John Wayne: Screen Image–Choosing Name (from Marion Morrison to John Wayne to the Duke)

In a recent survey, John Wayne was selected as the most powerful and durable star in American history, even though he had been dead for over three decades.

Wayne was followed by Clint Eastwood (number two), but was positioned well ahead of Clark Gable, Jimmy Stewart, Paul Newman, and Rock Hudson.

What made Wayne (the Duke) so powerful and iconic for so long? How did it happen?

Part One of a Series of Five Articles

John Wayne’s powerful screen image did not emerge spontaneously or randomly–it was created gradually, and manufactured systematically.

He himself admitted that his screen persona was a product of 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).


“I figured I needed a gimmick,” he explained, “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.”

There eas risk involved, as he allowed, “It was a hit-or-miss project for a while,” but gradually “it began to develop.”

Early in his career, Wayne 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 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, “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–Strong, Short and to the Point

The first step in constructing Wayne’s image was getting him a “proper” screen name. His real 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.” Consequently, he and director 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 believed 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. In addition, what worked against his real name was that “Duke Morrison didn’t have enough prestige,” and “didn’t sound American enough for them.”

By contrast, the screen name chosen for him 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 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 Wayne’s Image: Trial and Error

Wayne’s screen image, like that of other stars, took form by trial and error, testing and retesting of various ideas.

John Wayne–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 public embarrassment, when his fans asked him to sing. But Wayne teased 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).