Posted by Moira Finnie on June 17, 2009
“What do you know about love? I think love is watching your child go off to school for the first time alone… sitting beside a sick kid’s bed waiting for the doctor, praying it isn’t polio… or that cold chill you get when you hear the screech of brakes, and know your kid’s outside on the street some place… and a lot of other things you get can’t get out of books, ’cause nobody knows how to write ‘em down.”
~John Wayne as Steve Aloysius Williams in Trouble Along the Way (1953)
John Wayne played many kinds of fathers. Most of them expressed their tough love in the saddle or on the battlefield. Popular imagination colors this actor as a combination war hero/cowboy, often causing us to forget that the actor, born Marion Robert Morrison, the son of a pharmacist, was playacting–albeit on a very high level–when he strapped on the six gun or the fatigues. By his own admission, the Duke was consciously building an image. “When I started”, he explained, “I knew I was no actor and I went to work on this Wayne thing. It was as deliberate a projection as you’ll ever see. I figured I needed a gimmick, so I dreamed up the drawl, the squint and a way of moving meant to suggest that I wasn’t looking for trouble but would just as soon throw a bottle at your head as not. I practiced in front of a mirror.”
Eventually, when he played a Dad on the screen, Wayne didn’t need to practice in front of a mirror to play a convincing paternal role. As a man who became the father of seven children, his real life apprenticeship in this important role began in 1934 at age 27 when the first of his three sons, Michael, was born. Michael was one of four children from the actor’s first marriage to Josephine Alicia Saenz. Wayne‘s brood was rounded out with the birth of his last child and fourth daughter, Marisa in 1966, when he was 59. Wayne’s third and last marriage to Pilar Palette Wayne produced three children.
I do think he’s underrated as an actor, but when his long career took an occasional side route into modern dress, my attention was often more acute, appreciating his skill and his ability to project something genuine when he played a father in the movies.
We classic film fans sometimes forget a few things. One of those items might be the fact that John Wayne, film icon, and probably the biggest, honking movie star we’ll ever see, was never the critic’s darling in his own day, despite teeming hordes of fans, young, old, right and left. The longtime film critic of The New York Times, Vincent Canby, was one of many who did not particularly care for the Duke’s later movies. Canby once wrote grudgingly about The Cowboys (1972), a movie that gave Wayne a turn as a trail boss reduced to recruiting his hands among schoolboys: “Wayne is, of course, marvelously indestructible, and he has become an almost perfect father figure.” He would play strikingly memorable father figures molded as impressively troubled Homeric icons in movies, starting with Howard Hawks’ Red River (1947). Moving on to the complex, mythic Western characters that John Ford cast him in, Wayne played the nurturer in the director’s Cavalry trilogy, (Fort Apache, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon and Rio Grande) and the remake of Three Godfathers. Complex questions of fatherhood arise again in John Farrow’s adaptation of Louis L’Amour’s story in Hondo (1953), when Wayne‘s Indian-raised Cavalry Scout becomes a foster father of sorts to Geraldine Page‘s needy son. He further evolved into the protector/destroyer in Allan Dwan’s The Sands of Iwo Jima (1949) and Ford’s later movies, The Searchers (1956) and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962). In truth, he was more convincing to me in movies as a flawed, very human father figure with enough “life issues” and “anger management” problems that could electrify more than a few group therapy sessions.
Observers will continue to examine his characterizations of masculine archetypes, but I’ve always found that I have a weakness for Wayne when he stepped off the pedestal, allowing the archetypes to lose their balance and their way in a few movies. There’s something touching about the big guy when he joined the rest of us in our confused search for meaning, as well as a way to put a meal on the table and a roof over our heads. Most often, despite his seeming ability to master just about any situation, those attempts to connect with those others in our lives could be tricky for him. Yet it was those slippery, personal moments in modern life which seemed to touch me most deeply. Doffing the ten-gallon hat, the boots, chaps, guns and attitude, the times that John Wayne played contemporary men experiencing the highs and lows of domestic life in the 20th century were relatively few.
