Well, not really. Wayne does play a cowboy named Singin’ Sandy Saunders in this early, pre-code Western but his voice was dubbed by someone who didn’t sound anything like Wayne. Wayne was only 25 when he starred in Riders of Destiny and this was six years before Stagecoach made him a star but he already had his famous way of speaking.
Riders of Destiny starts off with Singin’ Sandy riding through the west. When he comes across a wounded sheriff and then witnesses a stagecoach being robbed by Ms. Fay Denton (Cecilia Parker), he knows that he’s reached the town of Destiny. The town is under the control of a land developer named Kincaid (Forrest Taylor). Kincaid and his henchmen have been extorting the local citizens and stealing money from Fay and her father (George “Gabby” Hayes). After Singin’ Sandy reveals his skills with a gun, Kincaid offers him a position in his gang and if Sandy accepts, Kincaid will be unstoppable. Before Sandy’s mysterious appearance, the townspeople wrote to Washington to help and Washington has agreed to send down one of their best agents. Could that agent be traveling in disguise as a singing cowboy?
It’s always difficult for me to take a Singing Cowboy film seriously. (That’s especially true after watching Tim Blake Nelson in The Ballad of Buster Scruggs.) John Wayne is not an actor who was ever meant to be seen playing a guitar and singing a song, even if his voice was dubbed. But Riders of Destiny is not that bad of a programmer. If you can overlook the singing, the story is surprisingly mature and violent and Forrest Taylor is a good villain as the oily Kincaid. (With Kincaid demanding protection money and gunning down anyone who refuses to play it, he has more in common with the type of gangsters who were appearing in Warner Bros. crime films than with the typical western bad guy.) Cecilia Parker, who would eventually be best known for appearing in the wholesome Andy Hardy films, is sexy as Fay and, because this is a pre-code film, she gets away with robbing a stagecoach. With a running time of barely an hour, the action has to move quickly and there’s no need for any padding. Finally, even this early in his career, John Wayne was a perfect western hero, whether he was on his horse chasing the bad guys or walking down a dusty street, singing a song about how the “streets will run with blood” before drawing his guns.
Wayne would go on to play one more Singing Cowboy, in 1935’s The Lawless Range. Again, his voice was dubbed. He later said that he abandoned the Singing Cowboy genre because the children who saw the films would often approach him and ask him to sing one of the songs and they were always disappointed to learn that he couldn’t actually a sing a note. Of course, in 1939, John Ford would select Wayne to play The Ringo Kid in Stagecoach and Wayne would never have to sing again.