If you look at the very early John Wayne films you’ll discover a very different person. First there was the name: it was originally Marion Michael Morrison. Morrison went to USC and played football. He might have gotten his first taste of stardom from silent star and “It girl” Clara Bow. There were rumors that party-girl Bow was “friendly” with the entire USC football team and afterwards showered them with gold cufflinks and bootleg booze.
At over 6 feet tall, the strapping “Duke” Morrison picked up occasional work in the studios hauling sets and scenery during summer breaks from school. In 1926 he landed a better job as personal trainer for Tom Mix, the cowboy matinee idol. As a trainer, Morrison got to go on location and observe how films were made. He even made his screen debut as an extra in a Tom Mix episode called The Great K & A Train Robbery (1926). He’s just a face in the crowd, helplessly looking on in a scene as the lock box is broken and the bad guys ride off, but Morrison decided he liked the life of an actor better than hauling props.
His early roles weren’t featured parts. In fact, Morrison barely got his face on screen playing extras. He played football players in silent films like The Drop Kick (1927) and That Forward Pass (1929). By 1930 he had a new name and was a regular in B-westerns, which he churned out for poverty row studios. Between 1930 and 1933 he made 36 films including: Ride Him, Cowboy (1932), Two Fisted Law (1932), Haunted Gold (1932) and Baby Face (1933), a Pre-Code melodrama with Barbara Stanwyck in which he has a brief scene as an office clerk.
When director John Ford heard there was a former USC football player on the studio lot, he went to meet the young man. “Get down and give me the 3-point position!” Ford demanded. As Duke did, Ford kicked his hands out from under him sending him face down into the dirt. He got up and tackled the director. They both hit the ground laughing and friends for life.
Wayne’s early work for Ford was in “safe” roles. He played a spectator at a racetrack in Hangman’s Horse (1928). He played a midshipman in Salute (1929) and a radioman in the submarine drama Men Without Women (1930). Though short on screen time, these roles allowed Wayne to observe the action and hone his technique. It was Ford’s advice that Duke watch Harry Carey, another cowboy star, and use the example as his own.
The Duke was still struggling for parts when Ford introduced him to director Raoul Walsh. The latter was preparing to shoot Hollywood’s first outdoor talkie, an epic 70-mm film of the great move west called The Big Trail (1930). Walsh cast Duke as the lead, changed his name to John Wayne, upped his salary to $50 a week and moved him off to Yuma, Arizona where the film was being shot.
Shooting The Big Trail was something of a disaster. Walsh lost an eye on the set and by the time the film was released, the Great Depression was in full force. Only two theaters in the country had the projectors to show the 70-mm print. It was back to poverty row B-westerns for another decade for Duke Wayne.
However, in 1939 John Ford had an idea for a western. Ford planned to transpose Chaucer’s twelfth century “Canterbury Tales” to the western frontier. It would be called Stagecoach. Ford signed Claire Trevor to play the female lead (at $15,000). Thomas Mitchell would play a drunk passenger (for $12,000) and Donald Meek a tea-totaling whiskey salesman for ($5,416). For the part of the hero, Ford called his friend John Wayne and asked him if he wanted the role for $3,000. He’d be the lowest paid cast member and the last principal character to be cast but it was a job with a paycheck and a measure above the B-movie work he had been doing.
Although it was eclipsed at the Oscars® by Gone with the Wind, Stagecoach became a box office success and Wayne accomplished his first memorable role as “the Ringo Kid.” Production was brutal for Duke. Ford humiliated the novice actor calling him a big oaf, a dumb bastard, grabbing him by the shirt collar and shaking him. “Can’t you walk instead of skipping you god damned fairy?” Ford ranted. Wayne weathered the abuse and emerged an actor.
Nine years later when Ford set out to make what would become his “cavalry trilogy” he called upon the Duke. In Fort Apache (1948), She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949) and Rio Grande (1950), Duke turned in one brilliant performance after another. With his strong presence against the eroded mesas of Monument Valley, Ford and Wayne together created the archetypal western landscape and hero.
While between films for John Ford, director Howard Hawks, a star maker in his own right, cast Wayne as Tom Dunsten in Red River (1948). This story was essentially “Mutiny on the Bounty” in the old west, with Wayne as the dictator Captain Bligh. When Ford saw the picture, his eyes swelled up and he reportedly said, “Why, that big oaf really can act!”
Meanwhile Ford was at work concocting his own Wayne anti-hero and decided to cast the actor as a driven, threatening personality. As Ethan Edwards in The Searchers (1956), Wayne is a revenge-obsessed man. When Indians kidnap his niece, Ethan Edwards sets off to find her. But does he want to save her or kill her? Wayne as Ethan Edwards is terrifying and merciless. The film is one of his best.
In his movies, John Wayne fought in almost every war the United States has waged. He did a tour of on-screen duty in the south pacific during World War II in They Were Expendable (1945), and Sands of Iwo Jima (1949). He was on the ground in Back to Bataan (1945) and in the air in Flying Leathernecks (1951). Ever the red-blooded American, he returned to protect us from the Viet-Cong in The Green Berets (1968), the only pro-Viet Nam movie Hollywood ever made. But this was John Wayne, the most American of us all.
