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Thursday, December 1, 2011


The Duke

John Wayne. The name alone conjures countless representations. John Wayne is the eternal definition of the masculine identity. John Wayne is the absolute embodiment of the perfect cowboy. John Wayne is the unequaled, unparalleled standard of the movie star-- and he is all these things 32 years after his death. How did a shy, insecure, average-American boy become one of the most famous people who ever lived? Because he was just as equally composed of determination, integrity, and-- of course-- "true grit." The Western hero has nearly become a mockery in modern cinema-- lampooned, caricatured, and misconstrued. He is a great fiction that we no longer comprehend, at least not popularly. Explain then why in the latest poll, which tallied young America's favorite movie star, John Wayne is still listed as #1? Because, young, old, male, female, black, white, liberal, conservative, John still represents the heart of this great country, and our hearts are still with him.

Marion Mitchell Morrison as a young
football player.

Such limitless greatness was not apparent in Marion Robert Morrison's early years in Winterset, IA. Born to a charismatic, loving father, Clyde-- who worked primarily as a pharmacist-- and a harsh, detached mother-- who was never satisfied with either her eldest son or her husband-- Marion had few thoughts of grandeur in his youth. A repeating mantra in his head was that he simply wasn't good enough, at least not where mother Molly was concerned. In fact, Molly showed her displeasure by depriving Marion of his middle name, her father's, and giving it to her second born-- Robert Emmett Morrison. Marion became Marion Mitchell instead-- one of many events in his childhood that left him feeling ashamed and outcast. His one salvation was Clyde, who adored his son and taught him to play football, live right, work hard, and above all, be honest. These early life lessons would stick with Marion until the end. In life, he would trust and forge great friendships with men, and always remain wary of women, whom he could never fathom. Kind, gentlemanly, and respectful, he would fall in love rarely, put women on a pedestal, and leave them there, never able to completely surrender his heart. From the beginning, he was a "man's man." Though endowed with a natural tenderness and empathy, the home was not where he would find solace. He found his peace through work, beginning even in childhood where he became a very focused, model student. Garnering straight "A"s, he too accrued a great number of friends, surprising his mother by becoming popular with fellow students and-- especially after moving to Glendale, CA-- drooled after by co-eds who were lining up for a date with the tall, handsome teen. By this time, he was known as "Duke," a pet name derived literally from his pet Airedale. Locals had called the dog "Big Duke" and Marion "Little Duke." (One wonders if this influenced the Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade writers. You know what I mean)? Because he found his given name "girly" and was equally tired of being picked on, Marion welcomed the change. For the rest of his life, he insisted that friends call him by his nickname.

John's good looks helped him land the lead in The Big Trail
but ironically he would not achieve fame until he had 
weathered a bit into the "man's man" ideal.

After earning a scholarship to play football at USC and enduring the break-up of his parents' marriage, Duke began studying for a law degree. Always a hard worker, he masterfully balanced his studies, football, social life, and several jobs to earn his keep. Disaster struck when he injured his shoulder while showing off for the girls at the beach in a body-surfing stunt gone wrong, which cost him his scholarship. Unable to afford the school that had no more use for him, he dropped out and went to work at Fox Studios where he had already been putting in some time as a prop boy and sometimes extra during the summer. Fate wanted Duke in the movies. After witnessing some of his childhood idols like Harry Carey and Tom Mix in action, Duke would get his own shot at fame. He would meet director John Ford, one of the most important people in his life, in 1926. Ford noticed the kid at work, heard he was a football player, and decided to play a prank on him. He asked Duke to get into position, then kicked him over. Though sweet-natured, Duke also had a temper and a willingness to fight. He challenged Ford to try his trick again, only this time, Duke tackled him. A lifetime friendship was born. Duke would work with Ford, continuing work as a prop boy where he learned to properly dress a set and give it as much character as the actors in it. He occasionally would stand in as a stunt performer, and sometimes Ford would even assign him small roles. However, another influential figure would give Duke his first break. Raoul Walsh would see the 6'4" youth unloading a truck and joking around when he decided that the Duke had the right combination of brawn and charm to be his leading man in The Big Trail. When offered a screen test, Duke replied with a "Sure, why not?" At the premiere, he invited both parents, but Molly refused to come unless Duke dis-invited his father. He refused, and Clyde and his proud step-mother attended what Duke hoped would be a life-changing moment. The role brought him a great deal of critical acclaim but failed to boost him into the mainstream. Despite his hopes, he would languish in B-movies for another 9 years. Yet, he had discovered himself as an actor, and he would throw the same amount of gusto into learning that craft as he had into everything else.

John was frequently miscast in his early cinematic attempts, 
including this bit part opposite Barbara Stanwyck 
in Baby Face.

