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John Wayne, an American Icon


On the 100th anniversary of John Wayne's birth, film historian Rick Jewell focuses on the man who is probably the most prolific Trojan of all time, seeing him as the hero of his own unlikely rags-to-riches drama.

Marion Morrison

Marion Morrison was a USC football player who never scored a touchdown or appeared in the Rose Bowl, but he did redefine the word "All-American" in the process. Though USC has a long list of notable alumni, John Wayne (as Hollywood executives demanded Morrison be renamed) may be the most well-known. Consider the following: About the fact that he died 28 years ago, the actor was ranked third among America's favorite film stars in a Harris Poll published last year. He was the only one on the list who had died, as well as the only one who had participated in the poll every year since it began in 1993. His appeal cuts through all races. John Wayne is a worldwide legend thanks to a rare, unrivaled film career that spanned five decades and continues to live on in DVDs dvdplay.

Here's an interesting fact: John Wayne starred in more films during the sound period than any other actor. Wayne was already producing feature films and attracting audiences to the box office in the 1970s when many of his contemporaries had aged and such Hollywood greats as James Stewart and Henry Fonda were mainly involved in television.

Despite these accomplishments, it's interesting to consider that his first dozen years were spent largely as a third-stringer – an afterthought in the chase for movie stardom. Wayne's early hardships are an often-overlooked aspect of his life – his personification of the American Dream.

COPYRIGHT_WI: Published on https://washingtonindependent.com/ebv/john-wayne-an-american-icon/ by Landon Morton on 2021-06-30T10:05:00.000Z

Most big stars are immediately recognized and welcomed by the audience – Greta Garbo, Clark Gable, James Cagney, Katharine Hepburn, and Errol Flynn, for example, all rose to the top of their professions quickly. In reality, many movie executives still believe that if an actor doesn't catch fire soon, he or she will never catch fire.

Marion Robert Morrison

Marion Robert Morrison, who was born in Winterset, Iowa, and raised in Palmdale and Glendale, California, didn't consider a career in the film industry until USC football coach Howard Jones helped him find a part-time job as a prop man and day laborer at the Fox Studios in 1927. Morrison, despite his young age, was no stranger to hard work, having worked in a number of jobs since he was a child.

Morrison's courage, tenacity, and determination to take on the most difficult jobs inspired one Fox director, John Ford. Ford, a genius, an autocratic filmmaker who could be cruel, even sadistic at times, liked to put people through their paces in order to test their character. He started a dirty trick on Morrison one day, who then proceeded to demonstrate a Trojan tackling tactic on the revered manager. Instead of being fired, as he probably should have been, the kid won Ford's admiration, and thus started “the most profound relationship of my life and, I think, my greatest friend,” in Morrison's words. In Hollywood, Ford and Wayne will form a magical duo... That, though, came later.

Wayne (then Morrison) came to USC on a football scholarship after being a decent student and overachiever at Glendale High School, where he was president of the senior class in 1925. Football scholarships were not as popular back then as they are now. If you were on the regular team, they paid for fees ($280 a year) and one lunch per day at the training table.

In a 1979 Trojan Family post, Eugene C. Clarke, a retired USC trustee and a boyhood, high school, and college friend of Wayne's recounted, "The training table was a five-days-a-week affair." “We had to scrounge for our other dinners, as well as all of our meals on weekends.” By Monday morning, we were always ravenous.”

Wayne's campus work included "slinging hash" at sorority houses. With some of his high school colleagues, he entered Sigma Chi, a fraternity. In a newspaper interview, one of them, Ralf “Sexy” Eckles, remembered Wayne once getting out of a college battle by sticking ketchup in his mouth and making it spill out.

“The guys let him go because he was bleeding,” says the narrator. If he hadn't been laughing, he would have gotten away with it.”

Wayne had to leave USC soon after starting his junior year after cracking his collarbone while surfing and losing his football scholarship. (His younger brother Robert, a fullback who won a letter in 1932, made a bigger contribution to USC football.)

This was a difficult time for Wayne, according to Clarke. “Duke was in financial trouble. He owed the fraternity money for tuition, bed, and board, and he didn't have a penny. The fraternity was pressuring him to pay up because he believed his football career was overdue to his bad shoulder. As a result, he did what he was compelled to do. He dropped out of school to work in the studios.”

Eckles, one of his friends, found him a place to rent. “He was homeless and met my parents, so I took him in and he slept upstairs over our garage for a while.”

