Movie Stars: American Icons as Folk Heroes–Cooper, Fonda, Stewart, Wayne

American Icons: Movie Stars as Folk Heroes

Comparative Study of Gary Cooper, Henry Fonda, John Wayne, Jimmy Stewart

Alternate Title: Coop, Hank, Duke, and Jimmy

The screen images of durable powerful movie stars do not emerge spontaneously–they are created and fabricated gradually and systematically by various social forces.

Most movie stars, as Jeanine Basinger has shown in her great syudy, The Star Machine, have been the passive (or less passive) products of their respective studios.

However, Cooper, Fonda, Stewart and Wayne, the quartet of stars at the center of my book, were industrious and ambitious men, who took an active part in the creation and then maintenance of their respective screen careers and images.

Why These Four?

The book’s quartet of stars had belonged to the same generation, both biologically and sociologically.

Gary Cooper (ne Frank James Cooper) was born on May 7, 1901.

Henry Fonda (ne Henry Jaynes Fonda) was born on May 16, 1905.

John Wayne was born

Jimmy Stewart

Of the quartet, Fonda was the only one who had enjoyed the most durable stage and screen career.  Cooper and Wayne were strictly screen actors, whereas Stewart performed periodically in regional theater and on Broadway.

During his five decade career, Fonda cultivated a strong, appealing screen image in several films now considered to be classics, including The Grapes of Wrath, in 1940, for which he received his first Best Actor Oscar nomination.

Of the four, Cooper was the youngest when he died (60), on May 13, 1961, and Stewart was the oldest. John Wayne was 72 and Fonda was 77.

Known for his natural, authentic, understated acting style and screen performances, Cooper’s career spanned 36 years, from 1925 to 1961, and included leading roles in 84 feature films.

He was a major star from the end of the silent era to the end of the golden age of Classic Hollywood (roughly 1960).

Cooper’s screen persona appealed strongly to both men and women, and his range of performances included roles in various genres. His ability to project his own personality onto the screen characters he played contributed to his authentic appearance and career durability–his screen persona embodied the ideal American hero.

John Wayne once observed that his screen persona was a product of a methodical creation: “When I started, I knew I was no actor and I went to work on this Wayne thing.  It was as deliberate and studied projection as you’ll ever see.” (Richard Shepard, N.Y. Times, June 13, 1979).

He elaborated: “I figured I needed a gimmick, so I dreamed up the drawl, the squint, and a way of moving which meant to suggest that I wasn’t looking for trouble, but would just as soon throw a bottle at your head as not.”

As a young man, he realized that he took a risk, “it was a hit-or-miss project for a while,” but gradually “it began to develop.”

Early on in his career, Wayne said that he wanted to play a wide range of roles, “a thief, a heavy, a clown,” without limiting himself to one type, thinking it was “terrible, playing the same kind of guy all the time.” But he got a useful advice from Harry Carey’s wife. “Duke, take a look at Harry,” she said, “Would you want to see Harry any other way” “You’ve built a lot of friends who want to see you the way you are,” she explained, “They pay money at the box office to prove they like you that way. Don’t try to change.”

Wayne adopted her suggestion, claiming, “You have to become the image of the character in the film. If you fool them or try to be cute, you won’t be the man they came to see.” It was “a fine advice at a time when I was just starting to get ahead,” and it also convinced him, once and for all, to listen to his own “gut feeling.” (Seventeen, October 1971).

John Wayne: Screen Name

The first step in constructing Wayne’s image was assigning him a “proper” screen name.  His birth name was Marion Michael Morrison. and in his early movies he was billed as Michael Burn or Duke Morrison. Winfield Sheehan, then head of Fox, thought that Morrison “sounds like a circuit preacher,” and had “no impact.”

As a result, he and vet director Raoul Walsh started to scribble names on paper. “My mind opened the history books and real names of American pioneers,” Walsh recalled, “From them I got involved with the Revolution and came up with a name I had always liked. When I told Sheehan, he looked up and smirked as though he had thought of it. The name was John Wayne.” (Walsh 1974, p. 241).

Walsh held that it was the name of an American General of the Revolution, but according to other sources, it was taken from a Fox Western, The Arizona Romeo,” in which the hero’s name was John Wayne. Significantly, both Sheehan and Walsh considered Marion Morrison to be a girl’s name, thus far too effeminate for a cowboy star.

True, defending his name, Wayne said, taught him to fight at an early age. What also worked against his real name was that “Duke Morrison didn’t have enough prestige, and didn’t sound American enough for them.”

The screen name chosen for Wayne helped to particularize his public image, suggesting both personality and national traits: it was genuinely American, masculine, and easy enough for audiences to remember. It was also one of the few things Wayne “didn’t have any say on,” though in later years, he said: “it was a great name, short and strong and to the point.”

