John Wayne: Screen Image–Sex Appeal and Sexuality–Wayne Vs. Gable

Even as an older star, some critics thought that John Wayne still possessed “a more extensive sexual range than younger, ostensibly hipper studs like Paul Newman and Robert Redford.” Describing Wayne as “the last movie star to make respect sexy,” Newsweek’s Jack Kroll claimed that there was “plenty of eroticism in the Duke, but it’s a friendly eroticism that takes any woman on her own terms.”

Wayne was a true gentleman beneath the rough exterior facade, and more accepting of his women than other stars. A “tender Titan,” Molly Haskell wrote, “capable of two-fisted fury but infinitely more capable of chivalry and fatherly wisdom. Wayne was secure enough in his masculine identity to listen to women, and he could often respond to them with less vanity and more humanity than could a romantic lead.”

True, Wayne never had to display sexual prowess in the manner that Clark Gable or Sean Connery’s James Bond did. “Bond’s crude sexual exhibitionism,” the critic Joan Mellen observed, “shows the need endlessly to prove a capacity, the more secure Wayne always took for granted.” Wayne’s heroes acted effortlessly, “with neither self-doubt nor anxiety,” and, “because his very reflexes guide him in how to be a man, he requires neither intellect nor the brutalization of women to prove himself.”

A consistent trait of Wayne’s sex image was his tenderness with women. His gentle courtship had none of the compulsive womanizing of the male chauvinist. He was deeply emotional, which he expressed eloquently with his eyes and his voice. “If he thought he was better off on his own,” Haskell noted, “it was not from the narcissism of the compulsive lover, but because he hadn’t yet come to understand what he would come to understand: that men and women could be not only lovers but friends.”

Wayne’s passion for women was restrained rather than carnal or lusty. His gentleness stood in sharp opposition to James Cagney’s brashness or Clark Gable’s toughness with women.

Gable’s Sexual Image

Gable’s sexual image, based on handsome looks and erotic carnality, was diametrically opposed to Wayne’s. Comparing the two, director Howard Hawks once observed that, “in a romantic scene, Clark Gable always forced the issue with a girl,” whereas Wayne “is better when the girl is forcing the issue.”

Gable always pursued women in his films, provoking their affection through aggression. Wayne’s sexual authority was so secure, he did not have to. Women in Wayne’ films were more sexually driven than he was; they were the first to initiate romantic or sexual encounters. Furthermore, Gable’s screen persona was defined” by his relationships with women; he was always placed in an explicitly romantic or sexual context. Take the women out of Gable’s movies and you are left with a void, because they are the center of the narrative, which is not the case with Wayne.

Gable’s most frequent screen ladies were Hollywood’s glamour and sex goddesses. He appeared in eight movies with Joan Crawford, seven with Myrna Loy (before she became the symbol of the American housewife), six with Jean Harlow, four with Lana Turner, and three with Ava Gardner. Significantly, Gable’s less successful performances were opposite gentle and more sophisticated stars, such as Helen Hayes and Greer Garson.

Crawford, Harlow, and Gardner were his best female partners because they were similar to him in their screen image: lower-class, simple, sexy, earthy, and a bit vulgar. The quintessential Gable hero was the aggressive male who manhandled his women to prove his superiority. He slapped Norma Shearer across the face in “A Free Soul,” and did the same to Barbara Stanwyck in Night Nurse” and To Please a Lady.” Joan Crawford was roughed up in Dance, Fools, Dance” and many other movies. Gable took no nonsense from women; he humiliated them by blowing smoke on their faces. He needed to dominate women, as he characteristically told Norma Shearer in A Free Soul”: “You make no bargains with anyone but me.”

Gable was much more constricted by his “macho” image than Wayne. As Rhett Butler in Gone with the Wind,” he refused to cry, believing that crying was unmanly behavior that might tarnish his masculine image; director Victor Fleming had to plead with him. Ironically, Gable was at first reluctant to play this role, though most people thought he was born for.

Gable used his overt sex appeal to get higher-class women than himself, as was the case with Claudette Colbert in “It Happened One Night.” Gable usually played the self-confident, flamboyant, unattainable male whom women adored because they thought they could not get or hold him, if they did get him. However, in the course of a typical Gable film, his character undergoes a transformation from the desirable, boyish bachelor to the domsticated husband who does not mind settling down–provided it is for and with the “right” woman. But until he finds the right girl, he flirts and has fun with many women.

In Gable’s movies, there are usually two types of women, the bad (or good-bad) and the really good and innocent girl. In the popular movie “Red Dust,” Gable flirts with Mary Astor, but he sends her back to her husband, refusing to wreck her family life. At the film’s climax, when she shoots him in anger, he tells her in his most relaxed manner: “I’m not a one-woman man. I never have been and I never will. If you want to take your turn….”