though Joe receives Ned’s distress message, he does nothing. Up in the plane, Bob is killed by one of the men. While Stony is trying to sweet talk Beth, she is about to tell him something important when they see several parachutes come out of the plane. The robbers are forcing all the passengers to bail out.

Stony sends Beth back to the airport while he rides there himself. Up in the plane, Ned has foiled the robbers by dumping all the fuel. Dutch and Gat need him to land, but the plane does not come back to the airport and soon everyone in the territory knows that a $100,000 gold shipment is missing. When word breaks that Ned had once been in prison, he becomes the prime suspect in the robbery. When Stony sticks up for Hoyt, Harmon makes him responsible for the loss and gives him 24 hours to make good. Meanwhile, Harmon tells Mullins the bus will be getting back the mine’s business. “At least they hadn’t lost such staggering amounts the old way.”

After the robbery, Beth is brought before Dave Harmon to explain/defend her brother.
Beth thanks Stony for sticking up for them and apologizes for not telling him the truth. He tells her not to worry. Meanwhile, aboard the parked plane, Dutch tries to radio Joe on the secret frequency and this time it works. Dutch tells Joe that they’re on Furnace mountain and that the stuff is okay. He tells Joe they need gas and Joe informs Mullins, who promises fuel, but refuses to let Joe go to the plane and fly it back.

Meanwhile, Stony, who thinks that the robbery is an inside job, questions the passengers. At the same time, Mullins tells one of his henchmen that they can get rid of Hoyt when he is no longer needed. The Mesquiteers finally learn from one cooperative passenger, Evans (Burr Caruth), that just after the robbery, Ned had called Waddell on the radio. The Mesquiteers discuss that Joe would know where the plane is hidden, but instead of talking to him, Stony has a plan. At the same time, Mullin’s team gets ever closer to the plane with their supply of fuel. The Mesquiteers board a plane in the hangar and, using the radio, try to hail Joe; he doesn’t answer them, but rather contacts the plane and tells them not to call him on an open channel. Stony, Tucson and Lullaby enter the radio shack and subdue Joe and tie him up. Dutch and Gat, though, continue to talk, asking about the status of the fuel. Lullaby disguises his voice like Joe's and convinces the killers to tell them again where they are, Furnace Mountain. Stony dismantles the radio before they leave.

The Three Mesquiteers subdue Joe (Archie Hall) and commandeer the radio.
The mule train carrying the fuel gets overtaken by the Mesquiteers and the bad guys make a run for it, but the Mesquiteers catch and subdue the bad guys. Lullaby retrieves the fuel and the Mesquiteers leave the three bad men tied up and head for the plane. Meanwhile, back at the airport, Beth finds Joe tied up and releases him. He tells her he has been robbed and runs off. While she tries to call the sheriff, Joe locks her in, cuts the telephone lines and then rides off to warn Mullins.

In town, Joe tells Mullins who rounds up “the men” to go out to the plane. At the plane site, the Mesquiteers fool Gat and Dutch and overpower them. They free Ned, take the gold off the plane (?) and then attempt to refuel it. But Mullins and his gang find and untie three mule-tenders and continue towards the plane.

The Three Mesquiteers try to refuel the airplane.
Back at the airport, the Sheriff has come out and rescued Beth, who tells them what had happened. One of the men remembers seeing Joe leave town with Mullins, heading for Snake Trail, which leads to Furnace Mountain. The Sheriff decides to take some men and ride out there to see what’s going on. Back at the newly refueled plane, with Gat and Dutch tied up inside, Mullins and gang catch up with the Mesquiteers. There is a shoot-out. 

Stony makes a break for their horses using smoke canisters for cover. The Mesquiteers take the gold, but Ned is wounded. Soon, with the aid of smoke bombs, the Mesquiteers defeat Mullins and his gang just as the sheriff and his posse arrives. Finally, with the mystery of the robberies solved, a recovered Ned, along with Beth, fly off to merge Summit with another airline. But there is a clause that will keep Ned, and more importantly Beth, in Oro Grande. The Three Mesquiteers ride away after the plane takes off. The End.