Yet there is Wayne, showing up for less than a minute or two as a scared young Depression era Dad called “Smith” in The Life of Jimmy Dolan (1933). In an early appearance by the raw-boned young man, it is his awkward appeal that is more poignant than the filmmakers’ intended in his brief scenes. The story involves the struggle of a fugitive (Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.) to eke out a living, in part by doing some amateur boxing. When John Wayne pops up unexpectedly as a minor character who has a brief conversation with the leading man, we know he’s going to get his brains bashed in by boxing against a pro to earn enough to get his wife and baby out of hock. A couple of decades later we might remember the withdrawal of Wayne‘s character from his wife (played by Maureen O’Hara) and daughters in Ford’s The Wings of Eagles (1957), when a spinal injury undermines an already strained marriage. This decision leads his character, based on screenwriter Spig Wead, to separate from them, pursuing military service and a writing career as opposed to . Often forgotten is the moment at the climax of William Wellman‘s adaptation of Ernest K. Gann’s Island in the Sky (1953) when the crew of a downed plane is rescued from the desolate northern wilderness. The stoic Wayne, the lynchpin who held his crew together physically and psychologically during their ordeal, after stoically keeping his worries to himself, is finally revealed as the husband of a worried wife and the father of several children. The pilot who saves the day in one of Wellman‘s other biggest successes was drawn from a Gann novel, The High and the Mighty (1953). This also reveals Wayne as a haunted character, who, years later, still recalls his own complicity in his son’s death, along with his mother’s, in a horrific crash that occurred prior to the events of the film, when he was at the controls of a plane.
Still another modern dress story gave Wayne another opportunity to embody a troubled Dad in Otto Preminger‘s often lumbering action tale, In Harm’s Way (1965). Set in the early days of World War Two following Pearl Harbor, the movie faltered in its action sequences, but was almost redeemed acting in the few moments of intimacy allowed in the sprawling epic. The painful tension and anguish bristling between Brandon de Wilde and Wayne, as estranged son and father, holds a movie’s worth of untapped feeling, with just an echo of the earlier relationship between Wayne and Claude Jarman‘s character in Rio Grande (1950). (The film is also almost redeemed by the tersely adult love scenes between Wayne and Patricia Neal as the two actors create a small corner of beautiful as they created one of the more realistically mature bonds in American movies).
While mulling over this Sunday’s celebration of Father’s Day, I started to think about a little movie that is usually given short shrift by reviewers and classic movie fans alike. Maybe it means more to me because I can remember that this was one of the few movies my own father watched with me. Dad didn’t like movies. He didn’t have time or the patience for them, and he certainly had little in common with John Wayne. However, as a graduate of a Jesuit college, and a former semi-pro baseball and football player, this father of three girls and one boy, this particular Wayne movie must have struck a chord with him.
Trouble Along the Way (1953) is often dismissed as too sentimental, a football flick of interest only to citizens of a jockocracy, or those who feel a crying need for another take on Going My Way (1944). This little known John Wayne movie, directed by Michael Curtiz as his considerable powers were waning at Warner Brothers, was set in a small fictional Catholic college struggling with debt and teetering on closure. St. Anthony’s, where the aging head of the school, (Charles Coburn, who is inexplicably cast as a cuddly cleric), seeks to fill its coffers by fielding a first-class football team against the likes of Notre Dame, Holy Cross, and Villanova. To meet that end, Coburn hires the mysteriously disgraced football coach Stephen Aloysius Williams (Wayne) for a song, leading to–you guessed it–complications–along with a few burly football pros appearing in the college lineup along with the students. One of the wrinkles in this scheme is added by Sherry Jackson as Williams young daughter, whose closeness to her father is beautifully underplayed by Wayne in his scenes with the child actress. As her divorced mother, sleepy eyed Marie Windsor, in a thankless role as a fashionable barracuda, struggles for power with her ex-spouse and her disenchanted second hubby (the perennially oily Tom Helmore), stirring up trouble by seeking custody of the girl through the courts. A social worker, played with a starchy sexiness and a spark of intelligence by Donna Reed, starts an investigation into the domestic circumstances the child is being raised in with the sometimes hard-living Wayne as her primary custodial parent. The story, written by first-time producer Melville Shavelson and credited as well to Jack Rose and Robert Hardy Andrews (with some major tampering by Wayne crony James Edward Grant), is not up there with Long Day’s Journey Into Night as a searing examination of the relationship between father and child. It also doesn’t approach the generational conflict found in Howard Hawks’ Red River (1947) or the life and death desperation that an unexpected paternal role thrust onto Wayne in a film such as John Ford‘s flawed but beautifully shot Three Godfathers (1948). Throughout the movie, the often ragged, worried looking Wayne, (who was having a very rough time in real life while going through a bad divorce from his second wife, Chata Esperanza Baur), blends his cynical and weary mien with displays of comedic underplaying that are quite enjoyable. The many hands in the script give the actor some funny and true lines to deliver, revealing a vulnerable, feet-of-clay side of his screen persona. This lightens aspects of the scenes with ill-served Marie Windsor as the pathologically bitter ex-wife and those that involve those sometimes unrealistically portrayed priests at the college. The presence of solid character actors in a few of these clerical roles, such as Dabbs Greer and Tom Tully, adds some realistic grit to the characters of the religous. Tully is particularly adept at giving some texture to the material, enlivening the role of a worldly Father Malone, who acts as Coburn‘s wing man. The priest, who had coached the dismal college football team prior to Wayne‘s arrival, is a man who inspires the layman coach with his plain-spoken explanation of the college football team’s previous record. Wayne asks, “What system do you use?”, to which Father Malone replies “‘Do unto others as you would have others do unto you.’ But, usually, the others do it to us first.” Asking how they did the season before, Malone sighs, ” We showed up for every game.” inspiring Wayne’s character to comment that “I’d say that was raw courage.”