Wayne went to work at Fox as a grip and in other blue-collar positions. It's impossible to say when he made the transition from behind the camera to in front of it, but reports say his first acting role was in 1928. However, it is undeniable that his first big break came in 1930 when Fox cast him in the lead role in The Big Trail, a $1 million epic western. Since the Fox executives didn't like his name, they changed it to John Wayne, a simple pseudonym that he never fully embraced. He chose to be addressed as "Duke," his childhood nickname.

The studio has hired a hybrid elocution teacher/acting consultant to help Wayne develop his line delivery and thespian skills after he made the transition from small supporting roles to the lead in an expensive film. Wayne, on the other hand, did not react well to the unnecessarily strict academic instruction, prompting his teacher to resign in disgust. “You will never become an actress if you live to be 100,” the mentor predicted.

Raoul Walsh, the director of The Big Trail, was unconcerned about this. “Six foot three or more, no waist, and a profile that suits in a sombrero,” he said of a western star. John Wayne was a great fit for the part.

The Big Trail was a complete failure. While the film holds up well, it was released at a time when many moviegoers were abandoning their moviegoing behaviors due to the escalating Depression. Unfortunately, and quite unfairly, Duke's wide shoulders bore a large portion of the blame for its loss. He was quickly ensconced in B-cowboy hell, where he would stay for the remainder of the decade, having seemingly blown his huge shot at stardom.

A little backstory. Several studios and independent production companies produced B-westerns in the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s. These films, which were made on a shoestring budget, were directed at rural markets and the so-called "Saturday matinee" crowds of children in big cities. And if those magnificent Saturdays often featured adventure films, cartoons, and serials, there was always more mayhem in the crowd than there was on the projector, as someone who spent several hours of my youth at the Belmont Theater in Nashville toward the end of the "Saturday Matinee" era recalls.

B-western filmmakers were at the bottom of the Hollywood food chain. A part of a B-western crew worked long, rough hours for relatively low pay since the films were usually shot in less than a week. There was nothing glamorous about the job. It was the equivalent of becoming a plumber in Hollywood.

Even, it was a career, and workers in 1930s America were rare. You could make a good life if you were the leading man – like Wayne was in more than 60 of these films – and able to do as much work as they could throw at you.

The plots, personalities, tense events, and romantic relationships in B-cowboy films ranged little from one to the next. The names didn't help either. Our hero starred in films such as Desert Trail, Sagebrush Trail, Telegraph Trail, The Oregon Trail, The Lonely Trail, and The Trail Beyond during the 1930s. Not to mention that The Big Trail took him to all of these smaller trails.

Wayne worked with Columbia, Warner Bros., and Universal, as well as smaller studios including Mascot, Monogram, and Republic, on low-budget westerns. “Some of these early westerns were done in four days,” he recalled years later. I'd change my clothes, read the notes, change my clothes again, and read the lines again. We'd start shooting early in the morning with flares to illuminate the close-ups. We'd do medium-range shots as the sun came up. We'd do distance shots in broad daylight, chasing the sun up one hill and down the other. It didn't matter who was in charge of the direction. They didn't stand a chance, and neither did I.”

Despite the craziness of his schedules and the lack of depth of his positions, Wayne used the experience to further his craft. He started to develop his own look and screen identity by discarding poor lines of dialogue. During Wayne's B-cowboy days, the unique walk, the unique way he straddled a horse, the drawl, the squint, the "no fooling" look, and the whole repertoire of movements, motions, and vocalizations that would later become a gold mine for spoof comedians like Rich Little began to take shape.

Throughout the 1930s, Wayne remained the consummate professional, despite his ambition and strong desire for better roles in larger films. He was always on schedule, learned his lines, and was always willing to go beyond and beyond to get the best photo possible in the can. He will also do his own tricks as part of this.

He only objected once, when he was transformed into a performing cowboy. “Singin' Sandy Saunders” made his film debut in Riders of Destiny (1933), and was quickly accompanied by other guitar-wielding, harmonizing cowpokes in the next two years. The characters were popular with children, but John Wayne was not, particularly when fans asked him to sing during personal appearances. He told his producers that he would no longer play melodious characters because he couldn't sing a note (his songs had been dubbed). This paved the way for Gene Autry, Roy Rogers, and others to make the singing cowboy a worldwide phenomenon.

The most remarkable aspect of Wayne's B-cowboy era is that he eventually outgrew it. Being a B-western star was akin to being a member of the Mafia: once in, it was almost difficult to leave. 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, were the most successful B-cowboy stars in 1937, according to an annual exhibitor poll published by the Motion Picture Herald. With the exception of Wayne, none of them actually made it in the big screen, though Autry and Boyd did well on television.