Now the only reason I’m aware of this film, and this series, at all is that Louise Brooks made her final screen appearance in Overland Stage Raiders. Iconic, with her bobbed haircut, Brooks is an American actress, best remembered for three films she made in Europe: G.W. Pabst’s Pandora’s Box (1929), Diary of a Lost Girl (1929) and Prix de Beauté (1930). A free spirit if there ever was one, Brooks got into show business as a dancer, eventually appearing in George White’s Scandals and in the Ziegfeld Follies. She first appeared in films in the silent The Street of Forgotten Men in 1925, but was soon starring in light comedies and flapper films, starring alongside Adolphe Menjou and W.C. Fields.

Louise Brooks during her heyday as a movie star.
She worked with Howard Hawk in A Girl in Every Port (1928) and with William Wellman in Beggars of Life (1928), in which she starred with Wallace Beery and Richard Arlen. But Brooks hated Hollywood, broke with her studio, Paramount, and left for Europe. When she returned after her European adventure, Paramount wanted her to dub herself in The Canary Murder Case (1930). But she refused. Her lines would be dubbed by Margaret Livingstone and the studio would claim Brooks' voice wasn’t right for the talkies.

Despite that, William Wellman offered her the lead female role in Public Enemy (1931), but she turned it down so that she could spend time with her lover George Marshall. Marshall, who owned a chain of laundries, would later buy the Boston Braves, an NFL team and move them to Washington D.C. and rename them the Redskins.

The part of Gwen Allen went to a then relative unknown, twenty-year-old platinum blonde from Kansas City, Mo. named Jean Harlow. And the rest, as they say, is history.

Brooks did work again, notably with director William “Fatty” Arbuckle, who, too, was blacklisted from Hollywood, and was making films for Educational Pictures under the name William Goodrich. Brooks would appear in Windy Riley Goes to Hollywood (1931). She worked sparingly in films, making only four more, counting Overland Stage Raiders, after which she retired from films.

William S. Paley, the founder of CBS and a former lover, provided Brooks with a monthly stipend and she did some work for the George Eastman House in Rochester as a film writer. Her essays are collected in the book Lulu in Hollywood and deal with topics like Louise’s upbringing to her friendships with the likes of G.W. Pabst and Humphrey Bogart. She died in 1985 of a heart attack.

The part of Beth Hoyt is small, but it does prove that Brooks didn’t have voice problems with the talkies. That said her role could have been played by practically anyone. She was a love interest in, what I take, is a long line of love interests, for the Stony character in the series.

Louise Brooks in a publicity still for Overland Stage Raiders, posing with the Three Mesquiteers
There is a lot of action and a lot of dumb plot twists for such a short film. Like a lot of big summer blockbusters made now, action takes precedent over story, dialogue and character development. Wayne is his normal heroic self. He is the bravest, the best-looking and the smartest of the three Mesquiteers. Wayne, as they say, was destined for bigger things, which were just waiting around the corner for him.

If you’re a fan of Wayne’s then you will probably not be disappointed with Overland Stage Raiders. He is playing the archetypal character he becomes famous for in better films. Think of it like listening a famous singer’s first recording. All the elements are there, it’s just rough and needs a guiding hand to bring out the best. For Wayne, much of his best work would be done under the guiding hand of director John Ford.

John Wayne as Stony Brooke.

If you’re a Louise Brooks fan, then you will be disappointed that a film career that once had great promise ends with a B-Western. But to like Brooks is to be disappointed and confounded by many of the choices she made throughout her life. A fascinating character, I would have loved to see what she could have become, if only she had taken her career more seriously.

As for Overland Stage Raiders, I’m not a big fan of neo-Westerns which skew the genre. There are many of the Western characteristics: cowboys, horses, train robberies, gold shipments in strong boxes, posses; mixed with “modern” conveniences like buses, airplanes and shortwave radios. What you’re left with at the end is a mixed era film, with Western-like characters (The Mesquiteers) trapped out of their time. If you come across this film, it is worth watching if only to see John Wayne wooing Louise Brooks. They’re actually about the same age at the time they made Overland Stage Raiders, but they represent different eras of filmmaking. Brooks is best known for her flapper silent films and Wayne’s best known for his sound Westerns. Wayne is also on the way up and Brooks is, sadly, on the way out.

Louise Brooks and John Wayne dancing, away from the set.
Overland Stage Raiders might mark the end of Brooks'
acting career, but Wayne's was about to take off. 

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