Posted by Susan Doll on November 12, 2012
I recently drove by one of those roadside sales that are occasionally set up at gas stations or abandoned parking lots in which vendors hawk kitschy items such as velvet paintings, pictures of unicorns, and huge photos of iconic movie stars. Nestled between Marilyn and Elvis was John Wayne decked out in his cowboy hat, vest, and kerchief, much like the image to the left. I noticed Duke right away because I had just finished reading a biography about him. I was struck by the idea that most passers-by would recognize the star immediately and yet know nothing about him, because—like other movie icons—his career, life, and star image have been reduced to a cliché. Wayne’s image has a political connotation because of his conservative beliefs that has only gotten narrower over the years. I have seen his image used for right-wing slogans I don’t think Wayne would approve of, and I have read articles and posts that vilify his films because the writer didn’t like his politics. After reading Duke: The Life and Image of John Wayne by Ronald Davis, I was surprised by how little I knew about him. The following are 12 facts about John Wayne that amazed and amused me.
The name on his Wayne’s birth certificate is Marion Robert Morrison; in 1911, it was changed to Marion Michael Morrison when his younger brother was born and christened Robert. As a child, he was nicknamed Duke, because he had a large dog named Duke; the dog was Big Duke and the boy became Little Duke. He appeared uncredited in eleven films before playing a substantial role in the musical comedy Words and Music for which he was credited as Duke Morrison. In 1929, when he landed the lead in The Big Trail, director Raoul Walsh and producer Winfield Sheehan changed his name to John Wayne, an appellation he was never comfortable with.
Wayne was an avid reader from childhood. He read Zane Grey novels as a young man, and, as an adult, he read general histories and military histories, in addition to four newspapers a day. While courting his third wife, the two spent hours reading to each other, which I found quite romantic.
While a sophomore at USC, Wayne became a socialist. After he left school and worked in the film industry as a prop man and assistant, his views began to change. He read about Joseph Stalin and the impact of the Russian Revolution on the people of Russia. He changed his political leanings, gradually becoming more and more conservative with each passing year.
When Wayne was about ten, the family moved to Glendale, just outside Hollywood. He befriended Bob and Bill Bradbury, sons of writer-director Robert N. Bradbury. Both sons entered the film industry, with Bob changing his name to Bob Steele when he became a western star in the early 1930s. Wayne and Bob Steele remained friends throughout their lives, with Steele appearing in small roles in a few of Duke’s films, including Rio Bravo.
In 1926, Wayne saw a silent film directed by Robert N. Bradbury titled Davy Crockett at the Fall of the Alamo. The film influenced him to read about the battle at the Alamo, a part of history he would always find fascinating. By the late 1940s, Wayne was planning his own film project about the Alamo, a quest that would not see fruition until 1959.
From 1933 to 1935, Wayne starred in a series of programmers and serial westerns for a small studio called Lone Star. These sixteen-reel films cost $15,000 each and were shot in ten to fifteen days. The director on these films turned out to be Robert N. Bradbury. When Wayne played singing cowboy Singin’ Sandy in Riders of Destiny, he could not carry a tune. Childhood friend Bill Bradbury stepped in and dubbed his voice. Bradbury and Wayne went on to make other western serials during the Depression.
Together with stunt man Yakima Canutt and star John Wayne, director Bradbury devised a method of shooting fight scenes that looked more realistic and became influential in later westerns. At the time, the standard way to shoot fight scenes was to position the camera in front of the action, which would unfold laterally in long shot. Punches were not only pulled (or, softened) but also thrown toward the chest and arms, which Wayne and Canutt found dull and unexciting. The pair devised the “pass” system, in which they threw punches as hard as they could at their faces, with their fists passing just an inch or so from the chin or cheek. Bradbury enhanced the effect by positioning the camera behind the person throwing the punch. The director used it on other westerns with other cowboy stars, while Wayne brought this method to A-budget westerns later in his career.
