John Wayne, an American Icon
On the 100th anniversary of the birth of the man who is arguably the most famous Trojan of all, film historian Rick Jewell reflects on John Wayne, seeing him as the star in his own improbable rags-to-riches drama.
Marion Morrison was a USC football player who never scored a touchdown or played in the Rose Bowl, but he ultimately redefined the meaning of the term All-American.While USC has many prominent alumni, John Wayne (as Hollywood executives insisted Morrison be renamed) may be the most famous individual who ever studied here. Consider this: Despite the fact that he died 28 years ago, a Harris Poll released last year placed the actor third among America’s favorite film stars. He was the only deceased person on the list, and the only one who has appeared in the poll every year since it was first published in 1993. His popularity transcends cultures. Thanks to a unique, unparalleled movie career that spanned five decades and lives on in DVDs, John Wayne is an iconic figure recognized worldwide.
Here’s one startling statistic: John Wayne appeared in more films than any other star of the sound era. In the 1970s, when many of his peers had retired and such Hollywood greats as James Stewart and Henry Fonda were working mostly in television, Wayne was still making feature films, still drawing customers to the box office.
These achievements notwithstanding, it is fascinating that his first dozen years were spent essentially as a third stringer – an also-ran in the race for cinematic stardom. His early struggles are part of the often-overlooked part of Wayne’s life – his embodiment of the American Dream.
Most major stars are recognized and embraced by the public right away – Greta Garbo, Clark Gable, James Cagney, Katharine Hepburn and Errol Flynn, for example, all shot to the top very early in their careers. In fact, there remains today a strong feeling among movie executives that if a performer doesn’t catch fire quickly, he or she probably never will.
Marion Robert Morrison, born in Winterset, Iowa, reared in Palmdale and Glendale, California, didn’t contemplate a life in the movies until USC football coach Howard Jones helped him land a part-time job as a prop man and day laborer at the Fox Studios in 1927. Though only 20 years old, Morrison was no stranger to hard work, having toiled at a wide variety of jobs since he was a boy.
One director at Fox, John Ford, was especially impressed with Morrison’s strength, tenacity and willingness to take on the toughest jobs. A brilliant, autocratic filmmaker who could sometimes be mean, even sadistic, Ford loved to challenge people in order to test their character. One day he began playing a dirty trick on Morrison, who proceeded to demonstrate a Trojan tackling technique on the esteemed director. Instead of getting fired, as he probably should have been, the kid earned Ford’s respect; so began, in Morrison’s words, “the most profound relationship of my life and, I believe, my greatest friendship.” Ford and Wayne would become a magical team in Hollywood … but that came later.
Wayne (then Morrison), a good student and overachiever at Glendale High, where he was president of the senior class in 1925, came to USC on a football scholarship. Football scholarships then were not what they are now. They covered tuition ($280 a year) and one meal a day at the training table if you were on the regular squad.
“The training table was a five-days-a-week thing,” recalled Eugene C. Clarke, a former USC trustee who was a boyhood, high school and college friend of Wayne’s, in a 1979 Trojan Family article. “We sort of had to scratch around for our other meals and for all of our meals on weekends. We were always pretty hungry by Monday morning.”
One of Wayne’s campus jobs was to “sling hash” at sorority houses. He joined a fraternity, Sigma Chi, along with several of his high school friends. One of them, Ralf “Pexy” Eckles, recalled in a newspaper interview that Wayne once got out of a college fight by putting ketchup in his mouth and letting it leak out.
“The guys let him go because they thought he was bleeding. He would have got away with it, if he hadn’t started to laugh.”
After breaking his collarbone while surfing and losing his football scholarship, Wayne had to leave USC shortly after beginning his junior year. (His younger brother, Robert, later made more of a contribution to USC football as a fullback, earning a letter in 1932.)
Clarke remembered this as a hard time for Wayne. “Duke was in bad shape, financially. He owed money to the fraternity for his dues, room and board, and he didn’t have a dime. The fraternity was urging him to pay up; he felt his football playing days were over because of his bad shoulder. So he did what he felt he had to do. He quit school and went to work at the studios.”
His friend Eckles found him a place to live. “He had no place to go and he knew my folks, so I brought him home and he lived upstairs over our garage for a while.”
Wayne continued with grip work and other blue-collar jobs at Fox. It’s difficult to determine exactly when he moved from behind the camera to in front of it, but sources indicate that his first bit of acting occurred in 1928. However, there is no doubt that his initial breakthrough came in 1930 when Fox elevated him to the starring role in its $1 million epic western, The Big Trail. Not fancying his name, the Fox executives changed it to John Wayne, a straightforward moniker that he never completely accepted. He always preferred to be called by his childhood nickname, “Duke.”
