“Let’s get ready to Rumble!”
“Ladies and Gentlemen. Introducing the challenger weighing in at an estimate of 200 pounds, John Wayne! And in this corner the champion with the KO Punch, at a guesstimate of 215 pounds, Ward Bond!”
Before we get ahead of ourselves to the big fight that we’re spiraling towards in this 60 minute special we have some key plot points to go over and one that actually caught me by surprise in this rare Duke film that was one of six none westerns he made for Universal Studios in 1936/37.
The film from director, David Howard, and according to the opening credits is based on a Jack London story begins with a train pulling into a frontier town with Bond and his cronies advertising a boxing exhibition. One of those traveling circus types where if you can stay four rounds with the champ you’ll win $1000. Cut to Duke pulling some barroom pranks with locals betting all comers that they can’t hit him with a punch while standing flat footed. True to his word he dodges all comers.
Along comes Bond all duded up in suit and top hat. He takes the bet and is thoroughly embarrassed by Duke missing each punch he throws. Sure enough it’s Duke who steps into the ring with Bond to the cheers of the locals. Plenty of wagers are coming in on Duke and the fight begins and ends in the first round when boxing champ Bond KO’s his real life buddy in short order.
And now for the curve ball I didn’t see coming.
Duke was in on the whole scam. In the next scene he’s on the train with Bond and his crooked backers plotting their next stop for the 4th of July. A logging community. The idea is that Duke goes on ahead and makes himself known in the area as a hard working tough guy who the community is sure to back with some eager wagers when Bond comes to town. And of course Duke will take a dive and take his cut of the ill gotten gains.
Trust me, from here on out there were no surprises. Still, that never bothered me a bit as I tuned in to this film for the very first time. One of the very few Duke films I’d yet to see.
Duke and his handler, Eddie Borden, are next seen working as timber tramps and in little time at all Duke spots the blonde haired Jean Rogers as the local librarian. Romance is sure to follow when she sees Duke rescue a small orphan boy from surely drowning. Let’s think this through. Duke takes a liking to the little guy, Tommy Bupp, and if he’s to adopt him then the kid is likely going to need a Mother.
Anyway, back to romancing the lovely Miss Rogers. “I’ll bet that fellah, Romeo, would know just what to say.” And there you have it. Duke isn’t spouting poetry but rather referencing Shakespeare as he sets to winning the lovely librarian’s hand. If you’re starting to think that Duke is getting too involved with the townsfolk, Rogers and the orphan boy, you’d be right. After seeing him beat up a local bully over the fair lady’s hand all are planning on betting their savings on him when Bond arrives in town for the next stop on his exhibition tour.
Guilt is setting in fast on our hero who even goes to Bond and company to tell them he’s finished with their scheme. He’ll be fighting for real this time and won’t be taking any dives. In true press conference fashion, Bond, makes it clear to Duke, “I’ll KO you anytime” and the punches start wailing before the two are separated. With so much cash riding on the big fight don’t expect Bond’s manager to deal from a straight deck and if I were The Duke I’d be wary of those cement lined wrappings that Bond has on under his leather gloves.
Well, you can figure this one out from here till the inevitable embrace at the fade out.
There’s little doubt that the Duke is the reason for seeking out this early title before he secured fame following John Ford’s elevating him to stardom in 1939’s Stagecoach. Then there might be those who are looking to see the film as another appearance of Duke with one of his best off screen buddies, Ward Bond. Born in Nebraska, Bond, needs no introduction to fans of John Wayne. The pair both got their start as football teammates who found work as extras on some John Ford productions in the late 1920’s. Each would be closely identified with Ford for the balance of their careers. Bond appearing in 26 Ford films according to the IMDB while Duke turned up in 21 if my count is correct. Wayne and Bond would appear in many films together outside the Ford universe as well. Titles include Dakota, Operation Pacific and what would prove to be Bond’s final film, Rio Bravo.
Bond was no stranger to appearing as a boxer on camera. He appeared in the square circle in many bits and small roles in films like Mr. Moto’s Gamble before giving one of his finest performances as Heavyweight Champ, John L. Sullivan, opposite Errol Flynn in 1942’s Gentleman Jim.
If you’re like me and doing your best to track down these half dozen films of the iconic actor, it’s not easy as they’ve yet to be released in any home video format. Thankfully this one turned up at a site with plenty of hard to find titles I’d like to recommend, rarefilmm.com
Do yourself a favor and check it out. You might find that one movie title that has been on your bucket list for ages.