RKO Radio Pictures executives determined in the same year that George O'Brien, their resident western star, was slipping and started looking for actors to replace him. Any members of the corporation proposed Wayne, prompting Ned Depinet, the head of the company's distribution arm, to write to corporate president Leo Spitz, saying, "[We] think it will be a mistake to sell John Wayne westerns." “We think it would be a folly to distribute John Wayne westerns,” a telegram to corporate president Leo Spitz reads. He's in the same boat as a million others, with the downside of being cheaply acquired and, in our view, no chance of achieving recognition... He's one of the worst of the so-called western stars, miscast and underperforming at Universal. We think it would be easier to go ahead with George Shelley, who isn't associated with low-budget westerns and with whom we might create... a worthwhile singing western star-like Autry.”

And, of course, George Shelley comes to mind.

John Ford, Wayne's old tackling dummy who now has an Academy Award for leading The Informer, was Wayne's salvation. Ford had worked on westerns during the silent era, but he hadn't made a cowboy film since the advent of sound. In 1939, he wanted to return to the genre with Stagecoach, an A-movie. Despite producer Walter Wanger's, United Artists studio executives', and some cast members' protests, he cast John Wayne in the lead role of the Ringo Kid. Ford defended his decision by reminding Wayne's critics, "We can have him for peanuts," but there was more to it. He'd been watching Wayne's movies and thought he was a budding star who could do well if given the correct exposure.

Ford treated Wayne cruelly and contemptuously while filming in Monument Valley, which became his favorite spot. The teasing, on the other hand, was part of a well-planned policy. He had to break Wayne with any poor acting habits first. Second, he hoped that the more known stars, such as Claire Trevor, Thomas Mitchell, and John Carradine, would feel sorry for him and help him perfect his performance. It was successful. In a year that included Gone with the Wind, The Wizard of Oz, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Ninotchka, Wuthering Heights, and several other unforgettable films, Stagecoach was nominated for a Best Picture Oscar. John Wayne will never be called a bottom-feeder in the celluloid food chain again, thanks to Ford and the Ringo Kid.

However, contrary to popular belief, Stagecoach did not turn Duke into an instant sensation. It did, however, catapult him out of B-westerns and, even, out of B-movies entirely, propelling him into better films with larger budgets and allowing him to collaborate with more experienced artistic talent. It didn't damage his wallet, either, because the studios were now willing to pay him more than "peanuts." Nonetheless, he directed the majority of his films for Republic Pictures, which was not considered a major studio at the time, and when he did star in an MGM, Universal, or Paramount production, he was generally second or third billing behind Joan Crawford, Marlene Dietrich, Randolph Scott, Ray Milland, Claudette Colbert, and Robert Montgomery.

Despite the fact that Wayne had yet to hit the pinnacles of celebrity, the 1940s were a pivotal moment for him, as it was during this time that the mythic powers that would coalesce around his reputation as the quintessential American male started to take form. For one thing, he kept producing westerns, although more optimistic westerns, in which his heroic desire. entertaining were well-established. He then transplanted those characteristics into a modern genre: World War II action films.

Wayne established himself as the consummate military leader in films such as Flying Tigers, The Fighting Seabees, Back to Bataan, and They Became Expendable. Is it any surprise that by the end of WWII, the connection between John Wayne and America had already been established? He was the modern defender of a benevolent philosophy of life molded by the hardy colonists, as well as the pathfinder who made the land ready for settlement and civilized principles.

The Final Miracle

Wayne's transition into the best of movie stars was the last miracle. Thanks to films like Red River, Sands of Iwo Jima, and She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, he was able to achieve this accomplishment in the late 1940s. He eventually entered the Top Ten poll of box-office success in 1949, at the age of 42, according to the Motion Picture Herald. In 1950, he was ranked first. Until 1973, as he was nearing 70 years old, he will stay in the Top Ten every year except one. And as he did things that actors weren't expected to do, including speak his mind on a variety of political and social topics, the postwar American audience welcomed him and wouldn't let go of him.

John Wayne was a well-informed resident who was willing to express his views with the general population. Many people were offended by these views because they were politically conservative, particularly during the tumultuous 1960s and 1970s. And those who disagreed with him admired him and it was clear that he was deeply concerned for his country and its inhabitants. He was also simply an individualist, unlike many of the characters he played, with no slavish loyalty to any political ideology. Many of his right-wing brethren were surprised when he backed President Carter's decision to hand over the sovereignty of the Panama Canal to the Republic of Panama. Some speculated that he may have slipped off his horse all too much. But it didn't matter to him who he offended. According to Wayne's own code of principles, the Democratic president's decision made sense, and he stood out to justify it.

