Although Cimarron won the Oscar for best picture of 1931, the Western that garners the most attention now was a little-seen, big-budget flop called The Big Trail. Directed by veteran Raoul Walsh and starring John Wayne, I almost nominated this one for best picture because of its historical significance as the first big budget widescreen movie. That, and because I like Westerns.
Raoul Walsh was one of the Fox Film Corporation's hardest working directors when he was tapped in 1930 to helm The Big Trail. Best known for directing the James Cagney classic White Heat (or, if you're a fan of this blog, Douglas Fairbanks's best movie, 1924's The Thief of Bagdad), Walsh worked in Hollywood for more than fifty years, racking up nearly 140 directing credits, including as an assistant director on The Birth of a Nation in 1915. He received his last film credit (as a writer) in 1970.
Walsh had also worked as an actor, appearing in forty films, and was set to star as the Cisco Kid in the Western In Old Arizona when his car struck a jackrabbit, shattering the windshield and costing Walsh his right eye. (After the accident, he opted to wear what became a trademark eye patch, reasoning that with a glass eye, "Every time I'd get in a fight, I'd have to put it in my pocket.") (Warner Baxter, incidentally, went on to win an Oscar in the role.)
Shot on location in Fox's new 70 mm Grandeur process, The Big Trail was one of the first feature-length widescreen movies and the first big budget one. Its $2 million budget was enormous at the time and represented something of a gamble for the studio during the early days of the Depression. Walsh spotted a young unknown named Marion Morrison working with director John Ford and, renaming Morrison "John Wayne," cast him in the lead.
The Big Trail is the story of a young wagon master (Wayne, just 23 at the time) who leads a band of settlers across the frontier while battling Indians, weather and a murderous gambler. It's a beautiful film to look at and if I were handing out awards for cinematography, Arthur Edeson (All Quiet On The Western Front, Casablanca) would certainly have received a nomination.
That said, The Big Trail suffers from the same problem all Westerns of that era suffered from—simplistic storylines and characterizations—and it flopped at the box office. It took John Ford and his 1939 masterpiece Stagecoach to turn the Western into adult fare.
It didn't help that few theaters were able to exhibit a widescreen movie and most theaters received the inferior 35 mm print, filmed at the same time as the 70 mm version (actually, five versions were shot on location, with French, Spanish and German language editions, filmed mostly with different casts, accounting for the other three). After its premiere, a half hour was reportedly trimmed from its run time, but the changes made no difference—audiences just weren't interested in The Big Trail.
John Wayne took most of the blame for the failure and was relegated to low budget B-Westerns for the rest of the decade. Though gifted, he was raw and maybe his long exile in the cinematic wilderness was just what he needed. By the time Ford fought to cast him as the Ringo Kid in Stagecoach, Wayne was a screen veteran with sixty movies under his belt. Though still unbelievably young, by 1939 he knew how to carry a movie—and if you think there's no skill involved in commanding the screen, that it's just a matter of a movie star with looks and charisma "playing himself," then you should compare The Big Trail to, say, The Searchers or Rio Bravo.
Widescreen movies took even longer than John Wayne to catch on. As a cost-cutting move during the Depression, studios abandoned the effort to convert movie houses to widescreen which audiences had never been much interested in anyway. It would be more than twenty years before Hollywood took another crack at a widescreen movie.
In 2006, the National Film Preservation Board included The Big Trail in the National Film Registry. If you're going to watch it, make you sure you get hold of the widescreen version. It is available as part of a two-disc set from Fox and shows up on the Fox Movie Channel from time to time.