New John Wayne biography hits target dead center
Who's that on the cover of Scott Eyman's splendid biography of Hollywood's most enduring movie star? Surely that wavy-haired young fellow in the suit and tie isn't John Wayne. Where's the Stetson, the Winchester rifle, the six-shooter, the boots and spurs?
It would be easy to sell “John Wayne: The Life and Legend” with a picture of the Ringo Kid from “Stagecoach” (1939), the movie that made Wayne a star. How about the tough Marine sergeant from “Sands of Iwo Jima” (1949)? Or a picture of the one-eyed marshal Rooster Cogburn from “True Grit” (1969), the role for which Wayne won an Oscar?
Eyman presents John Wayne as what he really was — a generally good-natured actor and filmmaker who created and maintained a persona that Americans took to heart. It didn't happen overnight or by accident. Wayne worked hard to learn his craft, developed a keen understanding of the movie business and became wildly successful at selling his product.
The family of the boy born Marion Robert Morrison in 1907 in Winterset, Iowa, moved to California when he was 7 or 8 and eventually settled in the Los Angeles suburb of Glendale. His father, Clyde Morrison, failed at nearly every business he tried and died a few years before his son reached stardom. That achievement never seemed to impress Mary Morrison, who would accept her oldest son's generosity over the years with more sneer than smile while doting on his younger brother.
Known by the nickname “Duke,” the Glendale High class president hoped that football as well as an A average would earn him an education at the University of Southern California. When an injury cost him his scholarship, Duke turned to work as a propman at the Fox studio to earn enough money to stay in school. Director John Ford took the handsome young go-getter under his wing and began giving him small roles. (Duke had appeared in high-school plays and had worked backstage there, too.)
A big break ended his college plans. But the newly named John Wayne — others at the studio came up with that moniker, and he never assumed it legally — was wholly unprepared for the starring role in “The Big Trail” (1930). In spite of studio publicity for the picture and its young lead, the widescreen epic directed by Raoul Walsh failed at the box office. Two more duds ended Wayne's contract at Fox.
“That made it official,” Eyman writes. “John Wayne had been a white-hot new star at 22, and he was washed up at 23.”
For much of the 1930s, Wayne appeared in some dramas and serials but mostly in low-budget Westerns shot in just days at shoestring studios like Monogram and Mascot. His mentor Ford allowed him to languish — and to learn — until he found the right role for Wayne as the star of “Stagecoach.”
Wayne “had incrementally put together the pieces of a screen character over 10 long years — a voice, a name, a walk that would grow more pronounced in the future, an overall attitude,” Eyman writes. While Wayne considered trying to parlay his new stature into a career as an all-around actor, the author says, he realized that John Wayne was a character worth developing.
For nearly a half-century, Wayne excelled in the make-believe business. Consider that America's favorite movie cowboy preferred a yacht over a saddle. He might bashfully kiss a girl on-screen but was an unfaithful young husband when the cameras stopped rolling. The nation's favorite movie soldier never served in the military — a sore point for those who found his hawkish views on the Vietnam War nothing short of hypocritical, given that he put his career first during World War II.
Wayne's lack of military service and his support of Hollywood's red scare are examples of Eyman's evenhanded treatment of complicated subjects and the solid research that backs up his conclusions. People turned off by Wayne's right-wing politics and the simplistic themes of his movies often underestimated his intelligence. He was a debater in high school, president of its Latin Society and a member of its newspaper staff. As an adult, he was a demon chess player and an avid reader — imagine the star of “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance” reading “The Lord of the Rings.”
Another surprise: Wayne listened to people with whom he disagreed and respected their opinions. He wasn't bothered if his own political and social views didn't match the tenor of the times or even his personal relationships. In 1971, he said that he believed in white supremacy “until the blacks are educated to a point of responsibility.” Yet, he was loyal and generous to friends regardless of race.
Eyman offers perceptive views of Wayne's many films and a wagon's worth of revealing and entertaining anecdotes. If you think you know John Wayne, you'll know him even better as a movie star — and appreciate him even more as a person — after reading “The Life and Legend.”
Douglass K. Daniel is the author of “Tough as Nails: The Life and Films of Richard Brooks” (University of Wisconsin Press) and a staff writer for the Associated Press.