The ABC's of Film Noir
The ABC's of Film Noir

Big Jim McLain (1952) Classic Movie Review 82

Big Jim McLain (1952)

Big Jim McLain (1952)

I've had a belly full of this East Texas cotton-chopping jerk.

Welcome to today’s show, Big Jim McLain (1952), my name is John. As always you can subscribe to the show on iTunes or follow the links to social media in the podcast show notes. You can also go to to read notes, bios, and other random movie thoughts. Remember this show is completely free and independent. All I ask is that you jump over to iTunes and give me a review.

Today’s movie is the really, really, really bad Big Jim McLain (1952) featuring John Wayne, Nancy Olson, and James Arness. This movie is supposed to be a film noir and a political thriller. I don’t quite see it. The only thing good about this movie is that it so bad you will get a few chuckles.

It is the first movie in which John Wayne played a modern non-western lawman. He went on in later movies to play a few other modern crime stoppers.


John Wayne played the title role of Jim McLain US House of Representative’s investigator. Wayne was covered in Episode 2 – Chisum (1970).

Nancy Olson was cast in the role of Nancy Vallon, widow, love interest, and provider of information. Olson was covered in Episode 81 – Sunset Blvd (1950).

James Arness played Jim McLain’s partner Mal Baxter, a real hothead. Arness was covered in Episode 50 – Battleground (1949).

Alan Napier played the head communist Sturak. To me, Napier will always be the butler Alfred from “Batman” 1966-1968.

Veda Ann Borg played the role of Madge, the landlady. This actress started as a model but got a contract with Paramount. She later moved to Warner Brothers where she had 15 roles before a 1939 auto accident resulted in her having total facial reconstruction. She continued to make films although in a great many she was a “brassy, man-hungry, lower-class sexpot.” Her last memorable role was as Blind Nell in the Alamo (1960). Borg died at the age of 58 from cancer with over 100 roles to her credit.

Hans Conried played the role of Robert Henried. Hans Conried was born in Baltimore in 1917. He studied acting at Columbia University and played many major classical roles on stage. He was a member of Orson Welles’ Mercury Theatre Company, and was on all the early radio shows including “My Friend Irma,” and the “Edgar Bergen – Charlie McCarthy Show”.

He was a prolific voice actor and was on “The Woody Woodpecker Show” 1944-1948, The Bullwinkle shows 1960 and 1961 as the voice of Snidely Whiplash, and as the same character on “The Dudley Do-Right Show” 1959-1961. He was the voice of Captain Hook and Mr. Darling in the animated Disney Peter Pan (1953).

He also made dozens of movies. I remember him mostly for The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T. (1953) as Dr. Terwilliker and The Affairs of Dobie Gillis (1953) as Professor Amos Pomfritt.

Of course, Paul Fix was the uncredited voice of Chauncey. Fix was covered in Episode 15 – The Undefeated (1969).

Harry Morgan was the uncredited narrator voice. Harry Morgan was a prolific character actor that starred in over 100 films. He is now known mostly as “Col. Sherman T. Potter” on “M*A*S*H” 1974-1983.


Big Jim McLain (1952)

Big Jim McLain (1952)

This movie is so pretentious that a narrator (Henry Morgan) quotes a speech about Daniel Webster and the strength of the country. It then switches to U.S. House of Representatives, House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) meeting and talks about how brave the members are for standing up to the attacks against them. They have a guy testify and they get mad when he uses the 5th Amendment protection.

Right off the bat this movie misses the point of HUAC. They show HUAC investigators Jim McLain (John Wayne) and Mal Baxter (James Arness) complaining about how much investigating they have done and the guys just walk away. But HUAC investigators didn’t go after crimes, they simply tried to find out if people had communist leanings not matter how they got the evidence. If people were committing the crimes described, such as espionage, they would not be pulled before HUAC. They would be tracked and arrested by the FBI.

Anyway, Jim mentions that Mal hates the communists because they shot at him in Korea. The pair head back to their office and the boss sends them off on a plum assignment to Hawaii Called Operation Pineapple. Travel has changed as they get off the airplane to music and hula dances. Every passenger gets a flower lei and a kiss.

They are met right away by a friendly newspaper man that wants to exchange information. They rent a duplex on the beach, on government per diem! On Sunday morning they head out to Pearl Harbor and catch the picket boat out to the USS Arizona. It is strange to see the tower of the ship without the catwalk above it. As Jim narrates, he mentions that Mal is visiting his brother who is with his shipmates on the Arizona. Those attackers weren’t communist, they were fascists. Jim’s narration reminds everyone of the date of the Pearl Harbor attack that brought the US into World War II in case they forgot. They also show a clip of the USS Arizona steaming along.

They start handing out subpoenas to party members in hopes that they will rat on higher ups. Jim starts checking doctors’ offices to see if anyone is treating Willie Nomaka, a communist party treasurer that supposedly had a nervous breakdown.  When he gets to the office of psychiatrist Dr. Gelster (Gayne Whitman) he meets his secretary, Nancy Vallon (Nancy Olson). Nancy gives every bit of information except what he is being treated for.

Jim asks her for a date because he is a red-blooded American and she accepts. She then reveals that she is a widow.