Another endearing quality was his wonderful sense of humor. He was a sucker for a good laugh, even at his own expense. As demonstrated by his appearances on Laugh-In and other television shows where he gleefully lampooned his own name, he never took himself, his pride, or his achievements too seriously. In 1974, he accepted an invitation to Harvard, where he would be roast by his main opponents – antiwar critics and Eastern intellectuals. Naturally, this resulted in him barbecuing a couple of them. “You know, I declined this invitation over a lovely invitation to a Jane Fonda rally,” he said.

Despite winning an Academy Award for Best Actor for his role in True Grit, many snide reviewers never thought of Wayne as a decent actor. They still looked at his job with the cynical mentality of the long-forgotten acting coach. These tastemakers did not think Duke had ever learned to act; rather, they believed he merely played himself in movie after movie. Though it's clear that he wouldn't have been able to play those roles played by James Cagney, Laurence Olivier, or Fred Astaire, it's also true that these great actors would have struggled to play any of his memorable roles.

Wayne's best performances were reserved for roles other than the Ringo Kid and the other white-hatted heroes he played in so many films. When he was cast as flawed men with near-volcanic temperaments, he embodied them with a terrifying strength. Consider the case of Red River cattle baron Tom Dunson, who is mentally ill. Dunson is a cowboy version of Captain Bligh, who has his herd taken away from him by his adoptive son (Montgomery Clift) due to his erratic and abusive nature. The two men's climactic fight is nothing short of electrifying.

In The Searchers, Wayne gave an even better performance as the tortured loner Ethan Edwards. The Searchers has been ranked fifth in the famous Sight & Sound poll of the best films ever made, despite several reviewers dismissing it as "just another western" when it was released in 1956. It has also had a major impact on the career of notable contemporary filmmakers such as Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese, and George Lucas. Wayne's favorite role was that of Edwards, and he called one of his sons Ethan after the actor.

Because of his commitments to rugged styles such as the western and the war film, John Wayne has long been regarded as a man's man. But it's important to remember that he was also a woman's man. Wayne held his own against a stunning assortment of glamorous and talented actors, 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, despite the fact that he described himself as "feo" (ugly).

One can only assume that his favorite leading lady was the seductive Maureen O'Hara. They collaborated on five films, but one, in particular, stands out. There are few films that are as entertaining as The Quiet Man, a romantic donnybrook starring Sean Thornton (Wayne) and Mary Kate Danaher (O'Hara).

Stardom Did Not Change

John Wayne's ideals were overshadowed by his popularity. Until the end of his life, he was dedicated to his family, career, and country. He still didn't forget about his university. In 1979, when he was dying of cancer at UCLA Medical Center, he would sometimes walk around wearing a UCLA baseball cap. He was always courteous and tipped his hat to everyone he met. The Bruin headgear turned out to be a fake front. A USC cap was lying on his head underneath, showing his true colors of cardinal and gold.

His admiration for USC was reciprocated. He received an honorary doctorate from the university in 1968 and the Asa V. Call Achievement Award in 1977, and he is commemorated with a bust in Heritage Hall. He was a big USC sports fan before he died, according to his daughter-in-law Gretchen, president of his production business, Batjac. She recently said, "You didn't want to be around him if the Trojans lost."

Maureen O'Hara and a host of other actors petitioned Congress to award Wayne the Congressional Gold Medal while he was gravely ill. The award should simply say, "John Wayne, American," according to O'Hara. For the first time in history, Congress did the right thing and followed her orders.

Those who appreciated and those who did not admire John Wayne have viewed his association with America in a variety of ways. Yet no one can deny that his life resembled something out of a Horatio Alger book. Is it any surprise that he became "an old-fashioned, honest-to-goodness, flag-waving nationalist," as he put it?

Growing up in America gave a poor boy from the Midwest the opportunity to gain riches, fame, and pleasure. There have been many manifestations of the American Dream throughout history, but none compare to the remarkable story of this ex-paper driver, ex-delivery boy, ex-movie theatre usher, ex-football player, ex-prop guy, and USC dropout who went on to become one of the twentieth century's most iconic characters.

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About The Authors

Landon Morton

Landon Morton - Landon is a professional character coach, motivational speaker, and consultant who values commitment, service, and excellence. Landon brings to your company valuable insights gained from his battlefield experience as a decorated combat veteran, enabling you to unleash the untapped potential of your employees. He illustrates how the invaluable talent that each individual brings to your company will positively affect your mission through real-world examples.

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