John Wayne: Screen Image–Consistent Personality (Part 6)

The coherence of Wayne’s screen image, over such a prolonged period of time, may be attributed to the degree of control that he had exercised over his career.  Wayne deployed several means to maintain such control, the most important and obvious of which was to become the producer of his movies.

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The Duke preferred to be the producer of his pictures because it provided him overall supervision that could not be achieved otherwise.  The first film in which he was a star and producer was Angel and the Badman (1947), a black and white Western which was written and directed by James E. Grant.  That film’s production values were polished, a result of Wayne’s meticulous attention to detail and Archie Stout’s distinguished cinematography.

Wayne went on to produce other movies for Republic, such as The Fighting Kentuckian (1949), one of his more obscure and forgettable Westerns, in which he cast himself as a farmer who’s fighting greedy land barons.

Wayne-Fellows Productions

Working as a producer-star was such a gratifying experience that in 1952 he established the Wayne-Fellows Productions, with Robert Fellows, a veteran executive.  That company was responsible for a series of highly profitable features, directed by William Wellman.

One of their first features was Island in the Sky (1953), a tale of survival of a transport plane’s crew, headed by Wayne, after a forced landing.  Another was the blockbuster The High and the Mighty (1954), a forerunner of the “disaster” movies, which became very popular in the 1970s.

Similar in plot to that of Airport (and its sequels), the story could be described as “Grand Hotel in the air,” with a diverse group of passengers, each burdened with a personal problem, while facing a crash landing.  Both Island in the Sky and The High and the Mighty were based on Ernest K. Gann’s books. and the latter was so popular with audiences that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences also gave its approval via four Oscar nominations, winning one for Dmitri Tiomkin’s melodic music.

Because Wayne considered himself a valuable property, he felt he should “protect that investment,” as much as possible and make movies that suited his political values.  And the best way to do it was to establish his own production company, Batjac, and be its sole boss.  Batjac was from the beginning an intimate family operation, employing family members and close friends.  His younger brother, Robert Emmet Morrison, served as production executive and, in the l960s, Michael, his eldest son, took over the company’s management.

Batjac produced Wayne’s most personal and ambitious pictures, three of which were highly propagandistic: The Alamo, McLintock! and The Green Berets.  It is unlikely that these movies would have been produced by other studios, particularly The Green Berets, which was highly controversial.

Wayne’s repeated work with the same directors and screenwriters also accounted for the amazing continuity in his screen image.  He worked, of course, with various writers, though only a few were important in establishing his screen persona.  Their screenplays were tailor-made to his ideological specifications, but they were also written in terms of what he could–and could not do–as an actor.  The writers who wrote for him from the 1950s on, were so influenced by his already established image that they did not dare deviate from the formula; they also knew that if they did, he would ask for revisions.

James E. Grant, a pulp novelist and writer of action pictures, was Wayne’s favorite and most influential screenwriter, contributing nine scenarios, beginning with Angel and the Badman, which he also directed.  Grant’s important scripts, in terms of image-making, were two war movies, Sands of Iwo Jima and The Flying Leathernecks; two political vehicles, Big Jim McLain and The Alamo; and two Westerns, Hondo and McLintock!  Wayne relied heavily on Grant’s work and trusted him implicitly–until Circus World, whose embarrassing failure led to Grant being fired.

Vet helmer Allan Dwan recalled that when he directed Sands of Iwo Jima, Wayne was so concerned that his role fit his image that he brought Grant to change some of the dialogue.  The screenplay, written by Harry Brown, was “perfect for Wayne,” according to Dwan, “except that he wants to say things in a certain way, and a writer sometimes writes a phrase a little differently.”  Wayne was “very simple and very plain,” said the director, “and he seemed to think that Grant was the only man who could put the words the way he ought to say them.”

“We evolved a system,” said Grant about his contribution to the evolution of the Wayne persona, “of making him a sort of bystander in situations, instead of actively taking part in them.”  Wayne typically played a man “who was not looking for trouble, but was relentless in tackling it when it affronted him.”  Grant thought it was an interesting device because of the contrast: “For an actor so consistently associated with action pictures and combats, Wayne did stand out as a passive figure.” Wayne thought of himself as a reactor, “I can react to a situation that has already been built up when I walk on. I do not like to have to explain that situation myself.”

Of his eighteen-year-collaboration with Wayne, Grant said: “Because he’s built like an ox, lots of guys think Duke is a big, dumb lummox.  He isn’t.”  Wayne could “pick out the holes in them scripts faster than I can,” Grant said.  And contrary to his public image as “the big, calm rock of Gibraltar,” he described the star as “eternally concerned with what he is doing in pictures, and how he is going to come out.”

Another frequent contributor to Wayne’s screenplays was Frank S. Nugent, former critic of the New York Times, who wrote some scenarios for Westerns directed by Ford, his father-in-law.  Nugent wrote Fort Apache, Three Godfathers, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (the last two with Lawrence Stallings), and The Searchers.  But he also penned the idyllic romance The Quiet Man and the romantic adventure, Donovan’s Reef, the last in collaboration with Grant.   These two movies shared many thematic similarities, particularly in Wayne’s sex image and attitude toward women.

Leigh Brackett, a science-fiction and mystery writer, wrote four of the five Hawks-Wayne movies: Rio Bravo (with Hawks), Hatari! El Dorado, and Rio Lobo (also with Hawks).  Red River, their first teaming, was penned by the distinguished writer Borden Chase, who had written the script for Wayne’s war movie, The Fighting Seabees (with Aeneas Mackenzie).

Chase also wrote Flame of the Barbary Coast, set in San Francisco during the 1906 earthquake, in which he named Wayne’s character the Duke.  Similar literary conventions were deployed by Chase in constructing Wayne’s character in these movies.  In each, Wayne plays a stubborn, individualistic man who alienates his friends by his maverick conduct, until he learns the hard way that he has erred and has to conform.  Chase was highly aware of the novelty in creating a new “character” roles for the star, but he was sure it would work, predicting after Red River that Wayne would play variants of this role for the next twenty years, which he did.

Grant collaborated with Clair Huffaker on the scenario of The Comancheros, which Wayne liked so much that he asked the latter to adapt his book, Badman, to the screen, resulting in The War Wagon, a routine Western opposite Kirk Douglas.  Huffaker’s adaptation attested to great familiarity with the ingredients of the star’s typical hero, and Wayne continued to employ him.  His third and last screenplay for the star was Hellfighters, a tale loosely based on the real-life oil fighter Red Adaire.  A contrived formula, it contained all the familiar clichés, such as a loving wife who reluctantly leaves him because she cannot handle the pressures of his dangerous work; a daughter he has not seen for years; and, of course, a happy reconciliation of all parties involved.

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This essay was checked October 15, 2020.

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