The underwater scenes in Sagebrush Trail belie its shoestring budget.
Those scenes come early. John Wayne plays a fugitive named John (of course) stowed away aboard a freight train. As the train pulls into the station, lawmen are waiting. After some cat and mouse, John hops a horse and flees into the countryside. The lawmen pursue. John dead-ends at a lake, dismounts, and dives into the water.
We see John underwater, breathing through a reed. It's not a special effect. I'm not sure how they shot these scenes, but that's Wayne underwater, breathing through a stick in what looks like a lake.
After eluding the lawmen, who believe him dead, John surfaces and encounters a gunslinger. The gunslinger, recognizing a fellow desperado, introduces himself as Jones and invites John to join an outlaw gang. John accepts and he and Jones become fast-friends and rivals for the local shopgirl, Sally.
Of course, John's not really a bad guy. He passes notes to Sally warning her of the gang's intentions. And of course, it was Jones who committed the crime pinned on John. And of course, John doesn't discover this until the second act's end. But you know what? I didn't mind.
Sagebrush Trail may suffer from predictable plotting, stilted dialog, and fight scenes where the participants punch each other's shoulders, but I still enjoyed it.
Besides the aforementioned underwater scenes, I liked the location photography and wipe transitions. And the script's making Jones a flawed but likable character was a nice touch.
But most of all, I liked Wayne. This was his second production for Monogram Pictures, after Riders of Destiny (1933). Though Wayne struggles with the romantic comedy scenes, he's making strides as a performer. More than ever before, we see flashes of his famous Duke persona. And judging by the underwater scenes, he's doing some of his own stunts to boot.