Wayne continued to be sensitive to his birth name throughout his career. At the suggestion of a British reporter that Marion was a girl’s name in England, Wayne gave him a sly look, grinned and said slowly, in his manner, “but in America, it belongs to a man. It’s a family name.” (Michael Wall, “Sunday Express,” November 2, 1962).

Shaping Images: Trials and Errors

Wayne’s screen image, like that of the other stars in my book, took form by trial and error, testing and retesting of various ideas and types of screen heroes.

John Wayne as a Singing Cowboy

It is hard to believe today that Monogram attempted to make a singing cowboy out of Wayne by creating the character of “Singin’ Sandy” Saunders. There were songs in some early Westerns, but the novelty of Monogram was in creating a distinct Western character that sang. Wayne was the first singing cowboy in The Riders of Destiny” (1933), before Gene Autry and Roy Rogers made successful careers out of this concept.

One major problem was that Wayne could not sing; he had a limited baritone. At first, he just mouthed the words while others, like Smith Bellow, sang. Another problem was Wayne’s inability to play the guitar. Nevertheless, he “sang” in The Man from Utah” (1934) and in Westward Ho!” (1935); two songs were sung by a cowboy group and a third dubbed by Wayne. Wayne courts Sheila Manners, in a later picture, while singing romantically “The Girl I Loved Long Ago.”

Wayne could not tolerate the idea of playing a character “who always sang when he got mad.” He recalled in later years: “The fact that I couldn’t sing–or play the guitar–became terribly embarrassing to me, especially on personal appearances. Every time I made a public appearance, the kids insisted that I sing ‘Desert Song’ or something.” He finally went to the head of the studio and said, “Screw this, I can’t handle it,” and quit musical Westerns once and for all. (Playboy,” May 1971).

Wayne’s was replaced as singing cowboy by Gene Autry, who first gained fame as a radio singer, then went on to become the most popular singing Western star. Autry writes humorously in his autobiography that two factor weighed against Wayne’s rise as a singing cowboy, “other than the obvious one of finding a leading lady who wouldn’t crack up.” (Autry, 1978, p. 35).

At first, Wayne’s songs were dubbed by other singers, even though in those days the quality of lip synch was not very good. But there was also an element of public embarrassment, when his fans asked him to sing. Wayne would tease Autry about it: “I caught one of my old Singin’ Sandy on TV, you know, it wasn’t as bad as I thought.” And, “If I’d kept on singing, and worked at it, you wouldn’t have stood a chance,” to which Autry replied, “It wasn’t my singing that put me over, it was my acting.” (Ibid, p. 36).

Truth is, Wayne never liked the idea of musical Westerns; it somehow did not fit his image of the Old West. Thus, when asked to describe the difference between his Davy Crockett (in The Alamo”) and the one played by Fess Parker, he was delighted to provide a quick answer, “I can’t sing.” (Erskine Johnson, L.A. Times,” October 25, 1960).

Uniquely American Folk Heroes

The most important attribute of the four stars’ screen images was their portrayal of genuinely and uniquely American heroes.

These stars’ entire screen output can be described as kind of glorification of the American hero, and the perpetuation of classic (old-fashioned) American ideals, dating back to the nineteenth century.

Hard, Isolate, Stoic, Killer

For many, Gary Cooper symbolized the essence of the American soul, described once by the writer D.H. Lawrence as “hard, isolate, stoic, and a killer.”

Cooper and Wayne–and Stewart later on in his career–embodied the virtues of America in its New Frontier era, its toughness and ruggedness.

The feminist critic Joan Mellen regards Wayne as the symbol of the American frontier– masculine, repressed, celibate, and brutalized.  In his best roles, the Duke epitomized the national virtues of rugged individualism and that pioneers’ heritage, which he translated into the notion that good and justice must always triumph over evil.

Only a few of Hollywood’s movie stars have been described as great American heroes, most notably Gary Cooper, Henry Fonda, John Wayne, and James Stewart. Bob Hope and Bing Crosby were also genuinely American figures, albeit in different ways.  As comedians or singers, Hope and Crosby lacked the definite screen personae that were associated with essential American values.

Interestingly, none of the era’s popular female stars, Joan Crawford, Bette Davis, or Doris Day, were regarded as distinctly American heroines on the level that Wayne, Stewart, and Cooper were. It seems that Americanism and patriotism have been linked more intimately with male than female stars.  This proposition, if valid, provides a revealing commentary on the differing attributes American culture has appropriated in describing “the ideal” American men and women.

Small-Town America

The social backgrounds of Wayne, Cooper, Fonda, and Stewart, were most appropriate to the mythical legends thay they went on to create.

All four were all born and/or reared in small towns: Wayne in Winterest, Iowa; Cooper in Helena, Montana; Fonda in Grand Island, Nebraska; and Stewart in Indiana, Pennsylvania.