Wayne’s leap from small supporting parts to the lead in an expensive production also provoked the studio to assign a combination elocution teacher/acting coach to improve the neophyte’s delivery of lines and thespian abilities. But Wayne didn’t take well to the overly rigid, academic training, causing his tutor to quit in disgust. “If you live to be 100 years old,” the tutor said, “you will never become an actor.”
The director of The Big Trail, Raoul Walsh, was not disturbed one bit by this. His formula for a western star was “six foot three or over, no hips and a face that fits in a sombrero.” John Wayne matched the description perfectly.
The Big Trail turned out to be a flop. The film actually holds up well, but it was released just as the worsening Depression was forcing many fans to abandon their movie-going habits. Unfortunately and quite unfairly, a significant portion of the blame for its failure landed on Duke’s broad shoulders. Having apparently bungled his big chance at stardom, he soon found himself ensconced in B-cowboy hell, where he would remain for the rest of the decade.
A bit of background. In the ’20s, ’30s and ’40s, several different studios and independent production outfits made B-westerns. Produced on tiny budgets, these films were aimed at rural audiences and the so-called “Saturday matinee” crowds of kids in big cities. As one who spent many hours of my childhood at the Belmont Theater in Nashville toward the end of the “Saturday Matinee” era, I remember that even though those glorious Saturdays always featured action films and cartoons and serials, there was often more mayhem in the audience than there was on the screen.
Those who made B-westerns occupied the bottom rung on the Hollywood totem pole. Since the films were generally shot in less than a week, a member of a B-western team worked long, hard hours for comparatively small wages. There was absolutely nothing glamorous about the vocation. It was the Hollywood equivalent of being a plumber.
Still, it was a job and jobs were scarce in 1930s America. If you were the leading man – as Wayne was in more than 60 of these pictures – and were willing to accept as much work as they could throw at you, you could make a very decent living.
B-cowboy plots, characters, dramatic situations and romantic relationships varied little from picture to picture. Neither did the titles. During the ’30s, our hero appeared in films titled Desert Trail, Sagebrush Trail, Telegraph Trail, The Oregon Trail, The Lonely Trail and The Trail Beyond. And let us not forget that The Big Trail led him to all these lesser trails.
Wayne made cheap westerns for Columbia, Warner Bros. and Universal as well as fringe studios like Mascot, Monogram and Republic. Years later, he recalled: “Some of these early westerns were done in four days. I’d change my clothes, read the lines, change my clothes, read some more lines. We’d start before dawn using flares to light the close-ups. When the sun would come out, we’d do medium-range shots. In full daylight, we’d do distance shots, following the sun up one hill and down the other. It didn’t matter who was directing. They had no chance and I had no chance.”
Yet, despite the absurd schedules and the absence of depth in his roles, Wayne took advantage of the experience to refine his craft. He learned to throw away bad lines of dialogue and began to build up his own style and screen persona. The unique walk, the special way he straddled a horse, the drawl, the squint, the “no fooling” glare; indeed, the full catalogue of expressions and gestures and vocalizations that would later become a gold mine for parody comedians such as Rich Little began to take shape during Wayne’s B-cowboy days.
While he was ambitious and clearly longed for better parts in bigger pictures, Wayne remained the consummate professional throughout the ’30s. He was always on time, always knew his lines and was always ready to do whatever was necessary to get the best possible picture in the can. This often included performing his own stunts.
Only once did he balk and that was when they turned him into a singing cowboy. “Singin’ Sandy Saunders” first appeared in Riders of Destiny (1933), to be followed by other guitar-toting, harmonizing cowpokes in films released over the next two years. Kids loved the characters but John Wayne didn’t, especially when fans would ask him to croon during personal appearances. Since he couldn’t sing a lick (his songs had been dubbed), he informed his producers that he would play no more melodious characters. This paved the way for Gene Autry, Roy Rogers and others who would soon turn the singing cowboy into an absolute rage.
The most amazing thing about Wayne’s B-cowboy phase is that he ultimately transcended it. Being a performer in B-westerns was akin to being in the Mafia – once in, it was almost impossible to get out. In 1937, for example, the most popular B-cowboy stars – as listed in an annual exhibitor poll conducted by the Motion Picture Herald – were (in order) Buck Jones, George O’Brien, Gene Autry, William Boyd, Ken Maynard, Dick Foran, John Wayne, Tim McCoy, Hoot Gibson and another former Trojan, Buster Crabbe. Obviously, none ever made it in Class A pictures except Wayne, though Autry and Boyd would ultimately prosper in television.
