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The Big Stampede

The Big Stampede(1932)

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The Big Stampede (1932)

Hollywood has always loved remakes (for proof, look no further than The Squaw Man, directed by Cecil B. DeMille on no fewer than three different occasions) but back in the silent era through the glories of the golden era, Hollywood used remakes as a way to recycle not just plots but actual celluloid. The movie The True Story of Jesse James, directed by Nicholas Ray and released in 1957, used plentiful footage from Jesse James, directed by Henry King and released in 1939. Since both movies were filmed in color, and since stunts take a lot of preparation and time, most of the action footage was simply repurposed from the older film. In the early thirties, Warner Brothers used methods like this to bolster the career of its young B-movie star, John Wayne. Stories that had already proven successful were reimagined, long before that word came into being, as John Wayne vehicles, often repurposing the stunt footage from the earlier film.

This was the case with The Big Stampede, directed by Tenny Wright and starring John Wayne in a 1932 remake of a movie made just five years prior, in 1927, as The Land Beyond the Law, starring Ken Maynard and his horse, Tarzan. Much of the earlier stunt footage of Ken and Tarzan was used to double for John Wayne and his horse, Duke. Both horses were white and doubling Maynard for Wayne was simply a matter of dressing up Wayne in the same clothes that Maynard wore for the shots to be inserted. Unfortunately, the film stock doesn't match very well and the film speeds match even less well. The footage taken from the 1927 picture moves at several more frames per second than the 1932 footage making it stand out a bit. However, this being a Warner Brothers quickie intended to bolster Wayne's career, it's not really that unfortunate after all.

Edited down to a brisk 53 minutes, it's only slightly longer than a present day television episode sans commercials. The purpose was to make money efficiently and quickly and move on to the next one. Along the way, they would sometimes make a movie that actually stood up as an entertainment long after the repurposed footage served its purpose. The Big Stampede is one of those and remains one of the Duke's (John, not the horse) better early pictures.

The story begins with a letter sent to the Governor asking for help with cattle rustlers. The governor pledges to send his best man, Deputy Sheriff John Steele (John Wayne), to take care of it. Meanwhile, we see those same cattle rustlers bringing in 200 head of cattle while cold bloodedly killing a man who was following them. That's when they get word, simultaneously, of a Deputy coming to town and a new herd, up to 5,000 head of cattle.

Steele arrives in town and pretends to be a drunken drifter so he can stakeout the situation and see what's what. The town's top businessman, Sam Crew (Noah Beery), welcomes the new cattle ranchers while, unknown to the townspeople, is behind the rustling himself. This sets up a confrontation with another cattle rustler and John Steele as all three close in towards a final confrontation.

Like many B-movie westerns of the early thirties, The Big Stampede is packed with talent, including actors that would go on to greater fame. John Wayne obviously went on to bigger fame but some of the actors in The Big Stampede are famous even if their names aren't. Paul Hurst, for instance, had success in The Ox-Bow Incident (1943) as a cruel vigilante but his greatest success, known the world over, is that of the Yankee soldier who gets his face blown off by Scarlett O'Hara in Gone with the Wind (1939). Few people know the actor in that role but no one who sees the movie can ever forget the moment, one of the earliest examples of full-color gore in the movies, albeit for only a frame.

Also in the cast is Berton Churchill, playing the governor. Churchill would act again with John Wayne in a movie that would put both on the map of Hollywood in a way unimagined by them in 1932. The movie was Stagecoach (1939), with Churchill as the crooked banker and Wayne as The Ringo Kid. Tragically, Churchill would die the very next year, cutting short an even greater character actor career that would have emerged after Stagecoach than he already enjoyed.

Finally, there's the great Noah Beery. Looking every bit the brother of the equally imposing Wallace Beery, Noah had the same gruff demeanor, the same booming voice, the same powerful presence. He never won an Oscar like his brother and never achieved the same name recognition but he was every bit the actor, despite a career in B-movies that his brother never suffered through.

John Wayne would eventually move up and out of the quickie horse operas of the thirties, and leave behind Duke, when he got that pivotal role in Stagecoach, but that doesn't mean he didn't make a lot of entertaining fare along the way. The Big Stampede is one of them. With its impossibly short running time and brisk pacing, it's not a heavy commitment to make and one that will leave the viewer with an appreciation for the economy of early Hollywood entertainment.

Director: Tenny Wright
Producer: Leon Schlesinger, Sid Rogell
Screenplay: Kurt Kempler, Marion Jackson (story)
Cinematography: Ted D. McCord
Music: Bernhard Kaun
Film Editor: Frank Ware
Cast: John Wayne (John Steele), Noah Beery (Sam Crew), Paul Hurst (Arizona), Mae Madison (Ginger Malloy), Luis Alberni (Sonora Joe), Berton Churchill (Governor Wallace), Sherwood Bailey (Pat Malloy), Lafe McKee (Cal Brett), Joseph W. Girard (Major Parker), Duke (Duke)

By Greg Ferrara

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