Long before John Wayne became the star of big scale westerns like The Searchers or True Grit, he spent a lot of time making small B-westerns. These films often tell very simple little western tales and tend to have very short running times. Today’s film clocks in at a mere 52 minutes and sees the Duke protecting a little girl from a gang of baddies. Gabby Hayes comes along for the ride in 1934’s ‘Neath the Arizona Skies.
Wayne plays Chris Morrell, a cowboy who also happens to be the legal guardian of a little half-indian girl named Nina (Shirley Jean Rickert, who was briefly one of the Our Gang kids and later went on to work in burlesque). It seems that Nina is about to come in to a lot of money, $50,000 in fact, all thanks to the government paying the natives for oil found on their land. One catch is that Nina’s long-lost father needs to be located to sign the papers. Chris thinks he can find dear old dad, but he doesn’t even get to start looking before a gang of crooks try to kidnap Nina and get the dough for themselves.
The chase becomes intense and Chris decides he and Nina need to split up. He sends her off on a horse to go to the nearby ranch of a friend. There she ends up in the care of the ranch’s cook, Matt Downing (Gabby Hayes). Meanwhile, Chris ends up in a slight case of mistaken identity when a robber switches clothes with him as he lays unconscious after falling off a horse. The Duke falls off his horse!?! Never!! Along the way, Chris ends up meeting up with the thief’s sister, Clara (Sheila Terry), Nina gets kidnapped, dear old dad is found, and a shootout ensues as they try to rescue the girl.
For 52 minutes, ‘Neath the Arizona skies gets pretty complex and a bit convoluted. Unfortunately, the film didn’t have enough action to really keep me engaged. Don’t get me wrong, there’s still a certain charm to B-westerns like this. The good guys are good…the bad guys are bad…and the Duke can lick all of them. I dig that. But this story winds and twists around so much that they forgot to put in the sort of moments that made the Duke the Duke!
I did like the cast of this film, though. John Wayne does a fine job. I mean, if you need a cowboy who’s tough but also pulls off being the foster father of a little prairie moppet…he’s the man for the job. Speaking of the moppet, Shirley Jean Rickert is quite cute and has genuine chemistry with the Duke. I just wish she had gotten a bit more screen time. And, of course, we have Gabby Hayes, who is always a treat. Ultimately, the cast is likable and more the capable, but the story is so winding and bogged down that it’s just hard to really get invested in it.
As I watched ‘Neath the Arizona Skies I started to wonder what exactly the title had to do with what I was watching. I’m not sure that they even mentioned that the story took place in Arizona. I wondered if the studio pretty much just pulled this title out of a hat and slapped it on the film. It could’ve been any generic western-themed title. I guess “generic” is probably the big word I’d use to describe this film. There’s just nothing about it that really grabs the audience. John Wayne completists will want to watch, and maybe those who have an interest in the non-Our Gang careers of Hal Roach’s Rascals, for others, though, there’s just not much here.
Note: ‘Neath the Arizona Skies was recently released on DVD and Blu Ray by Olive Films. Thanks to them for letting us check out the film.