In that same year, executives at RKO Radio Pictures had decided that George O’Brien, their resident western star, was slipping and began considering actors who might replace him. Some members of the organization suggested Wayne, provoking Ned Depinet, head of the company’s distribution arm, to send the following telegram to corporate president Leo Spitz: “[We] believe would be mistake to distribute John Wayne westerns. He is in same category as dozen others with disadvantage having been sold cheaply and our opinion little prospect of gaining popularity… . He is one of the poorest of so called western stars, seems miscast and his pictures doing little at Universal. We believe would be better to go ahead with George Shelley who has not been identified with cheap western pictures and with whom we would have chance building … a worthwhile singing western star like Autry.”
And, of course, we all remember George Shelley.
Wayne’s savior was his old tackling dummy John Ford, now the possessor of an Academy Award for directing The Informer. Though Ford cut his teeth on westerns during the silent days, he had not made a cowboy movie since the coming of sound. In 1939, he decided to return to the genre with an A-movie titled Stagecoach. He cast John Wayne in the key role of the Ringo Kid, despite the objections of producer Walter Wanger, United Artists studio executives and some of the cast members. The crusty Ford justified his choice by telling Wayne’s detractors, “We can get him for peanuts,” but there was more to it than that. He had been watching Wayne’s films and sensed he was a developing talent who might prosper if showcased properly.
Shooting the film in Monument Valley, which became his favorite location, Ford treated Wayne cruelly and contemptuously. There was, however, a shrewd strategy behind the bullying. First, he wanted to break Wayne of certain bad acting habits. Second, he wanted the more established actors – including Claire Trevor, Thomas Mitchell and John Carradine – to feel sorry for this long shot so they would help him get his performance right. It worked. Stagecoach was nominated for a Best Picture Oscar in an extraordinary year that included Gone with the Wind, The Wizard of Oz, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Ninotchka, Wuthering Heights and many other memorable films. Thanks to Ford and the Ringo Kid, John Wayne would never again be considered a bottom-feeder in the celluloid food chain.
Stagecoach, however, did not transform Duke into an overnight star, as is often claimed. It did lift him out of B-westerns and, in fact, out of B-movies altogether, propelling the actor into better pictures with bigger budgets and enabling him to work with more accomplished creative talent. It didn’t hurt his pocketbook either, for he could now command more than “peanuts” from the studios. Still, throughout the 1940s, he made most of his films for Republic Pictures, which was not considered a major studio, and when he did appear in an MGM or Universal or Paramount production, he usually took second or third billing behind such individuals as Joan Crawford, Marlene Dietrich, Randolph Scott, Ray Milland, Claudette Colbert and Robert Montgomery.
Even though Wayne had yet to ascend to the upper reaches of stardom, the 1940s were a crucial time for him, because the mythic forces that would coalesce around his image as the quintessential American male began to take shape during this period. For one thing, he continued making westerns – more ambitious westerns – where his heroic character traits were already well-established. He then transplanted those traits into a contemporary genre: the World War II combat movie.
In pictures such as Flying Tigers, The Fighting Seabees, Back to Bataan and They Were Expendable, Wayne became the consummate military leader – tough, intelligent, indomitable. Is it any wonder that, by the end of World War II, the correlation between John Wayne and America was already coming into focus? In his very being, he represented both the pathfinder who made the country safe for settlement and civilized values and the modern defender of a benevolent philosophy of life molded by the hardy pioneers.
The final miracle was Wayne’s transformation into the biggest of movie stars. He accomplished this feat in the late 1940s, thanks to such films as Red River, Sands of Iwo Jima and She Wore a Yellow Ribbon. In 1949, at the age of 42, he finally cracked the Top Ten poll of box-office popularity, as charted by the Motion Picture Herald. In 1950, he became number one. Remarkably, he would remain in the Top Ten every year except one until 1973, when he was approaching 70 years of age. The post-war American public embraced the man and would not let go of him – even when he did things that stars weren’t supposed to do, such as speak his mind on all manner of political and social issues.
John Wayne was an informed citizen, eager to share his opinions with the public at large. Being politically conservative, these opinions proved upsetting to many, especially during the turbulent 1960s and ’70s. But even those who disagreed with the man generally respected him because it was obvious that he cared passionately about his country and its people. Also, like so many of the characters he played, he was clearly an individualist without slavish attachment to any political ideology. When, for example, he supported President Carter’s decision to turn over sovereignty of the Panama Canal to the Republic of Panama, many of his right-wing brethren were shocked. Some claimed he must have fallen off his horse too many times. But he didn’t care whom he offended. The Democratic president’s decision made sense according to Wayne’s own personal code of beliefs, and he spoke up to defend it.
