In Old California (1942)

10 Dec

in-old-california-1942I tend to think of John Wayne as a man of action, either in war movies or westerns. A somewhat rugged man, a man who is better at socking the bad guy than making a speech. In Old California is certainly a western, but Wayne plays a slightly different kind of character than usual. He is a pharmacist. An educated, gentlemanly man from Boston who takes on the rough and tumble men from Sacramento. Though he can also bend a coin with his thumb and is a remarkably good shot…which makes one wonder what he was doing in Boston when he wasn’t learning to be a druggist.

John Wayne is Tom Craig, a druggist looking to open a pharmacy in Sacramento. On his way there, he incurs the animus of Britt Dawson (Albert Dekker), the local bully/would-be-land-owner who is bullying his way into wealth with a gun and a posse. Britt does have one redeeming feature, however. He is completely and sincerely nuts about saloon singer Lacey Miller (Binnie Barnes). She is engaged to Britt, but is much taken with the more refined strength of Tom Craig.

When Dawson warns the inhabitants of Sacramento not to rent a building to Craig to set up shop, Lacey rents Craig her shack, with the promise of 50% of the profits. She then falls completely in love, though it takes Craig a while to realize it.

There are a number of subplots and plot twists in the film. There is the triangle between Britt, Lacey, and Craig. Another triangle between Craig, Lacey, and the pretty (but spoiled) debutante from San Francisco who catches Craig’s eye. There is Craig’s sidekick, Kegs McKeever (Edgar Kennedy), who becomes Craig’s sidekick after Craig uses some of his fancy pain killer to ease a raging toothache. Kegs himself has a (sort of) romance with Lacey’s gun-toting, sharpshooting maid (Patsy Kelly). And then there is Craig’s power struggle with Britt and his brother Joe Dawson (Dick Purcell).

There is even a gold strike, a fever epidemic, a gunfight on the plains of California, a barroom brawl, a murder by poison, several moments of slapstick comedy, and an attempted lynching. I was also pleased to note that Binnie Barnes’ slightly common saloon singer was able to rout her ingenue competition with aplomb. Very satisfying

Everyone is taken aback by John Wayne with a bag full of drugs

Everyone is taken aback by John Wayne with his bag full of drugs

I think I would describe this film as broadly comic and agreeable. At times it made me think of Destry Rides Again. The local bully engaged in a land grab, his saloon singer girlfriend, the outsider who is more gentlemanly, but still tough. But there is far more comedy than drama in In Old California and it has an easy-going, unpretentious charm. The cast is good (I am always happy to see Binnie Barnes in a film), but part of the fun is watching John Wayne in a different kind of role.

Apparently, John Wayne’s father really was a pharmacist and in the movie Wayne seems to be having a lot of fun with the role. He is quite believable as the educated, well-spoken and polite pharmacist. He never takes offense, he never overreacts, he’s never threatened when people assume he is not as tough as they are (he seems to have an inner assurance that he is, in fact, much tougher).

I confess I was not initially much of a John Wayne fan, but the more I see his films over the years, the more impressive he becomes. I guess I never appreciated how he was able to draw all the attention to himself without even trying. He sort of inhabits a scene, without having to come across as aggressive or in-your-face. Even in In Old California, he is distinctly non-aggressive compared to Dawson, but your eye still watches him.

It’s interesting, because earlier this year I watched a movie called The Life of Jimmy Dolan, made in 1933 with Douglas Fairbanks Jr.. John Wayne makes a brief appearance in the film and he’s so young and callow and had none of the effortless presence he developed later. I guess he just needed time. My sister and I sometimes joke that an actor (or actress) doesn’t truly become interesting until they’re 30.

Not exactly one of John Wayne’s best films, but there is something winning about In Old California. It has a unique charm, as does John Wayne.

Thanks so much to Hamlette’s Soliloquy and The Midnite Drive-In for hosting The John Wayne Blogathon! For all the other posts, click here.



Posted by on December 10, 2016 in Movies


Tags: , , , , , , , ,

20 responses to “In Old California (1942)

  1. Michaela

    December 10, 2016 at 7:07 pm

    I’ve never even heard of this film, but it sounds like a good one! It’s funny — I always feel like I’ve seen tons of John Wayne’s films, and then I look at his filmography and I don’t even think I’ve seen ten. I have no clue what that’s about, but I’m eager to check out more from him. I enjoy Wayne; he was definitely an effortless kind of performer and you’re right that your eye can’t help gravitating to him, despite not doing anything big and showy.

