As I embarked on a life of film studies at an early age the only thing I knew about John Payne was that his name rhymed with the greatest cowboy icon of them all. Poor guy I thought though I had no clue what he even looked like. Eventually Mom pointed him out to me on a viewing of Miracle on 34th Street. “Big deal” I thought. Then along came Kansas City Confidential in my quest to devour Noir flicks and all of a sudden I took a closer look at Mr. Payne’s flicks over the ensuing years. Here are a couple of one hour B flicks from John’s apprenticeship years in the star making machine of Warner Brothers.
First up is King of the Lumberjacks from director William Clemens. Payne stars here as the young wanna be timber tramp turning up in a logging camp run by Stanley Fields. Fields is a tough as nails foreman who has a heart of gold. He loves a good fight and when it’s all said and done he and his combatant move up to the bar and share a beer. Payne fits in and quickly becomes Fields best pal.
When Payne heads off on a vacation to the city, Gloria Dickson arrives in the logging camp looking for a direction in life. She’s had a let down from a lost love and is taken in by kind hearted Fields. Returning to camp on the big wedding day is John Payne. Yes sir! Young John is the long lost sweetheart that she thought had given up on her. “Ain’t I a lucky guy. My wife and my best friend.” says innocent Fields when he sees the two at a distant talking things over. Complications in the lives of all three occur when the truth surfaces despite Payne wanting to do the right thing and move on.
This is strictly a recycled plot line that Warners would film in different locales and recast the leads. A tried and true formula for the B circuit. There’s plenty of stock footage from lumber camps and the falling of monstrous trees which I have to admit is kind of sad when you see the size of these ancient specimens. Warner regular Joe Sawyer is a member of the camp that not surprisingly shouldn’t be trusted and just happens to forget the to call out “TIMBER” at a crucial moment in the film.
The films F/X are credited to one Byron Haskin. If you know your sci-fi history then you’ll easily connect him to 1953’s War of the Worlds where he served as director. It’s a decent time filler for fans of Payne and like many others during this era it was a necessary step on the road to stardom.
John’s leading lady Gloria Dickson also appeared with him in the 1940 film Tear Gas Squad. She was at one time married to make up man Perc Westmore and would die tragically in a fire at the age of 28 in 1945.
Secondly we have Kid Nightingale. This time out our studio overseen by Jack Warner has cast Payne as a would be Opera singer who has a knack for knocking out his opponents in the ring. No William Holden and no violin. This isn’t Golden Boy. It’s just a low budget knock off with a comical bent.
Billed as Kid Nightingale or The Singing Swinger, Payne gets hooked up with a shady boxing promoter played by Walter Catlett. Catlett more or less serves as a comical relief throughout the film with his dazed rapid fire delivery. Truthfully he’s kind of annoying as he tries to get big time promoters Edward Brophy and Charles D. Brown interested in his singing sensation. While the promoters don’t see much boxing talent they do notice that Payne seems to have a large following of female admirers. They buy tickets the same as men. So Payne finds himself under contract wiping out one fighter after another. What he doesn’t know is that the money men are feeding him a steady diet of washed up pugilists who are all taking dives.
Like many fight films from the past, the intention is to get him a title shot and bet on the real champ. Then cash in and dump their singing star. With Jane Wyman along for the fun, Payne may have a surprise in store for the boxing syndicate.
Payne and Wyman make for a nice team in this early film during their apprentice years. She plays a piano while John gives us a baritone song or two throughout the one hour running time. Payne’s character isn’t the wisest in town either. He can’t seem to see through the shenanigans that Catlett and company are tossing at him. All he wants is to train with a legendary Opera coach and move on from the boxing world. Like a carrot held above him he continues believing all that Catlett has to tell him. Finally an impostor is needed to keep Payne in camp creating an amusing bit where a local wrestler is brought in to play the part of the Opera impresario.
Make sure you hang in to the end and tell me if that final fight doesn’t remind you of a certain film made in 1979.
While Payne looks in shape I have to be honest when I say I think James Cagney could have taken him apart if we paired up Cagney’s fighter from the 1940 City For Conquest vs. Payne as Kid Nightingale. One of the great what if sporting matches of all time? Not likely.
Neither film proves to be overly memorable but looking back at these one hour quickies can be an entertaining way to spend a rainy evening in front of the TV and also serves as an opportunity to check out just how the stars of the era moved up the ladder into more prestigious flicks.
Never seen either one but I like Payne so I’ll keep an eye out. By coincidence, I’ve just finished writing something on one of Payne’s westerns myself. Great minds!
lol! nice to be in such company as yourself! These are fun time wasters.
Fun double feature, as you know I’m a fan, interesting to track him from his song& dance days and these early roles to the weary noir/drama lead he became. Like many other guys who reinvented themselves via noir.
Also like many others he hardened as he got older. I think of Robert Taylor when I use that scenario. The roles became much more interesting though the fame was fading. On the flip side Jimmy Stewart really hit his stride as he “hardened”.
To be honest, I prefer John P to John W. Great writeup!
Thanks for the kind words. I’m a big fan of John W but Payne has grown on me over the years. Been watching some of his Restless Guns episodes lately.
I’m a big fan of John W
Lucky you! I’m not. Even worse, my wife is.
I really started liking Payne when I saw ‘Kansas City Confidential’, but I loved him in ’99 River Street’, where he once again plays a boxer (and not one of the singing variety, I might add).
Same as me on K.C. solid Noir effort as i am sure Tarantino would agree.