Small towns, as I have shown in my book Small Town America, have been important in American culture, especially during the Depression, when these actors became popular, because of the strong belief in the virtues of rural life.

At the center of the myths of small-town America, as the critic Kerbel pointed out, was the heroic, self-reliant farmer, the mainstay of America until industrialization–and to a lesser degree even afterwards.  The notion of the farmer as an ideal type embodied the Puritanic ethos of honesty, hard work, and decent righteous living.

Henry Fonda: Farmer Pioneer

In the 1930s, Henry Fonda became the screen personification of the farmer-pioneer with his screen debut, The Farmer Takes a Wife in 1935, a romantic drama in which he plays a farmer whose sole wish is to work the land and live peacefully with his wife.

Later on, Fonda played a fighting pioneer in the pre-Independence era in Ford’s Drums Along the Mohawk,” and a farmer fighting social injustice in the powerful film version of Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath,” arguably his strongest screen performance. Fonda continued to symbolized the ordinary American soldier in Mister Roberts, and fought for basic American ideals, such as trial by a fair, democratic jury in Sidney Lumet’s Twelve Angry Men.”

Jimmy Stewart: Boy Scout, then Tough American

If Fonda epitomized the screen heroes as farmers, Jimmy Stewart was at his best when cast as a small-town lawyer.  Stewart establishing himself as an all-American hero in his pictures with Frank Capra, the director of “the American Dream.” He usually played small-town people who found pleasure and fulfillment in unglamorous, ordinary existence.

His Jefferson Smith in Capra’s Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” is a naive Wisconsin Senator, committed to fighting graft and corruption.

Stewart’s young sheriff in the 1939 Western comedy opposite Marlene Dietrich, “Destry Rides Again,” Thomas Jefferson Destry (note the similarity in his protagonists’ names) looks soft and easy-going, but is actually hard as nails when he has to fight. In Capra’s ultimate American movie, It’s a Wonderful Life,” their first collaboration after a lengthy military service, Stewart is cast as the simple but honest George Bailey who, all his life, has been dreaming of breaking away from his small-town and doing “big things,” only to realize how meaningful that life is to him.

Gary Cooper

Frank Capra also contributed to Gary Cooper’s image as spokesman for ordinary people and ordinary (mundane) lives.  In “Mr. Deeds Goes to Town,” Stewart’s Longfellow Deeds is a tuba-playing country boy who finds himself fighting the “Big City” crooks and swindlers.  In the 1941 Capra drama, “Meet John Doe,” Cooper sbegins as a desperate ex-bush league pitcher, but ends up fighting a Fascist publisher and a corrupt political system.


Biographical pictures, in which Cooper and Stewart played distinctly American, real-life heroes, also featured prominently in the careers of Cooper, Fonda, and Stewart, but less so in wayne’s case. No matter what figure they portrayed, be it historical or contemporary, their heroes stood for basic American values: simplicity, humility, honesty, integrity, and courage.

Of the many biographical roles Gary Cooper had played, two stood out: Alvin York, the First World War hero in “Sergeant York,” for which he won his first Best Actor Oscar Award, in 1941.  He followed the next year with playing Lou Gehrig, the admired baseball player, who died prematurely, for which he received another Oscar nomination.

Stratton, Glenn Miller

Jimmy Stewart had excelled in “The Stratton Story,” as the baseball hero who continued to play with an artificial leg, and in “The Glenn Miller Story,” as America’s most popular band leader who died in an air-crash in World War II. In both movies, he was cast against June Allyson, who played his devoted and loyal wife, living in perfectly idyllic marriages.

Compared with these two stars, Wayne played fewer real-life heroes, and bio-pictures, as a genre, featured less prominently in his oeuvre. Furthermore, these movies were made rather late in his career and subsequently did not affect his image in the same way that they had affected Stewart’s or Cooper’s careers.

Wayne as Navy Aviation Commander Frank (“Spig”) Wead

Wayne was cast as Navy Aviation Commander Frank (“Spig”) Wead, who became a successful Hollywood screenwriter, following an injury, in Ford’s Wings of the Eagle.” And his portrayal of Townsend Harris, the first American ambassador to Japan, in John Huston’s “The Barbarian and the Geisha,” was even less successful; for some, it’s one of his worst pictures.

Wayne as Davy Crockett

Wayne took great pride, however, in his characterization of Colonel Benjamin Vandervoort in “The Longest Day,” and, of course, as Davy Crockett, Texas’s heroic fighter in The Alamo.” Nonetheless, all things considered, Wayne had built his reputation as a uniquely American hero by playing mythic fictional Westerners and war soldiers, not real-life figures.


