John Wayne: John Ford as Creator and Mentor–Part 2

 I owe my entire career to John Ford–John Wayne
Over the decades of teaching various film courses on American film history, major directors and movie stars, students have often asked me about the role of directors in shaping the careers of their actors.  Or, to put it differently, to what extent a strong and powerful director can (or could) be instrumental in launching and/or catapulting a particular actor to major stardom.

It is an intriguing and complex question, but not easily answerable.  And it may differ from one director to another, and from one movie star to another.

Would Humphrey Bogart have become a star without his collaboration with director John Huston on half a dozen pictures, beginning with The Maltese Falcon, in 1941.

Could Jimmy Stewart have emerged as a national folk hero and movie icon without the help of Frank Capra, with whom he made three of his most memorable films, You Can’t Take It With You (1938), Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939), and especially It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)

I do know, for sure, that John Wayne, still the greatest and most durable star in American film history, would not–and could not–have become a major player without the guidance of  John Ford, a director who had singlehandedly shaped his career.

John Ford-John Wayne: 18 Films Together

John Ford directed eighteen pictures with John Wayne, beginning with Mother Machree in 1928 and ending with Donovan’s Reef in 1963.

Nine of those films were Westerns: Stagecoach, Fort Apache, Three Godfathers, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, Rio Grande, The Searchers, The Horse Soldiers, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, and one episode in the sprawling saga, How the West Was Won.

Other noteworthy Ford-Wayne collaborations included two war-set movies, The Long Voyage Home and They Were Expendable, and a romantic idyll, The Quiet Man.

Ford changed singlehandedly the career course of Wayne.  Starting as Ford’s prop man and stunt man, Wayne gradually progressed until he became his major star, especially in Westerns.

The relationship between Ford and Wayne was unique, going beyond the routine director-actor collaboration. Ford molded Wayne into a distinct screen personality in a manner that sculptors work with clay.

Ford also served as a father figure; Wayne’s parents divorced when he was in high school and Ford fulfilled parental functions at a time when Wayne was confused about his career and lacked direction for the future.

Early Collaboration

stagecoach_posterIt was the film Salute, in 1929, in which Wayne had his first speaking role, that marked the beginning of a meaningful friendship with Ford.

An incident during the shooting accounted to a large extent for the mutual respect they would hold for each other.  In later years, Wayne enjoyed telling it in great detail: “They’d always ask you how you crouched to bust the line, and then they’d trip you.  It was a corny joke, but I always tried to be patient. Ford tried it and I went flat on my face in the mud.  I said, ‘let’s try it again,’ only this time I turned suddenly and let him have my foot right where it would do the most good.  This was daring with an important director, but Ford loved it.” After this picture, Ford and Wayne “learned to share all the secrets of friendship.”

Stagecoach: The Turning Point

Nonetheless, it would take another nine years before Ford and Wayne worked together again.  In 1938, Ford handed Wayne Ernest Waycox’s short story, “Stagecoach to Lordsburg,” and then asked him to suggest an actor for the lead.

stagecoach_3_wayneWhen Wayne said there was only one actor who could play it, Lloyd Nolan, Ford stormed, “Why, you stupid son of a bitch…I want you to play it.”  Truth is, Wayne “was hoping like hell that he wouldn’t say Lloyd Nolan.”  But at that point in his career, Ford was the director who believed in Wayne’s dubious faculties as an actor.

Recalled Wayne: “There was a lot of resistance to my playing the part–and with good reasons.  After all, a theater could get me in a Republic Western for five dollars.  So why should they pay $200 for me in Stagecoach”

Once Ford made up his mind, however, he was firm, though it was not easy to convince producer Walter Wanger, who was enthusiastic about the project, but not about Wayne. Wanger wanted Marlene Dietrich and Gary Cooper, who had co-starred successfully in two films, Morocco and Desire, for the prostitute and outlaw roles, but Ford insisted that Wayne and Claire Trevor play them.

stagecoach_4_wayneFord was aware of the risk he was taking since Wayne was by no means a “finished performer,” but “he was the only person I could think at the time who could personify great strength and determination without talking much.” Ford had had Wayne on his mind when he first read the story and he convinced Wanger by saying “we can get him for peanuts.”

Indeed, Wayne was paid only $6,000 for his entire work on this picture, way below the average for a lead part at the time.

Ford took big risks casting Wayne as the Ringo Kid because he was labeled a “B” Western actor. Wayne himself had doubts of whether he could play the role convincingly.  But the timing of Ford’s offer could not have been better, “just about the time I was ready to resign myself of being run-of-the-mill actor for the rest of my life.” “Everybody told Ford he was committing suicide,” Wayne recalled, “risking a third rate bum like me in a million dollar movie.” Wayne said he was getting “disgusted” with his bad pictures and “would have gone back to being a prop man, if it hadn’t been for Jack Ford.”

stagecoach_2The off-screen friendship with Ford did not spare Wayne on the set of Stagecoach.  The veteran director was notorious for picking on inexperienced actors. It was his method of provoking a good performance out of them.

Wayne was no exception. “He dares you to do,” he later said, “to do it right–to do it good.  You’re really sort of on trial all the time.”  Ford encouraged competitiveness and liked to play nasty games in positing his actors against each other. “You really don’t know what he’s going to think of it,” elaborated Wayne, “Actually, you don’t know what’s going to happen in the scene.”  The ambiance on the set was “nervousness, with tension every place, everybody’s on edge.”

Ford was indeed merciless, endlessly criticizing Wayne’s singular walk, mode of delivery of lines, (lack of) expression,–practically everything he did.  On the first day of shooting, Ford yelled at Wayne: “Don’t you know how to walk.  You’re as clumsy as a hippo.  And stop slurring your dialogue and show some expression. You look like a poached egg!”

ech8xdop28cUnder Ford’s harsh training and persistent attention to every detail, however, Wayne learned how to act.  It was not an easy task, partly because Wayne had a very low regard of himself as an actor.  He always knew there was something appealing about his screen presence–likability factor–but he was afraid to go beyond his limited experience, largely determined by the roles he was given to play.   Ford’s task was to give Wayne self-assurance, to make him feel like a pro actor–and he did.

Raise your eyebrow, wrinkle your forehead

In a romantic scene with Claire Trevor, Wayne had trouble expressing his love for her beyond the strict dialogue.  Ford then instructed him to raise his eyebrow and wrinkle his forehead, a device that worked for he continued to use the same expression for the rest of his career.

More useful advice came when Ford told him, “Duke, you’re going to get a lot of scenes during your life.  They’re going to seem corny to you.  Play ’em. Play ’em to the hilt.  If  it’s East Lynne, play it. You’ll get by with it, but if you start trying to play with it with your tongue in your cheek and getting cute, you’ll lose sight of yourself…and the scene will be lost.”


stagecoach_1_wayneWhen I interviewed her, Claire Trevor
 recalled that Ford was really tough on Wayne, but he took it like a man, and “he learned eight volumes about acting in that picture.”

As for Wayne, “the first two days, I had to take the worst ragging in my career.”  Ford’s technique worked; he kept Wayne on the edge by playing him against the more experienced actors, Trevor, Thomas Mitchell, Donald Meek, and George Bancroft. “I surrounded him with superb actors,” Ford said, “and some of the glitter rubbed off on his shoulder.”

In the end, Stagecoach received many Oscar nominations, including Best Picture, winning Best Supporting Actor for Thomas Mitchell as the alcoholic doctor.

Checked out on Oct 8, 2020.