His delightful sense of humor was another endearing trait. He loved a good joke, often at his own expense. He never took himself, his ego or his accomplishments too seriously, as evidenced by his appearances on Laugh-In and other television shows where he gleefully lampooned his own image. In 1974, he accepted an invitation to go to Harvard and allow his chief antagonists – antiwar protesters and Eastern intellectuals – to roast him. Naturally, he ended up barbecuing a few of them in the process. One of his first remarks: “You know, I accepted this invitation over a wonderful invitation to a Jane Fonda rally.”
Although he won a Best Actor Oscar for his performance in True Grit, many snippy critics never considered Wayne a good actor. They consistently viewed his work with the same dismissive attitude of that long-forgotten acting teacher. These arbiters of taste did not believe Duke ever learned to act; rather, in their opinion, he simply played himself in picture after picture. While it is true that he would have had difficulty taking on certain parts, such as those enacted by James Cagney or Laurence Olivier or Fred Astaire, it is equally true that these great performers would have been lost trying to play some of his memorable roles.
In fact, Wayne’s finest acting was reserved for characters quite different from the Ringo Kid and the other white-hatted heroes he portrayed in so many pictures. When asked to play flawed men of near-volcanic temperament, he embodied them with an intensity that is frightening to behold. Take a look at psychologically unstable cattle baron Tom Dunson in Red River, for example. Dunson is a cowboy version of Captain Bligh, whose herd is taken from him by his adoptive son (Montgomery Clift) because of his unpredictable, destructive behavior. The climactic confrontation between the two men is nothing short of galvanizing.
Wayne gave an even more extraordinary performance as the tortured loner Ethan Edwards in The Searchers. Though viewed as “just another western” by most critics when it was released in 1956, The Searchers has been ranked in fifth position in the influential Sight & Sound poll of the greatest films ever made. It has also exerted a powerful influence on the work of such exceptional contemporary film directors as Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese and George Lucas. Edwards was Wayne’s favorite role, and he named one of his sons Ethan after the character.
John Wayne was always considered a man’s man because of his contributions to masculine genres like the western and the war picture. But we should not forget that he was also a woman’s man. Despite the fact that he described himself as “feo” (ugly), Wayne held his own with a dazzling array of beautiful and talented actresses, including Marlene Dietrich, Jean Arthur, Joan Crawford, Donna Reed, Claudette Colbert, Lana Turner, Lauren Bacall, Susan Hayward, Janet Leigh, Sophia Loren, Angie Dickinson and Katharine Hepburn.
One suspects that his favorite leading lady must have been the bewitching Maureen O’Hara. They worked together five times, but one film stands out. There are few movies more fun than The Quiet Man, a romantic donnybrook pitting the bullheaded American male Sean Thornton (Wayne) against the ungovernable Irish female Mary Kate Danaher (O’Hara).
Stardom did not change John Wayne or affect his values. He remained devoted to his family, his profession and his country until the end of his life. He never forgot his university either. When he was dying of cancer at the UCLA Medical Center in 1979, he would often make the rounds of the hospital wearing a UCLA baseball cap. Being unfailingly polite, he would tip his cap to all he encountered. It turned out the Bruin headgear was a false front. Underneath, resting on his head was a USC cap, revealing that his true colors were cardinal and gold.
USC reciprocated his affection. The university awarded him an honorary doctorate in 1968 and the Asa V. Call Achievement Award in 1977, and he has a bust in Heritage Hall. His daughter-in-law Gretchen, president of his production company, Batjac, said that he remained a huge USC sports fan until he died. “You didn’t want to be around him if the Trojans lost,” she said recently.
When Wayne was gravely ill, Maureen O’Hara and a number of other celebrities petitioned Congress to award him the Congressional Gold Medal. O’Hara suggested that the award should simply read, “John Wayne, American.” For once Congress did the sensible thing and followed her instructions.
The equation of John Wayne and America has subsequently been interpreted in a multitude of ways by those who admired him and those who did not. But no one can debate the fact that his life was the stuff of a Horatio Alger novel. Is it any wonder that he became, in his own words, “an old-fashioned, honest-to-goodness, flag-waving patriot?”
Growing up in America made it possible for a poor boy from the Midwest to achieve wealth and fame and happiness. There have been many examples of the American Dream in our history, but few rival the remarkable story of this ex-paper carrier, ex-delivery boy, ex-movie theater usher, ex-football player, ex-prop man and USC dropout who became one of the iconic figures of the 20th century.
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Rick Jewell is the Hugh M. Hefner Professor of American Film at the USC School of Cinematic Arts and an expert on westerns. He is the author of The Golden Age of Cinema: Hollywood 1929-1945 and The RKO Story, co-author of Primary Cinema Resources and has published articles in journals including The Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television, Film History and Film Quarterly.