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John Wayne was still paying his dues as a leading man when he made Tall in the Saddle (1944). 1939's Stagecoach had made him a star after a decade of headlining B-westerns, but he was under contract to Republic, which was still a "poverty row" studio that made its money on B-movies. With a budding star in its stable, Republic cashed in by casting him in one western after another, with a smattering of action and war films tossed into the mix. Budgets increased and production values improved, but most were still being cranked out at a rapid rate. With few exceptions, his best films in the years following Stagecoach -- The Long Voyage Home (1940) for John Ford, Reap the Wild Wind (1942) for Cecil B. DeMille, The Spoilers and Pittsburgh (both 1942) with Marlene Dietrich and Randolph Scott -- were made for other studios.
Tall in the Saddle, Wayne's second film in a six-picture deal with RKO, is a classic western tale of the stalwart hero who stands up against corruption and injustice, the old west version of a knight errant. It's arguably his best western since Stagecoach and it even references that breakthrough as Wayne enters the film by hitching a ride at a stage stop. Five years later, Wayne is older and more confident and it shows in his portrayal of Rocklin, a decent, modest cowboy with a rustic but respectful manner, a respect for cussed old frontier survivors like stage driver Dave (George 'Gabby' Hayes), and the strength and spine to stand up to bullies without even pulling a gun. While he faces down the corrupt sheriff and his minions, he develops a crush on a society girl, Clara Cardell (Audrey Long), who arrives in the same stagecoach with her disapproving spinster guardian, and strikes romantic sparks in his clashes with the fierce, feisty cowgirl Arly (Ella Raines), the beautiful and dangerous daughter of another rancher. Ward Bond, Wayne's close friend and drinking buddy, co-stars as the jovial but ethically questionable Judge Garvey.
It was only the fifth feature for Raines, a starlet who had just completed what would become her signature roles: the girl Friday turned detective in Phantom Lady and the small town beauty in Hail the Conquering Hero (both 1944). Tall in the Saddle gave her a very different kind of role, part tomboy and part volatile beauty, and she attacks it with the confidence of a veteran cowgirl in high Hollywood make-up, with eyes flashing and guns blazing.
Shot on the RKO Encino Ranch and on location in Agoura and Lake Sherwood, California, Tall in the Saddle features rugged landscapes and boisterous action, including a couple of impressive slugfests. Director Edwin L. Marin keeps the film lively and action packed but never rushes Wayne, who maintains the easy, laconic persona. Wayne understood that in terms of dialogue, less was better, so he's appropriately terse and direct, playing his cards close to his chest. He gives no first name or personal history, doesn't flinch from confrontation or gunfights, and is cool enough to take on the town bullies without firing a shot. Wayne carries himself with such strength, confidence and purpose that his very presence intimidates lesser men.
Wayne didn't have a lot of control over his career at this point but he knew his strengths as a screen performer and learned how to develop and refine his persona. He found the original story for Tall in the Saddle and helped develop the script with actor Paul Fix, who had been Wayne's acting coach in his early days. He also formed a strong bond with producer Robert Fellows, who later became his partner in Batjac productions. According to biographers Randy Roberts and James S. Olson, working so closely with Fix and Fellows inspired Wayne to take more control of his films. Such a step was still years away for the rising star but Tall in the Saddle was another step in Wayne's ascension to Hollywood stardom.
Producer: Robert Fellows
Director: Edwin L. Marin
Screenplay: Michael Hogan, Paul P. Fix (both screenplay); Gordon Ray Young (original story)
Cinematography: Robert de Grasse
Art Direction: Ralph Berger, Albert S. D'Agostino
Music: Roy Webb
Film Editing: Philip Martin, Jr.
Cast: John Wayne (Rocklin), Ella Raines (Arleta 'Arly' Harolday), Ward Bond ('Judge' Robert Garvey), George 'Gabby' Hayes (Dave), Audrey Long (Clara Cardell), Elisabeth Risdon (Miss Elizabeth Martin), Don Douglas (Harolday), Paul Fix (Bob Clews), Russell Wade (Clint Harolday), Emory Parnell (Sheriff Jackson).
by Sean Axmaker
The Complete Films of John Wayne, Steve Zmijewsky, Boris Zmijewsky, and Mark Ricci. Citadel, 1983.
John Wayne: American, Randy Roberts and James S. Olson. Simon and Schuster, 1995.