Young John Wayne gets his best supporting cast in years, but the resulting picture still stinks.
The Telegraph Trail was the fourth production, following The Big Stampede, under a six-picture contract Wayne signed with Warner Bros. It recycles footage from Ken Maynard’s The Red Raiders.
When Warner Bros. acquired First National Pictures a few years prior, they inherited the rights to several popular silent westerns starring Maynard. These were A-list productions showcasing Maynard’s impressive stunt work.
Warner Bros. figured they could save money by reusing the Maynard action footage in new pictures. They just needed an actor who matched Maynard’s build. Enter Wayne.
This picture sees Wayne play calvary scout John Trent. When his comrade and good pal Jonesy is killed to prevent completion of a telegraph line, Trent and his buddy Tippy (Frank McHugh) set out to apprehend the culprits. Along the way, they encounter hostile natives incited by corrupt trader Gus Lynch (Albert J. Smith). There’s also the obligatory love interest for Wayne, played by Alice Keller.
Wayne’s prior pictures for Warner Bros. saddled him with subpar supporting casts, but this time he gets McHugh, a great character actor, and Smith, a great heavy. But the lackluster result proves Wayne still had lots to learn. It doesn’t help that he and Keller have minimal chemistry, or that the finale drags on far too long and reuses the same recycled footage multiple times. Later in his career, Wayne could have carried the film, but at this point, he struggles to hold his own.