Circus World (1964): John Wayne Star Vs. Frank Capra Director

It’s hard to believe but one of John Wayne’s most unpleasant incidents while working with a top-notch director occurred with vet Oscar winning filmmaker Frank Capra on the set of Circus World, one of his weakest pictures.


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This time, however, it was writer James Edward Grant’s rather than Wayne’s fault. Wayne had been needling Capra for years for casting all of his friends–Gary Cooper, Clark Gable, and Jimmy Stewart–but never him. So the director “kept him in mind,” because, as he wrote, ” I thought that in that big hunk of solid man, there was the depth and the humanity of another Mr. Deeds, a Mr. Smith, or John Doe.”

Capra apparently did not realize that “when you took on Duke, you took on a small empire,” and that “part of that empire was a personal writer by the name of James Edward Grant.”

Grant was, according to Capra, Wayne’s “confidant, adviser, bosom play pal, baby sitter, flatterer, string-puller, and a personal Iago to incite mistrust between his meal ticket and film directors, especially name directors.” For obvious reasons, Grant preferred to work with television or young directors he “could handle.”

When Capra asked Grant to write the script, the latter replied, “You’re outta your mind…No use writing anything until Wayne gets here. Duke makes his own pictures, now. So relax, fella. When he gets here, he and I will knock you out a screenplay in a week.” Capra was further disturbed by Grant’s attitude toward the screenplay: “All you gotta have in a John Wayne picture is a hoity-toity dame with big tits that Duke can throw over his knee and spank, and a collection of jerks he can smash in the face every five minutes. In between, you fill in with gags, flags, and chases. That’s all you need. His fans eat it up!”

However, when Wayne showed up for rehearsals, he didn’t like the screenplay and demanded a new one written. Capra decided to resign but, out of a sense of responsibility, recommended veteran director Henry Hathaway, whom he described as “one of our best ‘get it done’ directors who took no guff from any actor,” as his replacement.

To his peer Hathaway’s query, “Why in hell are you walking out on the Duke” Capra replied, Hank, I’m not walking, I’m running.” After working for six months, writing, casting, and auditioning circus acts, Capra fled Madrid, where the film was shot, with “the same relief one flees Siberia.”

Capra regretted the experience, because he felt, “I could have cowed the big Duke into giving his best performance. I could have made a rousing hit out of Circus.”

Quite expectedly, Hathaway could not save the film either, and Circus World turned out to be one of Wayne’s clinkers. Wayne felt that, ultimately, it was Grant’s responsibility. Always the professional, after two decades of close collaboration and personal trust with Grant, Wayne decided to fire him.