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In Trouble Along the Way (1953), John Wayne plays a famous football coach who is hired by Charles Coburn to turn around a college football team, thereby saving the college from bankruptcy. Wayne accepts the job, but only because it's a way of retaining custody of his daughter from a failed marriage.
Originally titled Alma Mater, this was writer Melville Shavelson's first film as producer, and he was less than thrilled to have the experience marred by a serious run-in with Wayne. The issue was the screenplay. Wayne had previously told Shavelson that while he liked the script, he wanted to bring in writer James Edward Grant for a polish - because, as Wayne put it, Grant "has kind of a good feelin' for my way of talkin." Horrified at the thought of any script tampering, Shavelson tried to persuade Wayne not to do this - successfully, he thought. But Wayne went ahead and had Grant secretly rewrite dialogue for several characters. Unable to reign in the biggest star in the world, Shavelson then had the bright idea of shooting two scripts: Wayne's version when Wayne was working, and the "real" version when the star wasn't around.
"Only one thing went wrong," Shavelson said. "Duke showed up on a day he wasn't supposed to be there and found out what was going on." Wayne was furious and gave Shavelson hell. They finished the film Wayne's way, and he and Shavelson vowed never to work with each other again (a vow they kept). The resulting film's uneven pace was probably due to the competing scripts and was also a big reason it didn't fare well at the box office. "[It] never made any money," said Shavelson, "because there wasn't a horse in the picture." That's true, but in 1953 John Wayne was riding the peak of his popularity, and Trouble Along the Way still ended up as one of the lowest-grossing films of his entire career.
It was also a rough time for Wayne personally. His real-life marriage, ironically enough, was in utter shambles during the shoot. He and his wife Esperanza had had a huge falling out, and by all accounts she was now making his life miserable, trying to humiliate him publicly in any way she could. They filed divorce suits against one another during production. At this time, Wayne started having an affair with Pilar Palette, a Peruvian actress, and she became pregnant. Her decision to have an abortion "almost destroyed" her, but she knew that if she had the baby, Wayne's career might be destroyed. She later wrote, "I knew Duke loved me, but his deepest commitment was to making movies. I could not and would not endanger his happiness." Eventually, they did marry.
The film's director was ultra-experienced Michael Curtiz, who had made over 150 movies since starting his career in Hungary in 1912. After Trouble Along the Way, he was to make only one more film at Warner Brothers (The Boy from Oklahoma, 1954) before leaving the studio after disagreements over money and percentages. The director's star had fallen from the days of Casablanca (1942), Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942), and The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938), but his departure from the studio after 27 years did make some sense. After all, the quality of Warners' films was in decline, and most of the studio workers he had known had left the studio long ago, and Younger hands had taken over. As a freelance director, Curtiz figured he'd be better able to pick and choose good scripts and colleagues. As it happened, his output would be fairly undistinguished from then on. Evidently Wayne didn't blame Curtiz for the script mess on Trouble Along the Way, for he let Curtiz direct him once again - in The Comancheros - in 1961. On that film, Curtiz was so ill that Wayne even stepped in to direct on days when Curtiz couldn't come to work. Shortly after The Comancheros wrapped, Curtiz died of cancer.
Donna Reed appears in Trouble Along the Way as a social worker, one year before her Oscar-winning role in From Here to Eternity (1953). (As Variety put it at the time: "Donna Reed gives her role as a probation officer all that it needs to hold its own with the two male stars, besides being a looker.") And according to some sources, James Dean appears here very briefly as an extra.
Producer: Melville Shavelson
Director: Michael Curtiz
Screenplay: Melville Shavelson, Jack Rose, Robert Hardy Andrews (story), Douglas Morrow (story)
Cinematography: Archie Stout
Film Editing: Owen Marks
Art Direction: Leo K. Kuter
Music: Max Steiner
Cast: John Wayne (Steve Aloysius Williams), Donna Reed (Alice Singleton), Charles Coburn (Father Burke), Tom Tully (Father Malone), Sherry Jackson (Carole Williams), Marie Windsor (Anne McCormick).
by Jeremy Arnold