The greatest tragedy of The Big Trail was losing his relationship with John Ford, who was both mentor and slave-driver. A sado-masochistic relationship, Ford supplied Duke with another father figure but was also harsh and critical like Duke's mother. Unlike Molly, however, Ford could be pleased, which is perhaps why Duke worked so hard to impress him. Yet, when Duke took on The Big Trail, Ford gave him the cold shoulder, perhaps feeling betrayed that his protege had wandered off to another director or perhaps just jealous of the younger man's success. The fracture in their relationship had its benefits, for Duke got one Hell of an education making B-Westerns for poverty row studios like Republic Pictures. Fast-paced, poorly-written cliffhangers and serials, John became a low-level star to the thousands of young boys and more rural clientele who enjoyed the simple, uncomplicated nature of low-budget flicks like Riders of Destiny and Rainbow Valley. Duke slowly lost his uncertainties and insecurities, learned how to think fast and keep up. He too started building a character: one with which he would be identified the rest of his life. The graceful beauty of his youthful good looks slowly began to harden into the more mature, macho adult that would make him a "real man" and not just a heartthrob, as he had originally been publicized. He copied the stilted and poignant line delivery of his hero Harry Carey-- creating that signature drawl with meaningful pauses-- friend Paul Fix would help him develop his rolling walk, and Yakima Canutt helped him perfect his stunt work and fights scenes. His cowboy was not clean and polished, nor flashy and cocky. He was a real guy. Comfortable on a horse and handy with a gun, the B-Westerns molded Duke, now known as John Wayne, into an actor but even moreso into the most important cowboy in cinematic history. John Ford was ready to forgive.

John finds stardom and his signature persona in Stagecoach
one of the greatest Westerns ever made.

Stagecoach was one of the many movies that made 1939 the biggest year of Hollywood cinema. It too would mark a turning point in Duke's life. Having already been in Tinsel Town for over a decade, he had worked long and hard for the great opportunity Ford now laid at his feet. In Stagecoach, his turn as the Ringo Kid would forever seal him into the American mind as our favorite cowboy. With a mixture of diligence and innocence, raw power and grace, he became a sensation. This film kicked a door open that would never again be slammed shut in his face. John went on to star in film after film, cementing his reputation and crafting his John Wayne character, which would harden over the years. As he aged as a man, his characters aged with him. Red River, The Searchers, Rio Bravo, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon-- they all came to define the masculine image. Embodied in Duke were the sacrifices man made for his country and countrymen. Justice, righteousness, and the risks and stakes in upholding these virtues were displayed in his persona. When America went to war, so too did Duke, who rotated between the saddle and the army when ideals of patriotism were the most needed. Critics started taking notice of his acting as he continued to prove himself through They Were Expendable, In Harm's Way, and The Sands of Iwo Jima, the latter of which earned him his first Academy Award nomination and also his place in cemented history at Grauman's Chinese Theatre. He represented to men the man they wanted to be and to women the man who would protect them, whose seemingly impenetrable heart made him all the more alluring. Though romance was never the most important thing on the agenda in his films, he proved to have great chemistry with Marlene Dietrich, Gail Russell, and most importantly Maureen O'Hara, who matched him step for step in strength, courage, and gumption.

John Ford had trouble getting financing for the little Irish film
The Quiet Man, but the electric chemistry of Duke and Maureen 
and the comedy of Barry Fitzgerald warmed America's heart. 

Duke worked hard to protect his screen image and to see that his ideals and sense of integrity were passed on in all of his roles. When he thought of testing the waters and entertaining more variety, Ollie Carey reminded him of the importance his solid presence dictated to audiences, and how much they relied on him-- like the rock of Gibraltar-- to remain their strong and steady savior. He remained faithful to this ideal, but it came at a price. He suffered through three failed marriages, though the last did not end in divorce but separation. He tried all kinds of women, wedding first the Virgin (Josephine Saenz), then the Whore (Chata Baur), and finally the Lady (Pilar Pallete), all of whom were "exotic," Spanish women who adhered to old-fashioned principals of a patriarchal family life. But because Duke grew up fearing the domestic lifestyle, he was never able to completely give himself over to any of the women that loved him. He regretted his broken family and the effect it had on what would grow into his brood of 7 children. In retrospect, he would wish that he had stayed with Josie-- who had proved to be the perfect mother and wife-- and was always guilty that he had unintentionally crafted the same unsavory home life for his children that he had had for himself. Though he always remained a good father, constantly bringing his children to set, and even working onscreen with son Patrick and producing with son Michael, he couldn't deny that his life was his work, and he found more solace with his team of men, "The Young Men's Purity and Total Abstinence and Snooker Pool Association" (of which John Ford, Ward Bond, Henry Fonda, Johnny Weissmuller, and Robert Preston were a few of the drunken members) than he ever did at home. He was too itchy, too bored, too anxious. Life was outdoors, on a film set, or on his yacht: the Wild Goose. He knew well how to live. Loving, on the other hand-- as tender and kind a friend as he was to so many, both male and female-- was a craft too deep for him to fathom personally.