I knew John Wayne did not serve in WWII, but I did not know why. Biographers who dislike Wayne’s politics tend to draw unflattering conclusions about his lack of service, but, according to Davis, the reasons for his lack of military service are unclear. In 1941, he was classified as 3-A, deferred for dependency reasons because he was supporting his estranged wife and four children. Wayne claimed that he wrote to the military to ask them to change his status; he claimed his ex-wife hid the responses from the military; he claimed that an old football injury kept him out of the service; he claimed he asked to join John Ford’s military photography unit. None of these claims are backed up by much evidence, which is not to say they aren’t true. In 1943, his 3-A status was continued upon review by the military. Apparently, the review was requested by Republic Pictures, who did not want their star in the service. Wayne was enjoying great success at this time, appearing in A-budget films with high-profile costars. In 1944, he was classified 2-A, deferred in support of national health, safety, or interest. He was briefly classified as 1-A, which meant he was fit to serve, then 2-A again. After the war, he was declared 4-A, meaning he was too old. Wayne struggled with guilt for not serving in the military during WWII, and it remained a sore point for the rest of his life.
John Wayne finally got to make his dream project, The Alamo, in 1959. An epic production, the film quickly went over schedule and over budget. Originally budgeted at $7 million, it cost $17 million by the time it was finished. United Artists distributed the film, but Wayne was responsible for production costs. He found private investors from Texas for part of the costs, and his company, Batjac, picked up the rest of the tab. Wayne mortgaged his house, Batjac itself, and his cars to pay back the investors and to pay the bills after the film failed to make $17 million at the box office. Any money that the film made before $17 million went to United Artists, so they turned a profit on the film, while Wayne was left in debt and depressed for several years. I have seen The Alamo, and, it is not a good film, so I am not surprised that it bombed at the box office. However, after reading about this doomed project, I have a lot of empathy for Wayne. He not only liked the story, but he believed whole-heartedly in its pro-American message. It was his heart’s desire for the public to embrace this film, which he thought was the quintessential American story. If you have ever lost your heart’s desire, you know exactly how low that feels.
Unfortunately, The Alamo seemed doomed and cursed every step of the way. For example, during production, a troupe of local theater actors came to the set in Brackettville, Texas, to be extras on the film. Actress LaJean Ethridge impressed Wayne with her talent, and he gave her a small speaking role, put her on salary, and helped her get her SAG card. Ehtridge’s boyfriend, Chester Smith, grew jealous of his girlfriend, and the couple fought. Finally, one night Ethridge packed her bags to leave, prompting Smith to stab her in the throat, killing her. Though Wayne was shaken by this event, he moved the production forward, propagating rumors that his film was more important to him than Ethridge’s death.
Wayne hired Russell Birdwell to handle the ad campaign for The Alamo, which proved to be a mistake. Birdwell, whose claim to fame was the posters and ads for Howard Hughes’s The Outlaw exploiting Jane Russell’s physique, began the campaign by sending a 183-page press release to reviewers and press outlets. In ads, he focused on the pro-American message of the film, implying that those who did not see it were simply unpatriotic. Reviewers were offended and acted accordingly. However, Birdwell’s ill-conceived tactics paled in comparison to actor Chill Will’s Oscar campaign. The Alamo received seven Academy Award nominations, including Best Supporting Actor for Wills. Excited at this break in his career, the character actor hired publicist Bow-Wow Wojeiechowicz to help him woo Oscar votes. Bow-Wow took out a full-page ad in Hollywood Reporter using a photo of the real men who had fought at the Alamo with Wills superimposed in front of them. The ad read, “We of The Alamo cast are praying harder than the real Texans prayed for their lives at the real Alamo for Chill Wills to win the Oscar. Cousin Chill’s acting was great! Signed Your Alamo Cousins.” Another ad consisted of a long list of Academy members with a tagline that read, “Win, Lose or Draw, You’ll Still My Cousins and I love you all.” Wills had a down-home schtick in which he called everyone his cousin. Groucho Marx took out his own ad reading, “Dear Mr. Chill Wills: I am delighted to be your cousin but I voted for Sal Mineo.”
For years, persistent rumors floated around Hollywood that Josef Stalin tried to have John Wayne killed. Supposedly, Peter Cushing heard the rumors when he was making films in Hong Kong during the early 1970s. Crew members who had escaped Communist China and Chairman Mao talked openly about an assassination plot against a famous American cowboy. In the mid-1980s, Yakima Canutt told author Michael Munn that Russian agents had tried to kill Wayne, and Duke had thwarted them. My favorite version of the story has Orson Welles relaying the rumor to various writers after he heard it from Russian director Sergei Bondarchuk while the two were making Waterloo in 1970. In retrospect, it would have been a more mythic end for the larger-than-life star who suffered through a painful, depressing decline before succumbing to cancer on June 11, 1979.
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