John Wayne: Stars Vs. Hollywood Studios–Wayne Vs. Gable, Bogart, Robert Taylor, Cary Grant–

John Wayne’s career provides a unique case for examining how a powerful screen image was created and maintained for over half a century. Wayne was the truest auteur of his films, as the critic Andrew Sarris observed in 1971: “In this, the age of the director, there still are a few actors whose strong personalities can inform the mood, pacing, and structure of an entire film.” “Mr. Wayne’s presence, physical as well as emotional,” the New York Times critic Vincent Canby concurred, “shaped his movies as much as the contributions of the writers, directors, producers, and cameramen.”

Of all the movie star-auteurs, Wayne was probably the only one to exercise such degree of control over the construction and continuity of his image. One of the distinguishing features of Wayne’s work was his determination to carve his own career, which he did, from the 1940s on.

Clark Gable

Wayne stands in sharp contrast to Gable or Taylor, who were literally the creations of MGM’s publicity machine. Gable, for example, fully cooperated with his studio because he wanted to be a successful star and knew he could not achieve that without the studio’s active sponsorship. He became a model of cooperation, never giving anybody trouble, always on time for photo sessions and always polite to the press. And he accepted what the studio told his to do; his contract denied him choice of roles. “I just work here,” he once said, “I try to work well and hard. It’s my business to work, not to think.”

Gable benefited from MGM’s tight control because he was not a very good judge of his abilities, even when given the choice. He spent 23 of his 30-year-career at MGM, which created a charming screen image for him and promoted his popularity through extensive exposure. Gable was even told how to lead his romantic life and spend his leisure time–and he listened.

In l955, however, he decided to become freelance, as was the fashion at the time, but none of the 9 films he made until his death, with the exception of The Misfits,” was superior in any way to his MGM formulaic movies. Gable realized that without the studio’s machine, his career was not viable.

Robert Taylor, another MGM product, also lacked control over his career. “I stayed with the studio for 24 years,” he recalled, “did my work, took what they gave me to do.” Much less ambitious and talented that either Gable or Wayne, Taylor summed up his career as, “I was just a guy gifted with looks I had done nothing to earn, who fell into a career that I was never overly ambitious about.”

Humphrey Bogart

Bogart, by contrast, fought constantly with his employers at Warner for better scripts and better parts. Like his colleagues Jimmy Cagney and Bette Davis, he was suspended several times for refusing to abide by the studio’s rule.

In 1946, at the peak of his career as the screen’s highest-paid actor, Bogart signed a fifteen-year-contract with Warner, which broke all precedents. Two years later, however, he formed his own company, Santana, releasing his movies through Columbia. But the six movies that Bogart produced, in four of which he starred, were for the most part undistinguished and unsuccessful at the box-office.

Bogart’s experience as a freelance actor and independent producer was unrewarding, because he could not get the properties that he wanted, and also because he was not a very good judge of scripts suitable for him. His best work, in retrospect, was at Warner–despite the disagreements and suspensions.

Cary Grant

Wayne’s career resembled in some respects that of Cary Grant, who started at Paramount in 1932, playing second fiddle to the studio’s major star, Gary Cooper. But in 1937, after five years of routine pictures, except for the camp comedies opposite Mae West, he became Hollywood’s first successful freelance actor.
Determined never again to sign exclusively with another studio, he became responsible for his own career, choosing most carefully screenplays and directors. Indeed, many of his films after l937 were not only popular but classics of their kind, including The Awful Truth, Bringing Up Baby,” and His Girl Friday.

Wayne, like Grant, gave his best performances when he was on his own. Moreover, the distinctive screen image of both Grant and Wayne took shape after leaving their sponsors and home studios: Grant after Paramount, and Wayne after
Republic.

But perhaps more than Grant, what made Wayne a unique actorauteur was not only the coherence of his image, but also the fact that it completely blended with his personality offscreen–until the actor and the person became indistinguishable. Wayne’s work has gradually become a series of political statements and personal values, reiterated in film after film.
His image was so consistent that audiences knew what to expect of his pictures. Wayne “brings to each new movie,” claimed the critic turned director Peter Bogdanovich, “good or bad, a resonance and a sense of the past–his own and ours–that fills it with reverbations above and beyond his own perhaps limited qualities,” which “is the true measure of what makes a great movie star.”