The Sons of Katie Elder

The Sons of Katie Elder
"First, we reunite, then find Ma and Pa's killer...then read some reviews."

Friday, May 7, 2010


Preparing to make 1947's Tycoon for RKO Studios, John Wayne was supposed to co-star with Maureen O'Hara, but she was replaced at the last minute.  The joke of course was on RKO as Wayne and O'Hara would go on to work together a handful of times over the next 25 years, making a great on-screen couple with chemistry to spare.  Behind the scenes shenanigans are what Tycoon is known for above all else, and it involves a key part of the plot that drags down an otherwise interesting story.

O'Hara was replaced with Laraine Day, another RKO star, as the love interest.  At the time, Day was married to Brooklyn Dodgers manager Leo Durocher who was a constant presence on the set and apparently didn't like seeing his wife in any number of romantic scenes with co-star Wayne.  His presence hung over the set like a storm and probably helped kill any chance of a believable love story this movie had.  It's that love story that cuts the movie in two and keeps Tycoon from being a pretty solid picture overall.

Hired to work in the Andes in South America, engineers and partners Johnny Munroe (Wayne) and Pop Matthews (James Gleason) have their work cut out for them.  In helping the railroad expand, Munroe proposed building a bridge over a river to help bring the two tracks together, but his proposal was overturned and his workers are forced to cut a tunnel through a mountain with the possibility always looming of a cave-in.  The owner of the railway, Frederic Alexander (Cedric Hardwicke), isn't exactly forthcoming with supplies or safety equipment.  Making the situation worse, Munroe meets Alexander's daughter, Maura (Day), and falls hard for her.  The boss doesn't approve so Munroe must juggle the job and the girl if he wants to get both.

In a Wayne biography I've read, Wayne admitted to co-star Anthony Quinn that he was thinking about leaving the business.  Since his star-making role in Stagecoach eight years earlier, Wayne hadn't had a huge hit, and he even began to wonder if he was getting too old to be a movie star.  The funny part is that within a year, Wayne made Fort Apache and Red River and was back on the climb upward to becoming Hollywood's most bankable star.  Here as Johnny Munroe, he gets a chance to play a familiar role but in a new setting.  Toward the end, he even gets a chance to show his darker side -- something we'd see in Red River and The Searchers.  It's an interesting character that helps pull the movie along when it slows down.

My main issue is that over 2 hours the movie is too long because there are two storylines instead of just one.  Munroe falling for Maura seems out of place and at times rather dull.  Much of the first hour is spent on their developing relationship, but it's just not that interesting.  In the second half after a bizarre shotgun wedding, their marriage ends up taking a backseat to the more interesting half of the story, but even then it's still hovering around, waiting to make an appearance at the end -- at least it's handled quickly when it comes up.  A lot of these problems are the same ones that 1968's Hellfighters faced 20 years later.  The story itself at its most basic is solid, but a romantic element had to be added.  On top of that, the lack of chemistry between Wayne and Day is a story-killer.

Tycoon is at its best when its focusing on the job at hand, cutting a railroad tunnel through an immense mountain of rock.  A 90-minute movie that keyed in on this aspect of the story would have been ideal if you ask me.  Along with partner Pop, Munroe's crew includes demolition expert Joe (Paul Fix) and foremen Fog Harris (Grant Withers) and Curly Matthews (Michael Harvey).  The team dynamic in this group of five is strong, mostly because they have a history together.  Throw in Anthony Quinn as Ricky Vegas, Alexander's nephew and on-site supervisor, and you've got quite a mix.  These segments of the movie are the most enjoyable and the most exciting, especially the finale as the team tries to save their work from a oncoming storm.

For fans of the Duke, this will certainly be an interesting movie to watch.  For the rest of his career following Tycoon, Wayne almost exclusively made westerns and war movies -- with a departure here and there -- where he played similar roles.  That's not a criticism, just an observation, because some of his most highly-regarded movies are included in that span.  I really enjoyed parts of Tycoon, especially Wayne's performance and anything with his supporting cast.  Flawed because of an unnecessary romantic subplot, but worth watching on the whole.

Tycoon (1947): ** 1/2 /****

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