Party leader Sturak (Alan Napier) drops by. Dr. Gelster’s house and is told that all the top people are underground. Sturak tells the doctor to get rid of Nomaka. The doctor calls Nancy for the address of Nomaka.

Back at the beach Jim and Mal are meeting with the heads of all the local unions to get assurances that they will help with the investigations. Apparently, they take the weekends off and Jim and Nancy do all the tourist stuff. Nancy and Jim spend a lot of time staring at each other and not talking. Nancy falls hard and she admits that Jim reminders her of her dead husband. He shows her his investigator badge and proposes to her.

Jim and Mal get a tip from a former communist Max that Nomaka has been drinking at all the local dives. He gives them an address. When Jim gets there he runs into Nomaka’s landlady, Madge (Veda Ann Borg). She gives him the information that Nomaka had a breakdown and that the doctor had just been packing his stuff.

A couple of shippers come in to pick up Nomaka’s trunk. One gets smart with Jim and he gets the one punch knock down from Jim. They release the trunk. Hard-hearted Hanna the Vamp of Savannah. She puts the full court press on Jim but he evades. Before he leaves, she mentions that Nomaka has an ex-wife (Madame Soo Yong) working at the leper colony.

Jim has the shipping truck detained and they search the trunk and follow the truck after it is released. They discover the location where the trunk was delivered. In the evidence from the trunk, they find that 10 big wig commies have gathered on the island. Jim goes to the leper colony while Mal checks out sanitariums looking for Nomaka. Jim meets Mrs. Nomaka and she says she left the communist party and came to the leper colony to atone for her crimes. Mrs. Nomaka says a letter indicates Willie is returning to the religion of his youth.

Jim and a translator go to a Shinto temple. They are told that Willie Nomaka had been at the temple and raved about killing his brother although his wife says he had no brother. The local police let Mal know that Dr. Gelster has been calling a certain sanitarium and he goes there with Offier Jones and a warrant. The tough guard lets Mal in with the warrant and he finds Nomaka. The guard says he looks like he is on junk instead of alcohol. They can’t get any info out of Nomaka.

The former commie Max, that they have been working with shows them his replacement and the new man, Whitey (Robert Keys), is running off a commie. Robert Henried  (Hans Conried ) comes in and delivers a rambling diatribe about history and communism. Filler?

Jim and Mal meet with an immigrant couple whose son has turned communist. They reveal that they haven’t seen their soon since before World War II. But his picture is in the paper and it’s Whitey!

Madge calls Jim and says she has info about Nomaka but will only provide it if he will take her out. She takes him on a bar tour before she will give him the information she has. She is making a show for everyone around. Nancy ends up on a date with a naval officer. Madge finally gives Jim the letter but it’s in Japanese. Then Madge’s boyfriend comes in and raises cane. Madge drags him out by his thumb. Jim has the naval officer translate the letter while he and Nancy dance.

The next morning they find out that the letter tells that Nomaka and company sabotaged a ship and accidentally killed Nomaka’s childhood friend. The Navy wants Jim to give a fake letter back to Madge.

Madge is really happy to see Jim back. She warns him that her boyfriend doesn’t want him around. Mal goes to a swinging part of town. He walks into a house where Japanese people are playing some type of game. The shipper comes out of the back and slugs Mal. Jim gets a call from the police that Mal is dead. He makes the id at the morgue. Jim spends the next three weeks looking for Mal’s killer. Eventually, he takes Nancy to the club where Nomaka’s trunk was delivered earlier. All of the communists are there including the shipping guy that slugged Mal. He knows the commies are listening and he gives them fake information.

The police have also bugged the commie’s room and hear Dr. Gelster say that he killed Mal by accident when giving him sodium pentothal, truth serum. Naval intelligence helps them track the commies. Sturak calls a meeting and Whitey is there. Sturak wants Dr. Gelster to confess to HUAC that he is a communist. Their big plan is to cause a shipping strike to cut off supplies to the war in Korea. All except three of the cell members are to be sacrificed for the plan.

Jim and some sailors leave for the commie meeting. They drop the navy guys off at the gate. Jim and the reporter raid the meeting. Jim hits the shipping guy again and a brawl breaks out. The police show up and arrest everyone.

They have a HUAC meeting in Hawaii and the commies all plead the 5th and get off. But in reality, there is conspiracy, accessory to murder, sabatoge, and so on. Nancy meets Jim at the dock and they hear the Marine Corp hymn as a diverse set of American Marines board a ship for Korea. Jim says there stands the Union in response to Daniel Webster.


The film was shot on location in Hawaii in about 6 weeks.

The film was rushed to release to beat John Wayne’s Jet Pilot and The Quiet Man.

Nancy Olson though this was a bad script and was a hard-core Democrat. She figured a six-week vacation in. Hawaii and a chance to work with John Wayne wouldn’t be bad. She though no one would ever see them film but was shocked by how often it was on TV.

The film has a cult following due to its campy anti-commie theme. In parts of Europe the title of the film has been changed to Marijuana and made the commies drug dealers with dubbing.

World-Famous Short Summary – Island girl lands a big city boy

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Beware the moors

Big Jim McLain (1952)


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