    Liked by 1 person

    • christinawehner

      December 10, 2016 at 9:25 pm

      I actually came across this one purely by chance, looking for something a little offbeat from his filmography. Isn’t his filmography enormous, though? I think he made over 140 movies! It almost boggles the mind. I know what you mean – I always think I’ve seen more of his movies than I have. There seem to be so many classics still to view.


  2. The Animation Commendation

    December 10, 2016 at 11:30 pm

    That does seem like a weird John Wayne role to play.

    Liked by 1 person

    • christinawehner

      December 12, 2016 at 7:07 am

      It is kind of different. It was partly why I wanted to see it – to see him play a different kind of character. But he does it very well!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Vienna

    December 10, 2016 at 11:54 pm

    I haven’t seen this one but will look out for it after reading your review.
    Binnie Barnes didn’t often get a leading role.

    Liked by 1 person

    • christinawehner

      December 12, 2016 at 7:47 am

      No, true…which is too bad because she’s always so much fun to have in any movie!


  4. Silver Screenings

    December 11, 2016 at 10:59 am

    I like the thought of John Wayne in this type of role, and it sounds like this film has a lot going for it. Thanks for the recommendation! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • christinawehner

      December 12, 2016 at 8:52 am

      It is a lot of fun to see him in this role! Not the most creative direction, but the cast is what is most fun!

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Patricia Nolan-Hall (@CaftanWoman)

    December 11, 2016 at 11:16 am

    This is one of those cowboy movies that made me a cowboy movie fan when I was a kid. It’s the sort of thing I always watched while snacking on donuts. Can’t see it these days without getting that craving for fried cake!

    Liked by 1 person

    • christinawehner

      December 12, 2016 at 9:17 am

      Oh, yum! That’s a great memory! 🙂 I can see how this film could spark a love of cowboy movies! If I’d seen more movies like this one, maybe I would have become a fan sooner. )


  6. Katrina Morrison

    December 11, 2016 at 2:38 pm

    sounds like a sweet movie…I liked your review of this so much, I have to see it. 😊

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Richard W Swymeler-Sinor

    December 12, 2016 at 6:26 am

    Christina, this Film was one of my Mom’s most favourite of John Wayne’s. Mind you, she LOVED everything John Wayne. She had quite a collection of his movies on DVD’s. Thank you for such a well written review of a movie I’ve not seen in a long time that put a smile and memory of my mom back in my heart!! Side note, I took Mom to the The Chinese Theatre in Hollywood once, and all she wanted to do was to put her hands in his ‘foot-prints’ 🙂 … You’re the best!!

    Liked by 1 person

    • christinawehner

      December 12, 2016 at 9:54 am

      Thanks! I’m so glad this movie reminds you of her and that Leandra and I shared our enjoyment of this movie with her! That is so cool you both got to see his footprints, too. Wonderful memories! 🙂


  8. hamlettethedame

    December 13, 2016 at 6:26 am

    It’s so funny that you compared it to Destry Rides Again because I have always felt they were so similar! I saw them both about the same time as a kid, maybe eleven years old, and I would get them confused for a while, though I liked Destry better and eventually watched it often enough I remembered what happened in which movie 🙂

    Either this or Dakota was my first John Wayne movie — I saw them both the same weekend, and although I didn’t decide John Wayne was my favorite actor until a few years and several films later, I did like this one enough to ask to get it from the library three or four times before we moved away. I haven’t seen it since, so I’ll have to sniff around and see if I can find it.

    Okay, how funny is this — I just looked for it on Amazon, and they have it on DVD as a double feature with Dakota. I’m going to pick up a used copy and take a trip down memory lane! Thanks for reminding me how fun this one is 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • christinawehner

      December 13, 2016 at 11:38 am

      Oh, that’s awesome!! I hope you have a lovely trip down memory lane. 🙂 I agree about Destry Rides Again – I think it’s one of my favorite westerns….one of the first I saw that showed me I could like westerns (I used to think I didn’t). But it is interesting how similar they are in plot.

      Thanks so much for hosting!!! 🙂


      • hamlettethedame

        December 15, 2016 at 6:28 am

        That’s cool that Destry helped you like westerns! I just rewatched it last month to review for a different blog event, and even though I’ve seen it oodles of times, it made me laugh aloud still. Good, good stuff.

        Liked by 1 person


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