What do you think of when you think of John Wayne? The pigeontoed swagger? The squinty gaze? The slow vocal delivery? All were born in Tall in the Saddle, a film that put Wayne in Sedona -- even if he never set foot here on the shoot.
John Wayne, the man, was born in Winterset, Iowa, in 1907, but you might make a case that "John Wayne," the cultural icon, was born in Sedona in 1944.
While "the Duke" cemented his stardom in John Ford's classic 1939 western Stagecoach, it wasn't until Tall in the Saddle, shot partially on location here, that many of the character traits and mannerisms we now commonly associate with the actor -- the deliberate, pigeontoed gait; the squinty-eyed gaze; the measured speech -- were seen by movie audiences for the first time, all against a backdrop of Sedona's landmarks.
Oddly enough, Wayne himself may not have seen Sedona's red rocks until he watched the movie. Tall in the Saddle pioneered a technique that allowed editors to realistically splice scenes Wayne shot in a Hollywood studio with exteriors filmed in Sedona. Moviegoers might have sworn the actor was standing in the Southwestern sun, but in truth he never crossed the California border.
And while John Wayne was hardly synonymous with feminism, Tall in the Saddle is also notable for providing the blueprint of a staple of Wayne's westerns for years to come -- the strong, independent woman who digs in her heels as a rival until romantic sparks fly. Of course, while the film makes no bones about the smarts and self-sufficiency of the female lead character, played by Ella Raines, it wasn't above exploiting her beauty, either -- the film's advertising prominently featured cowgirl Raines wearing a sexy hot pants outfit (see right). Apart from not being very practical for ranch work, it's a costume you never see Raines wear in the film.
Tall in the Saddle introduces Wayne as Rocklin, a tough cowhand loudly disdainful of women. When he arrives at an Arizona ranch to begin his new job as foreman, he discovers the man who hired him has been murdered, and he's now taking his marching orders from new owners Miss Martin (Elizabeth Risdon), a hard-bitten spinster, and her pretty niece Clara (Audrey Long, who later starred in Indian Uprising, filmed in Sedona in 1951; see Sedona Monthly, Jan./Feb. 2004). The misogynist Rocklin promptly quits.
Rocklin quickly lands a new job at a neighboring ranch working for a man -- or so he thinks. But hell hath no fury like a woman scorned: It turns out strong-willed cowgirl Arly (Raines) convinced her rancher stepfather to hire Rocklin only so she could have the pleasure of firing him, allowing her to get even for an earlier slight.
Of course, in tried-and-true movie fashion, Arly eventually warms up to Rocklin, as does Clara, creating a stormy little love triangle. Further complicating matters, Rocklin is framed for murder, and he sets out to prove his innocence and track down the real killer with the help of the two women and Dave, a grizzled stagecoach driver played by veteran scene-stealer George "Gabby" Hayes.
The script -- based on a Gordon Ray Young story originally serialized in The Saturday Evening Post and published as a novel in 1943 -- was written by Paul Fix, one of Hollywood's busiest character actors, and polished by Michael Hogan, who a few years earlier co-wrote Rebecca, the Alfred Hitchcock classic. Fix would appear in more than 200 films in a career that stretched from 1925 to 1979; you'll see him in Tall in the Saddle as bad guy Bob Clews. The influence director John Ford had on the development of Wayne's screen character has been widely documented, but Fix was more of an unsung hero. He first worked with Wayne in 1931's Three Girls Lost, and they would go on to collaborate on 19 films. Fix had a firm idea of how he wanted Rocklin played. It's been said that before filming began, Fix suggested the slow, pigeontoed gait that would become a Wayne trademark; Fix saw it as a visual cue for Rocklin's quietly intimidating, don't-mess-with-me nature.
Another first for Wayne was the way he delivered the dialogue Fix had written. In Tall in the Saddle, the slower pacing and squinty-eyed facial expressions had purpose; it wasn't so much what Wayne said, but how he said it. As Garry Wills noted in his book, John Wayne's America: The Politics of Celebrity (Simon & Schuster, 1997), the first hint of darkness within his upright character would surface in Tall, a trait that would fully flower in later classics like Howard Hawks' Red River (1948) and John Ford's The Searchers (1956).