Script Revisions

Wayne’s demand for revisions was based on strong instincts as to the elements that best suited him. He asked Ford, for example, to make changes in “The Were Expendable,” because he did not like the humiliation involved in the evacuation scene from Bataan. Thus, a new scene, in which he was willing to disobey orders and sneak off to a jungle guerrilla, until a superior officer orders him back aboard, was added.

By contrast, Wayne liked the scene in which he loathes leaving the battlefront, “I got business here,” because it was congruent with the independent and rebellious streak in his screen persona.

Director John Ford also changed the ending of She Wore a Yellow Ribbon” to a more optimistic one. Initially, Wayne was to take his leave and be seen, at the film’s end, riding off to a new settlement. But Ford did not want to end the picture on a sad note, with Wayne fading off, so he added a new scene in which a dispatch rider is sent after Wayne, assigning him a new appointment, as the Chief of Scouts with the rank of Lieutenant Colonel.

Changes in Red River

A few changes were also introduced into Red River to suit Wayne’s public image. At first, Hawks wanted him to play Thomas Dunson as a coward, which Wayne flatly rejected. Instead, he played him as a strong man who has fears, reasoning that, “as a man, you can be scared, but you can’t be a coward.”

Because Wayne was only forty-one when he played the aging cattleman, Hawks asked veteran actor Walter Brennan to teach the star how to walk like an old man. Once again, Wayne objected, claiming that none of the outdoorsmen he knew were tottery, stoop-shouldered, or bow-legged.

The movie differs from the original story, on which it is based, in other ways. In the book, Dunson competes with Matt Garth for the love of Tess Millay, but in the movie, Tess is interested in Wayne just in order to protect Matt, her true love. Moreover, contrary to the original, in which Wayne is killed, Hawks decided to keep his characters alive; death was incongruent with Wayne’s screen immortality.

Rio Bravo Modified

Howard Hawks’s Rio Bravo” originated in opposition to Zinnemann’s 1952 High Noon,” a Western that neither Wayne nor Hawks liked, feeling that its spirit severely deviated from their idea of the “Real West.” Hawks did not think that “a good sheriff was going to go running around town like a chicken with his head off asking for help.” Instead, he claimed, “a good sheriff would turn around and say, ‘How good are you Are you good enough to take the best they’ve got'” (McBride, 1972, 15-16).

Wayne’s objections to the film were even stronger than Hawks’s. He described its plot with great contempt: “In that picture, four guys come in to gun down the sheriff. He goes to the church and asks for help and the guys go, ‘Oh well, Oh. gee.’ And the women stand up and say, ‘You’re rats. You’re rats. You’re rats.’ So Cooper goes out alone.” “It’s the most un-American thing I’ve seen in my whole life,” charged the actor, for the rugged men of the frontier, who had battled the Indians as well as nature, would not be afraid of four villains. Instead, they would have united, as they had united “to make the land habitable.” Wayne was also humiliated by the movie’s last scene, showing Cooper “putting the United States marshal’s badge under his foot and stepping on it.” (Playboy,” May 1971). Walking away from his job, as Cooper did, was inconceivable to Wayne’s commitment to responsibility and public office.

In “Rio Bravo,” Wayne’s sheriff refuses all but selected help, and he gets more assistance than he expects. Offered help, he characteristically says, “If they are really good, I’ll take them. If not, I’ll just take care of them.” Another major difference is that Cooper’s marshal was scared and faced a severe inner conflict before deciding to handle the crisis by himself, whereas Wayne’s sheriff is independent and unwaveringly courageous. In contrast to Cooper, Wayne plays a superior and self-assured sheriff, who could easily inspire and rally the men around his leadership.

Wayne denounced another popular 1950s Western starring Cooper, “They Came to Cordura,” in which Cooper’s Marshal Thomas Thorn is assigned, due to cowardice in battle, the degrading task of “Awards officer” to the Mexican expedition of 1916. His task is to select five men as candidates for the Congressional Medal of Honor, because Washington needs heroes in a hurry for a World War I recruiting campaign. “How they got Gary Cooper to do that one,” Wayne wondered, “to me, at least, it simply degrades the Medal of Honor.” “The whole story makes a mockery of America’s highest award for valor,” Wayne elaborated, “the whole premise of the story was wrong, illogical,” because “they don’t pick the type of men the movie picked to win the award, and that can be proved by the very history of the award.”

In contrast, when Otto Preminger cast Wayne in the 1965 high-profile WWII movie, “In Harm’s Way,” it was in complete harmony with Wayne’s favorite screen role.  As Wayne himself  said: “In this picture, I must show that I care about other people.  Otherwise, when they go off and get killed on my orders, people will hate me.”

Wayne had famously said that he didn’t mind “audiences hating me, as they did perhaps in Red River, but at least they understood my point of view.” (Tomkies, 1971, p. 124).