It was the 1930’s, and the world was upside down, and financiers all over the world were falling in love with a crazy little economic concept called “leverage,” and then taking the Hudsucker Proxy exit from their offices. Politics was awful, people were restless, the Reichstag caught on fire. We have, as people on planet earth, had significantly better decades.
Whatever couldn’t happen here happened elsewhere. There were more than six teams in the National Hockey League. And a former USC football player (and socialist) Marion Morrison became John Wayne, who became a solid B-movie star years before becoming an American icon after pairing up with John Ford in 1939’s Stagecoach. It was a weird time, in short, but maybe not quite weird enough to explain how and why John Wayne came to make a hockey movie. Because that definitely happened, in 1937.
Idol of the Crowds lasts about sixty minutes, meaning you can watch it between commercials and intermissions of a Stanley Cup playoff game and not miss much. Wayne plays Johnny Hanson, a former minor league hockey star recruited by the aging New York Panthers to inject some fresh blood into the team. Hanson is the third or fourth-best hockey playing Hanson in the state of Maine -- we can assume that one of these hockeying Hansons would later sire the Hanson Brothers from Slap Shot -- but all the others either have families to attend to, are missing a leg, or in the case of the Hanson Brothers wouldn’t be born for another 15 to 20 years. Hanson is also busy with his work, which: if you ever wanted to see John Wayne owning a chicken farm, this is definitely a film you should watch. Hanson’s hopes of improving his lot, and expanding his chicken farming operation, rest on his hockey skills; Wayne is a hockey-playing Cincinnatus, getting out there on the ice not for glory, but to better the lives of the poultry back home, where he’ll return as soon as his work is done. If E.B. White had Netflix, the keywords “New York”, “chicken farming” and “Maine” would put Idol of the Crowds on the top of his queue.
Of course, it’s not quite so easy as stepping off the chicken farm and into Madison Square Garden. Eventually, Hanson falls in love with Helen Dale (Sheila Bromley), who turns out to be under the hire of gangster Jack Irwin (Charles Brokaw). While Helen dreams of a life raising pullets with Johnny in America’s Vacationland, Jack has somewhat humbler dreams: he wants Johnny to throw the Stanley Cup. Jack’s (non-hockey) goons threaten Johnny’s life, only to injure the film’s resident precocious adolescent, Bobby. What’s a John Wayne character to do? It wasn’t quite a rhetorical question at this point.
But, yes, Johnny does the honorable thing and flops his way out of the game, buying enough time to let the rival Wizards even up the series, leading to an inevitable Game 7 confrontation, and the film’s even-less-evitable conclusion. John Wayne does not lose Stanley Cup games. It’s not for nothing that he was known as the Scott Stevens of his era.
Were Arthur Lubin alive today, Velveeta would make an ad based on his life. Besides directing Idol Of The Crowds, Lubin was a prolific producer and director, known for his 1943 remake of The Phantom Of The Opera and the first several Abbott and Costello movies. However, Mr. Lubin’s true legacy rests on his enduring contributions to the talking animal genre/industry.
Lubin was the driving force behind the Francis The Talking Mule series, the last of which co-starred his protege Clint Eastwood. Then there’s the 1951 cat who owns a baseball team film Rhubarb, which joined the Sportsflicks queue as I was typing this because holy crap, and also The Incredible Mr. Limpet, starring Don Knotts in the role he was born to play, which is that of a dorky bespectacled animated codfish. And Mr. Ed? That was Lubin, too. Eat like that guy you know, indeed.
Billy Burrud, who plays either Hanson’s brother or son (it’s not a very good movie), would later be known in the 1950’s and 60’s for hosting adventure travelogues. Clem Bevans, best known for playing a Nazi in Alfred Hitchock’s Saboteur and other less Nazi-ish and more crotchety parts, is here in one of his Younger Codger roles. As the female lead, Sheila Bromley starred in her third and final pairing with John Wayne, the other two being B-Westerns she appeared in under the name Sheila Manners. From what I can tell, she never played a Nazi or a crotchety old man.
Much like the VHS copy of Terry Mulholland’s no-hitter that my mom recorded on SP mode, thus cutting off with two outs in the ninth inning, my copy of Idol Of The Crowds ended right at the film’s predictable climax. A quick glance at YouTube confirmed my instincts, just as Idol of the Crowds confirmed my suspicions that it would be a benign waste of 60 minutes’ time. Whatever novelty this film has resides entirely in seeing its star lace up his skates and do some forechecking. It’s difficult to picture John Wayne skating on anything, much less refusing a cigarette because he’s “in training,” and it’s not significantly easier even after having seen Idol of the Crowds.
But this was never supposed to be a great movie, really. Idol of the Crowds is a nice enough programmer, a film that harkens back to a time when John Wayne could star in a hockey film and few would yell out loud, “What the hell?” History books will tell you that the 1930s were harrowing and insane. The very existence of Idol of the Crowds can show you as much, and it throws in The Duke’s wrist-shot for free.