Always more cozy with the fellas: John, Dean Martin, Ricky Nelson 
and Howard Hawks on the set of Rio Bravo, another triumph.

And he was adored, even when his politics began to chafe the majority. A Republican in Hollywood is never popular, particularly in the Vietnam years when Duke was currently at odds with the young, mainstream liberal movement that made a fossil out of his ideals. But while his convictions were strong, his agenda was not selfish. He made decisions based not on what was right or left, but what he felt to be right or wrong. An educated man who had spent a majority of his youth with his life buried in books and studies, his judgments-- whether one agreed or disagreed-- were based on sound reason, and he did from time to time ruffle the feathers of his own "party." For example, he tried to lighten up on the HUAC witch trial refugees who were looking for work, while others were less willing to forgive. Though Duke took a firm anti-communist stance, he also believed in forgiveness, and above all he didn't want to rob a man of his desire to work. His opinions were declared loud and clear, but what is less remarked on was his ability to listen. He did not judge a man for having an opposing view, and preferred it to someone who was by nature a "yes man." While his name was constantly dragged through the mud by people with more liberal sentiments, he never returned the favor. Jane Fonda publicly ridiculed him, but-- as he was friends with her father-- he only kidded her about it in public. Nancy Reagan would remember him as one of the gentlest men who ever lived, which is no surprise; but he too had the great respect of Katharine Hepburn-- as much a Democrat as he was a Republican. Kirk Douglas too enjoyed his company despite their vastly different outlooks, and he earned Barbara Walters's undying respect when he paid her a kindness early in her career. Despite any negative publicity he garnered for his views, still nothing could sully his reputation. People still loved him and looked up to him, from Bertolt Brecht to Emperor Hirohito.

Duke's diligence pays off at the 1970 Academy Awards, 
with Barbara Streisand.

Duke's popularity may have waned slightly from time to time, but it was always present. This is because he represented something beyond politics that every American could relate to, which was America itself. A man who loved his country and paid homage to the men willing to fight for its freedoms, he never let social agenda or controversy cloud this truth: that he lived in the greatest country in the world. When all the world had gone mad, when everything seemed to be going to Hell, Duke and his films could always be depended on to light the way to the simplest and purest of lessons in eras of even the greatest confusion. All a man needed was bravery, loyalty, and decency. While others were lost in the gray or seeing red, Duke always painted things in black and white. There is a hero; there is a villain. There is a right; there is a wrong. You do what is just, not what comes easiest. You take the path that leads to honor, not the one that is less rocky. His understated acting, where everything was relayed through his eyes, is often submerged beneath the caricature history has made of him. It would take him years, over forty in the business, to finally earn his Academy Award for Best Male Performance for his portrayal of Rooster Cogburn in True Grit, and this he only earned by creating a character with great humor and mocking. But those who worked with him knew his genius long before, including Monty Clift who continually tried and failed to upstage him, never fully comprehending why he couldn't overshadow the Duke. Because... no one could. Burt Reynolds once said that John Wayne was "the only movie star [he'd] ever met that was not only exactly what [he] thought [he'd] be, but more." He remains our pillar of strength, our moral compass, our father, our leader, our friend. The last great American model, it seems, shall never crumble. Nor should it, even if it is to remind us of our great blessings. Left, Right, or Wrong, patriotism and love of country have no side. But they do share a face: a rugged, battle-worn one with thin blue eyes that can either freeze an enemy or warm a heart. God Bless America, and God Bless Hollywood for giving us John Wayne!


  1. I never knew much about Wayne's early life other than him playing football at USC. Also you shared some great anecdotes about his beginnings in the business. Isn't it amazing that it took almost 9 years of B westerns for him to reach superstar status? Pappy Ford and him teamed up for some incredible films. My favorite: Fort Apache. As a young Marine, Duke was our patron saint due to films Sands of Iwo Jima , Flying Leathernecks etc... You also pointed out very well that he walked the walk. Steadfast in his beliefs and convictions. His ideas would get him roasted in todays Hollywood. God Bless John Wayne. Thanks Meredith

  2. It is hard for me to pick a favorite of his films, although strangely the non-western "The Quiet Man" has always held a special place in my heart. So many great ones to choose from... but that's what makes him so special. Glad you agree. ;) Thanks as always for reading.

  3. Your most recent post led me back to this one...and I LOVE IT! What a fantastic tribute to the Duke.

    Speaking of "The Quiet Man" - I was lucky enough to be in the region of Ireland where they filmed this past May. Beautiful country, and it was just awesome to stand on the bridge and think "Duke Wayne was here!"

    1. Mandy, you are one lucky lady! That movie definitely makes me want to go to Ireland. I can't imagine how amazing it was to be on that bridge. So jealous ;)