The irony is, with all this fighting Wayne never actually served a day in his life. When James Stewart, Clark Gable, John Ford and Frank Capra enlisted in World War II, the Duke stayed behind to support his family and continue his career. An argument can be made that he perhaps did more of a service for his country on-screen than he could have in the heat of battle.
By the end of World War II, everything in American society was in transistion. Progress was creating new jobs and opportunities but also transforming the landscape, particularly in the Old West. In response to this, both John Ford and Howard Hawks made films that dealt with the vanishing of the old ways. Ford tore down the myth of the hero in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962).
Five years later Howard Hawks took on the question of age. The director was no longer a young maverick adventurer and after almost 30 years as a star, Wayne himself was no longer the young hero. In El Dorado (1967), we find Hawks and Wayne exploring the limitations of age. Rich with comedy and camaraderie, the film is one of Hawks’ best.
By the 1960s, Wayne was unquestionably the screen’s biggest hero. As the great actors of Hollywood like Gary Cooper began disappearing, the Duke just went on and got bigger. He directed the epic cinarama production of The Alamo (1960), casting himself as Davy Crockett. On one hand, The Alamo was the greatest story of the old west, but on the other, it was Wayne’s metaphor for the dark days of McCarthyism. An avid anti-Communist, Wayne saw himself as taking a stand against the evil empire of the Soviet Union. In The Longest Day (1962), the epic setting was Normandy Beach. Wayne returned to the frontier for How the West Was Won (1963).
Years went by and still Wayne remained active as Hollywood’s studio system crumbled and new faces emerged. In 1969 Wayne was finally awarded the Oscar® which had eluded him for his performance in True Grit (1969). More films followed: Chisum (1970), Brannigan (1975), Rooster Cogburn (1975) reprised his award winning character from True Grit, and his final film, The Shootist (1976). In these last films, Wayne reveals a rare humor that almost verges on self-parody. He had finally come to accept his iconic status as the last western hero, a hard drinking, cigarette smoking, two-gunned, smart mouthed survivor. But that’s how most moviegoers remember him and why he remains one of Hollywood’s most enduring stars.
December 22 2010 –
6:00am [Western] Rio Lobo (1970)
A Civil War veteran searches for the traitor behind a friend’s death.
Cast: John Wayne, Jorge Rivero, Jennifer O’Neill, Jack Elam Dir: Howard Hawks C-114 mins, TV-PG
8:00am [Western] Fort Apache (1948)
An experienced cavalry officer tries to keep his new, by-the-books commander from triggering an Indian war.
Cast: John Wayne, Henry Fonda, Shirley Temple, Pedro Armendariz Dir: John Ford BW-128 mins, TV-PG
10:15am [Western] She Wore A Yellow Ribbon (1949)
An aging Cavalry officer tries to prevent an Indian war in the last days before his retirement.
Cast: John Wayne, Joanne Dru, John Agar, Ben Johnson Dir: John Ford C-104 mins, TV-PG
12:00pm [Western] Rio Grande (1950)
A cavalry unit located on the Mexican border must control Indian uprisings.
Cast: John Wayne, Maureen O’Hara, Ben Johnson, Claude Jarman Jr. Dir: John Ford BW-105 mins, TV-PG
1:45pm [Western] Searchers, The (1956)
An Indian-hating Civil War veteran tracks down the tribe that slaughtered his family and kidnapped his niece.
Cast: John Wayne, Jeffrey Hunter, Vera Miles, Ward Bond Dir: John Ford C-119 mins, TV-PG
3:45pm [Western] 3 Godfathers (1948)
Three outlaws on the run risk their freedom and their lives to return a newborn to civilization.
Cast: John Wayne, Pedro Armendariz, Harry Carey Jr., Ward Bond Dir: John Ford C-106 mins, TV-G
5:45pm [Western] Sons of Katie Elder, The (1965)
A ranch-owner’s four sons vow to avenge their father’s death.
Cast: John Wayne, Dean Martin, Martha Hyer, Michael Anderson Jr. Dir: Henry Hathaway C-122 mins, TV-14
8:00pm [Western] True Grit (1969)
A young girl recruits an aging U.S. marshal to help avenge her father’s death.
Cast: John Wayne, Glen Campbell, Kim Darby, Jeremy Slate Dir: Henry Hathaway C-128 mins, TV-14
10:15pm [Western] Rio Bravo (1959)
A sheriff enlists a drunk, a kid and an old man to help him fight off a ruthless cattle baron.
Cast: John Wayne, Dean Martin, Ricky Nelson, Angie Dickinson Dir: Howard Hawks C-141 mins, TV-14
12:45am [Western] McLintock! (1963)
A cattle baron fights to tame the West and his estranged wife.
Cast: John Wayne, Maureen O’Hara, Patrick Wayne, Yvonne De Carlo Dir: Andrew V. McLaglen C-127 mins, TV-PG
3:00am [Western] Big Jake (1971)
A rancher leads the posse out to recover his kidnapped grandson.
Cast: John Wayne, Richard Boone, Patrick Wayne, Christopher Mitchum Dir: George Sherman C-110 mins, TV-14
5:00am [Western] Man From Monterey, The (1933)
A U.S. Cavalry officer tries to protect Spanish landowners in California.
Cast: John Wayne, Duke, Ruth Hall, Luis Alberni Dir: Mack V. Wright BW-57 mins, TV-G