John Wayne was a cowboy, a cavalry officer, a marshal, a soldier, an officer, a tough guy, any and all. Name most of his Wayne's most famous, iconic roles, and odds are, you can peg it as one of those descriptions. I've seen most of Wayne's non-serial movies, and I can't think of too many comedies or dramas away from the wild west, a war situation or some sort of historical epic. Well, I found one, and I liked it a lot, 1953's Trouble Along the Way.
The longtime rector at St. Anthony's University in New York City, Father Burke (Charles Coburn) has been given some bad news. His small Catholic university is seriously in debt, and the order of brothers has decided to close the school and relocating the priests on the faculty while allowing its students to transfer to other universities. Not willing to accept the news, Father Burke goes about thinking of ways to raise money to keep St. Anthony's open. One of his best ideas? Reinvigorate the football program which has fallen on some tough times. A successful football team will no doubt bring in tons of money to the university, right? Burke finds his man to coach the team in an ex-coach with a checkered past, Steve Williams (Wayne), a single father who's fallen on some tough times as he tries to care for his young daughter, Carol (Sherry Jackson). Williams has his work cut out for him and not a lot of time to do it in. Can he pull it off?
I've watched John Wayne movies since I was a kid, but this was one of his few movies I haven't seen a second of this 1953 drama from director Michael Curtiz. It was available on Netflix, but that ominous 'Very Long Wait' kept staring back at me. Well, courtesy of Turner Classic Movies and a John Wayne marathon, here we sit. It's a good movie for all the right reasons, reminding me at times of a Frank Capra flick. 'Trouble' is an old-fashioned story that you can comfortably call 'cheesy, sappy, cliched and familiar,' but you know what? Those are good things here. Filmed in black and white at Pomona College and assorted Los Angeles high schools, 'Trouble' plays like a sweet throwback in the wayback machine to a simpler time, a Happy Days and Leave it to Beaver time. A cool change of pace.
John Wayne was all of those things above over a long, distinguished career so if for absolutely nothing else, it's pretty fun to see him in a far-more family role. His tough guy single dad is raising his daughter like a tomboy, father and daughter bonding through sports and football and billiards. Wayne has a great chemistry with Jackson's Carol, a talented young actress who doesn't force things. It's a natural performance, a rarity when you consider how bad some child actors were (especially in the 1950s). There's also a possible love interest in Donna Reed's character, Alice Singleton, a court officer sent to investigate if Carol should stay with her Dad or move in with her mother (oh no, family drama!). Thankfully, 'Trouble' allows most of the pratfalls here involving that budding relationship, keeping it in the background and developing it slowly. The Duke is excellent in the fatherly role, a change of pace but in a good way.
Beyond Wayne and Reed, Charles Coburn is the best supporting part as Father Burke, the idealistic, sweet old priest who wants nothing more than to have his St. Anthony's remain open, helping students struggling with money with an education. His fellow priests include Tom Tully and Dabbs Greer with Leif Erickson and Douglas Spencer as the two priests who bear the bad news to Burke. Marie Windsor plays the over the top evil, manipulative ex-wife of Steve's with Tom Helmore as her rich new beau. Also look for Chuck Connors and former NFL player Bill Radovich as Steve's assistants.
Now all that said -- and I did enjoy this movie -- there are some moments that will no doubt make some viewers cringe. Politically incorrect 'Trouble' is not, especially some scenes between Wayne and Reed, Wayne's Steve "analyzing" how Alice came to the job with a wrap-up compliment of 'And you've got nice legs.' As well, any sports fan will get a kick out of the 1950s-era college rules. The script has some fun with Steve's background, a coach who's been run out of a handful of college coaching jobs using some questionable players with eligibility issues. The school completely turns a blind eye to his coaching tactics. A dealbreaker it is not, but it certainly adds another fun, entertaining level to the story.
An interesting change of pace. Definitely worth a watch, especially for John Wayne fans.
Trouble Along the Way (1953): ***/****