Dear Old Alma Mater: John Wayne in TROUBLE ALONG THE WAY (Warner Brothers 1953)

Tomorrow’s the big night, as my New England Patriots go up against the tough defense of the Philadelphia Eagles in Super Bowl LII. Tom Brady and company will be going for Ring #6, and everyone here in Southern New England is super excited, looking forward to another victory celebration! I’ll be attending a huge party with plenty of food, big screen TV’s, raffles, squares, and like-minded fans, but before the festivities begin, let’s take a look at TROUBLE ALONG THE WAY, a football-themed film starring none other than Big John Wayne !

St. Anthony’s College is a struggling Catholic university run by sweet old Father Burke, who’s getting to be as decrepit as the school itself. The powers-that-be want to close his beloved St. Anthony’s, seeing how the school’s $170,000 in debt, but old Father Burke comes up with an idea. Citing Deuteronomy 32:15 (“The beloved grew fat and kicked”), the padre decides what St. Anthony’s needs is a winning football program, and sets about to hire a new coach.

This leads him to a pool hall, where he finds Steve Williams, a hard-drinking ex-coach, part-time bookie and ladies man banned from the sport for recruitment violations. Steve’s down on his luck, and his cheating ex-wife Ann is trying to gain custody of their daughter Carole out of pure spite. Pretty but no-nonsense child welfare officer Alice Singleton is sent to Steve’s humble hovel to investigate, and the free-spirited Steve finds himself at odds with the all-business Miss Singleton.

So Steve, needing to show gainful employment, takes Father Burke up on his offer, and he and Carole move into a room under the school’s bell tower. The elderly Burke pulls some strings with his old student, now Cardinal O’Hara, and gets St. Anthony’s scheduled against powerhouses Santa Carla, Holy Cross, Villanova, and Notre Dame. Realizing what a sorry excuse for a team he’s inherited (“You couldn’t beat Vassar at tiddlywinks!”), Steve is up to his old tricks, bringing in a bunch of ringers and wheeling and dealing his way to free equipment and a spot playing at the Polo Grounds. But resentful Ann is determined to take Steve down at any cost…

TROUBLE ALONG THE WAY is a gentle, sentimental tale with Wayne likeable as the not-so-honest but well-meaning coach. Duke knew a thing or two about football, having played for USC, and makes Steve a totally believable character. He’s a loving father to Sherry Jackson’s Carole, and the two have an undeniable chemistry (Wayne always seems to work well with kids). Jackson went on to costar in the Danny Thomas sitcom MAKE ROOM FOR DADDY, and a bunch of episodic TV and low-budget films (WILD ON THE BEACH, THE MIN-SKIRT MOB, THE MONITORS) followed.

Veteran Charles Coburn plays the warm Father Burke in his own inimitable style. Donna Reed is welfare officer Alice, and you know she’s gonna end up with Duke by film’s end. Noir dame Marie Windsor is the spiteful Ann, and the rest of the cast includes a young, crew-cutted Chuck Connors as one of Steve’s assistant coaches, Frank Ferguson, Dabbs Greer , Ned Glass, Lester Matthews , Olan Soule, and Tom Tully. Familiar Face spotters will want to keep a sharp eye out for James Dean as a spectator during the big game.

Michael Curtiz  directed from a script by Melville Shavelson and Jack Rose, with music by Max Steiner . The football scenes are well-staged, and everyone gives 110%, but despite the talents in front and behind the camera, TROUBLE ALONG THE WAY is a minor film that’s enjoyable but harmless. Those who like football and/or John Wayne will like this agreeable little entry. In fact, I know two critics who give the movie two big Thumbs Up, and they’re not Siskel & Ebert:

All together now: LET’S GO PATRIOTS!!

 

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