Before John Wayne became a household name, he played in a string of lesser known motion pictures in the late 1920s and early 1930s. One such outing can be found in D. Ross Lederman’s The Range Feud, a 1931 movie that has the honour of being his first western after his first starring role in Raoul Walsh’s 1930 film The Big Trail.
But Wayne isn’t the star or the selling feature in Lederman’s flick, as Buck Jones takes top billing. He was the man of the hour in 1920s westerns and was dubbed on the poster for The Range Feud as “the screen’s greatest outdoor star.” With the arrival of talkies and the institution of studio sets, Jones fell out of favour – until they discovered that his baritone voice could command the screen.
Jones stars as Sheriff Buck Gordon and he’s caught in a war between two ranchers. He delivers a sermon at the local church, stating his intentions to put a stop to all the violence. This doesn’t go over well with the man he calls Dad Turner (Will Walling), a stubborn rancher who just so happened to help raise young Buck. The sheriff is also pals with Dad’s son Clint (Wayne).
The other rancher is John Walton (Edward LeSaint) and it just so happens that Clint is courting John’s daughter Judy (Susan Fleming). When the Walton patriarch is shot, suspicion falls to Clint because he was heard uttering some not-so-kind words after John ordered him off his land and away from his daughter. Buck is tasked with bringing his friend to justice, but he maintains his belief in his innocence.
The Range Feud is only about an hour in length and it handles the time well. The screenplay by Milton Krims and George H. Plympton doesn’t have any sidetracks and Lederman keeps the pace moving, as he was known to do throughout a slew of 1930s western productions.
There’s nothing overly unique about The Range Feud and it’s not going to be among the first westerns to recommend featuring The Duke, but it does manage an economy of story that’s worth mentioning and the characters are interesting. Wayne and Jones work well together, even if the former’s still a shade or two away from really commanding the screen.
There’s a fair bit of shooting and horseback-riding in The Range Feud, but Lederman clicks a lot of it into double-time. A sped-up fight between Buck and the mouthy Vandall (Harry Woods) is still fun to watch, but it rips through its paces with hilarious haste and loses impact as a result. Woods’ snake of a character manages a nice bit at the end of the brawl as he fixes to shoot the sheriff in the back.
These little violent touches flesh out the world of The Range Feud and helps it sink its teeth in as a tale of how relationships can go awry when things like pride and money come into the picture. Dad spends most of the picture behaving in a fairly stubborn and unreasonable fashion, but good ol’ Clint maintains his regard for his friend Buck and realizes the tough position he’s in as lawman.
And Buck follows the letter of the law like a good ol’ boy should in a 1930s western, which gives The Range Feud its moral centre. Jones plays the sheriff like a dream: big hat, quick with his fists, good on the horse. But he has flaws too, like when his temper flares and he yells at his deputy for not putting on a clean shirt and shaving every once in a while.
While this is a cheapie to a point, it also has nothing to be ashamed of apart from some wooden acting and the sped-up material. There are worse ways to kill an hour than to take in some early John Wayne, that’s for darn sure.