Directed by Joseph Kane
February 15, 1936
Two federal agents are sent to the Wyoming territory undercover to supervise the vote on whether or not to become a state.
This is a post The Big Trail film and before John Wayne’s star making turn in Stagecoach. In The Big Trail, the classic John Wayne mannerisms were there but they were not natural. By the time of Stagecoach, he had his persona down. This film clearly shows that persona in good use. The John Wayne we all know, and love comes very naturally here.
Wayne is his usual Western tough guy self as federal agent John Tipton who is paired with another agent named Bridger (Lane Chandler), no other name, to keep things safe in the Wyoming territory as it prepares to vote on statehood. Bridger is not much for the narrative and is eventually killed off.
Factoring into everything, a local newspaper has been started up again and this has angered Charles Plummer (Harry Woods) who is trying to rig things against Wyoming statehood by suppressing the vote and sowing chaos. I am unsure how this benefits the character. I cannot recall from watching the movie why he does not want statehood for Wyoming. Near as I can tell he is just a bad guy and Wyoming remaining a territory is a bad thing that benefits him so he’s for it I guess.
After being separated from his partner early in the film, Tipton saves the life of two travelers and their driver. Major Carter (George Hayes), the publisher of the revived paper, has an attractive daughter named Janet (Ann Rutherford) whom Tipton is immediately drawn to. The urges of his loins compel him! Ann is a little bit two dimensional, but she does have some spunk even if she is just there for Tipton to romantically conquer.
One thing that will make modern audiences cringe are the two African-American characters of Moses (Fred Toones), servant of Maj. Carter, and Mandy Lou Schaefer (Etta McDaniel) in here. They are stereotypically portrayed with exaggerated mannerisms and as having inferior intelligence. This was an unfortunately common thing for the time. This is probably one of the more cringe worthy (and that’s being kind) I have seen in an older film in quite some time.
Fred “Snowflake” Toones was an American actor and comedienne with around 200 film, many where his part was uncredited, to his name. He was often a porter and his characters had a high pitched voice coupled with a child like demeanor. Etta McDaniel, sister of Hattie McDaniel, was frequently cast as maids or nannies. It is my understanding that scenes featuring African American performers were filmed for inclusion in the North of the US but of so little importance to the story that they could be excised from the film in the Southern US with no harm to the narrative. Their moments in The Lawless Nineties appear to be just that.
This is not a great Western nor is it a disaster. Despite the two racially insensitive characters it has managed to be enjoyable enough. This film is only about 56 minutes. That is not much time for too much story. You need to fill it with enough to make it worth watching but not so much that it needs to rush to get it all in. Here there are just enough characters and just enough material to keep things moving steady throughout. The acting is serviceable and despite the use of stock footage the film as a whole is still good.
If you go into this film understanding that it is a product of its time, you will be fine. The Lawless Nineties is a watch for Western fans and for fans of John Wayne as well.