Tall in the Saddle was also unusual for its examination of women's roles in the West and tacit approval of female independence. Wayne had reached the fade-out of his previous westerns paired up with a "good girl," similiar to Tall's Clara, but here Rocklin chooses to walk into the sunset with the independent, gun-toting Raines.
Wayne initially wanted John Ford, his Stagecoach director, to take the helm of Tall in the Saddle, his first film in a multipicture deal with RKO (he was still under contract with Republic Pictures as well), but the job went to Edwin L. Marin, best remembered today for his 1938 version of A Christmas Carol, starring Reginald Owen. Tall was the first of 11 westerns Marin would direct before his death in 1951.
Ward Bond, a respected character actor and longtime Wayne crony, was assigned the role of the villainous Judge Garvey. Bond had been Wayne's roommate at the University of Southern California, where the duo's curriculum reportedly included field research in numerous local bars. Wayne once accidentally shot Bond on a hunting trip; showing no hard feelings and perhaps wanting to exit this world sharing one last inside joke, Bond left Wayne a shotgun in his will.
Ella Raines was under contract to Universal Pictures, which lent her services to RKO for Tall. Raines was on a roll at the time, coming off perhaps her best role as the heroine in Phantom Lady, a 1943 film noir. Director Preston Sturges then chose her to co-star with Eddie Bracken in his classic Paramount comedy, Hail the Conquering Hero. In 1950, Raines co-starred in another western filmed in Sedona, Republic's Singing Guns, opposite crooner Vaughn Monroe.
Through much of the film Raines wore sexy, specially tooled leather chaps that hug her figure like a two-piece apron. "Don't let this fancy rig fool you," she told a reporter from the Hollywood Citizen News in a 1944 on-set interview, "I may look like a horsewoman, but I'm standing up for a while, thank you. I need a two-man crew to reach into my pockets, and I still get confused when I try to climb out of it."
RKO originally eyed Walter Brennan, the only three-time winner of a Best Supporting Actor Oscar, to play Dave, the imbibing stagecoach driver. A Samuel Goldwyn Co. internal memo dated March 31, 1944 addressed RKO's request to hire Brennan, then under contract to Goldwyn (see right). But Brennan was unavailable at Tall's start date, so RKO turned to George Hayes, better known as "Gabby," whose specialty was playing cantakerous but lovable old coots. Hayes first worked with Wayne in 1933's Riders of Destiny (Monogram Pictures) and they would eventually co-star in 15 features.
Production began on April 17, 1944, with principal photography at the RKO studios in Hollywood and exterior filming at the RKO Encino Ranch and Lake Sherwood in California. Tall was the first film to use a new optical effects technique that combined matte paintings of clouds and mountain backgrounds with outdoor shots. A second-unit crew in Sedona filmed locations for the backgrounds, as well as numerous action sequences with stunt doubles standing in for the main characters. These scenes made good use of the rocky terrain; you see an out-of-control stagecoach race down Schnebley Hill; a traveler's rest stop in West Sedona; a comic interlude in Oak Creek; Rocklin's ride to the "Tabletop" hideaway near Cathedral Rock; and a climactic chase through the West Sedona and Chapel areas. But when John Wayne rolls a cigarette in front of Courthouse Butte, don't believe your eyes -- he never set foot in Sedona for the film. The realistic effect, developed by Oscar-winning special-effects wiz Vernon L. Walker, was assembled from various film elements into one shot.
Tall opened on sept. 29, 1944, to great business but mixed reviews. At least one perceptive reviewer got the point: Dorothy Manners, in the L.A. Times, saw it as "a shoot 'em up Western...plus a generous portion of the original Taming Of The Shrew."
By 1945, when it was time for Wayne to renew his contract with Republic Pictures, he had the clout to demand more control over his work. Republic, eager to keep its top star, committed to one big-budget Wayne picture per year, gave him the ability to work for other studios in films of his choice, and granted him the right to produce his own films. The first movie he helmed under that deal would reach screens two years later, and would be considered among his best: Angel and the Badman -- and this time he really did shoot his Sedona scenes in person. But that's another story for another time, pilgrim...