Max Terhune, John Wayne, and Ray "Crash" Corrigan" in Three Texas Steers (1939).
There was a time in America when kids would head to the local movie house every Saturday around noon, hand over their shiny dimes, and be spirited to other worlds for two or three hours in a darkened theater. A staple of those Saturday-afternoon matinees was the Western, those clichéd movies with the good guys in white hats and the bad guys in black. It didn’t matter who the star was—Tom Mix, Gene Autry, Hopalong Cassidy, Monte Hale, Roy Rogers, or a dozen others—the plot was usually secondary to the action: fistfights, horse chases, shootouts behind backlot boulders, and cowboys being thrown through saloon windows or falling from rooftops, clutching an imaginary bullet wound.
John Wayne, as an ascendant Western star in his own right, had developed a faithful following by the late 1930s, though not to the degree of the genre’s big Western stars. So when Republic Pictures offered him the role of Stony Brooke in 1938, he grabbed it. Stony, along with Tucson Smith (Ray “Crash” Corrigan) and Lullaby Joslin (Max Terhune), made up the trio in six of the eight films from 1938 to 1939 in which John Wayne took part. (Terhune was replaced by Raymond Hatton for two of those films.) The odd thing about it is that it was a revolving cast. Before Wayne joined the team, the Mesquiteers had already been a’ropin’ and a’ridin, and a’rescuin’ purdy schoolmarms for several years, and would continue to do so after Duke left the franchise. In fact, Republic shot 51 Three Mesquiteers B movies between 1936 and 1943.
The films combined the classic elements of those Saturday-afternoon Westerns along with a dash of romance and an undercurrent of low-key (i.e., not funny) comedy, especially with Lullaby Joslin, who carried a ventriloquist’s dummy while riding the range. Although there’s no direct correlation, the 1986 comedy Three Amigos with Steve Martin, Chevy Chase, and Martin Short very well may have found at least some of its inspiration from the Three Mesquiteers series.
A scene from Three Amigos, with (l. to r.) Martin Short, Chevy Chase, and Steve Martin.