John Wayne’s hockey movie was supposed to be called Hell On Ice, originally, before Hollywood’s self-censoring prudery police at the Hays Office objected, which is when it shifted to Idol of the Crowds. Already an established star of the saddle and six-gun, Wayne was trying to spread his wings in the mid-1930s, broaden his audience — well, Universal was, anyway, when they signed him to a six-movie deal, not one of them a western. Conflictcast him as a boxer, Sea Spoilers as an upstanding officer of the U.S. Coast Guard (both 1936); he played a trucker in California Straight Ahead, a pearl diver in Adventure’s End, and a newsreel cameraman in I Cover The War! (all 1937).
I haven’t seen any of those, so I can’t say whether they’re more or less ridiculous than Idol of the Crowds, which was also released in ’37. I can report that Wayne sinks himself into the role of Johnny Hanson, a former hockey star now living in northern Maine, raising prize chickens. When the manager of the big-league New York Panthers shows up with his chequebook to see if Johnny will sign up, save the team, Johnny turns him down. “Thanks just the same, but I think I’d better stick with the chickens,” is actually the line he delivers, and I quote. “New York — it’s too big, too many people. Besides, I’d feel kinda foolish goin’ clear down there just to play hockey. Seems like a man oughta have a regular job. I want to build something and see it grow.”
But of course, the chickens can wait: the money’s too good to refuse, so off Johnny goes. From there on in, the plot is cut from hoary old cloth, the one with the gamblers-lean-on-him-to-throw-the-finals-but-no-way-is-he-going-to-bend-to-their-nefarious-will-plus-of-course-in-thwarting-their-plot-he-also-gets-the-girl pattern. At one point in a pivotal game against the Wizards, he fakes a fall into the boards, gets hauled off the ice by his teammates, rushed out to a waiting ambulance, and over to Roosevelt Hospital where — surprise! He’s fine, not concussed at all, nary a contusion on him, pretending he’d been knocked out was all part of his clever plan to fool and thereby foil the bad guys.
It’s all as fabulously hokey as it sounds. And the hockey? Some of the wide shots of the action at the Polar Palace borrow NHL footage from (I’m assuming) Madison Square Garden, showing actual Detroit Red Wings battling authentic New York Rangers. I think they’re Red Wings; the unmistakable bulk and baldness of Ching Johnson is enough to confirm the Rangers.
Closer in, when director Arthur Lubin turns his camera to his own cast … well, like most of the hockey you see in movies — and it’s even more pronounced in the many that came out in the ’30s — it’s just absurd. That John Wayne couldn’t really skate is apparent from the first stride he takes. To his credit (if not the movie’s), he knew it, and felt kinda foolish about the whole thing. “I’m from Southern California,” he’s quoted as having said in Scott Eyman’s 2015 biography, John Wayne: The Life and Legend, “I’ve never been on a pair of goddamn skates in my life.”
“He always remembered the experience with a sense of burning humiliation,” writes Eyman, who rates Idol of the Crowdsa “real stiff.”
An ice skating rink had been rented for 24 hours, during which all the hockey scenes would be shot. Wayne’s memory was that he could not skate at all. “My ankles are rubbing on the ice, and I can’t even stand up, but they pushed me around … I was in the hospital for two fucking days after that.”
Wayne did it, because, “This was the Depression. If you wanted work, you did what they told you to do.”