When trading barbs with Reed and in his gruff tenderness with Jackson there are several opportunities for Wayne to display his character’s underlying uncertainty, despair and anger. In early scenes, the bond between the father and daughter may be conveyed best in silence in a moment when he watches his daughter from the window of their threadbare room, as a shifting blend of self-reproach and concern play across his face. Best of all, is his impatient monologue, delivered as an anthem that any father might wish to express to an outsider judging his parenting ability: “”What do you know about love? I think love is watching your child go off to school for the first time alone… sitting beside a sick kid’s bed waiting for the doctor, praying it isn’t polio… or that cold chill you get when you hear the screech of brakes, and know your kid’s outside on the street some place… and a lot of other things you get can’t get out of books, ’cause nobody knows how to write ‘em down. ”
Wayne plays a man whose good football coaching skills are at odds with his inability to play entirely by the rules. In part because of his painful experiences with Windsor, this has resulted in his turning his back on a straight career path. Life on “respectable” society’s fringes has become his natural habitat, with his child sharing this world of the furnished room, the street, the poolroom and the tavern with the Wayne character. He refuses to recognize the validity of the girl’s mother as a partial custodian of his daughter, dismissing the well-educated but cold Reed’s insights and advice due to her lack of life experience. After the court appoints her to observe the girl’s environment and arrange visits with her mother, he finds this impossible to ignore. Soon, Wayne finds the idea of holing up in an obscure college rather appealing. It will provide a cover of steady work that might help his reputation with the social worker, and keep a roof over his head and that of his daughter, (even if it is in a dingy, and occasionally deafening space below a belfry). Putting together a team of “scholars” who know their way around the gridiron, (which includes a very young Chuck Connors), arranging shady deals for equipment and payments under the table to secure a winning team, reflects the desperate edge to these shenanigans. Wayne is even given the line later identified with the famous Vince Lombardi, “Winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing.” This movie was marketed as a breezy comedy, along the lines of a Cary Grant domestic story or in the same vein as The Quiet Man, the leading actor’s recent success. Trouble Along the Way has the requisite comedic goals of developing situations in which aspects of human nature are examined. The tendency toward rigidity in our lives and thinking; the apparent need to circumvent society’s rules to survive; the underhanded practices that seem to be necessary for success and the delusions we choose to labor under are revealed, but touched on so lightly their resolution–or lack of it, remains interesting. The conclusion of the film, oddly, often misidentified by reviewers as a “neat happy ending”, is much more ambiguous. Eventually, as even Reed begins to learn by observing Wayne and his daughter’s largely unspoken bond, she begins to question her own assumptions. Naturally, all the deceptions and rationales behind them are publicly revealed, including the lack of Marie Windsor‘s maternal feeling, and order, in some sense is restored. Yet, though there is an implication through the slight softening of the banter between Wayne and Reed that their interest in one another is growing, the filmmakers leave that aspect of the story unresolved, despite Reed‘s admission under oath in a funny, chaotic court scene. This is fitting, since the most powerful bond here is between the father and child, even if, at the end of the story, each have changed and accepted the need for life to change them. The tantalizing aspect of this movie remains what John Wayne might have accomplished if he’d had more opportunities to do this sort of well-written, dialogue-driven vehicle. The film, which offers us a glimpse of another side of the man’s considerable talent.
Available on DVD and broadcast on TCM occasionally, this film, btw, can be enjoyed by people who have little interest in football, but it may interest you to know that it may have drawn some inspiration from common knowledge about the role of professionalism in amateur sports, as well as the gambling scandals that broke in the national news in 1951 over basketball games on a collegiate level. You can read more about that newsworthy brouhaha here. You might enjoy this little movie more than you expect–especially if it helps you remember your own father or if you’re lucky enough to be able to watch this one with your Dad.
Happy Father’s Day.
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