John Wayne: Box-Office Champion–Hollywood’s Biggest Star

The movies of John Wayne have grossed collectively more than any star, male or female of his generation; the amount is roughly estimated at $700 million in the United States alone.

Based on annual polls, Variety named him the box-office champion of all time. Indeed, Wayne has been the only movie star with 32 pictures on the Variety compilation of all-time money-grossers. His earliest film on the list is Reap the Wild Wind in l942, grossing four million dollars, and his latest (and last) is The Shootist, whose domestic rentals amounted to six million dollars. On Variety’s compilation are two movies of the l940s (Red River is the other one), seven in the l950s, sixteen in the l960s, and seven in the l970s. Significantly, from l967 to l976, only two of the sixteen films he made, The Train Robbers and Brannigan, were not among Variety’s all-time champions. Wayne’s movies have been consistently among the top grossing movies, regardless of their individual merit.

With the possible exception of The Big Trail, which cost two million dollars and was a financial fiasco, very few of his movies failed at the box office. Even his “B” Westerns were profitable. Westward Ho! for instance, cost 17,000 dollars, but grossed over half a million dollars, a 30 to 1 pay off. Many films panned by the critics proved to be popular smash hits. Sea Chase, for example, received unanimously unfavorable reviews, but grossed six million dollars in the United States alone, an equivalent of over 30 million dollars at present. This was a fantastic figure in the l950s, when few movies grossed more than four million dollars.

Wayne’s box-office popularity becomes more dramatic when compared with other stars of his generation. Contrasted with Wayne’s thirty all-time grossers, Jimmy Stewart and Cary Grant had each twelve, Henry Fonda nine, Spencer Tracy eight, Clark Gable seven, Gary Cooper six, Humphrey Bogart and James Cagney each three, Alan Ladd and Robert Taylor each two, and Tyrone Power only one.

Beginning in l932, the Quigley publications have asked movie exhibitors in the U.S. to name the top ten box-office stars of the year. These annual polls can be used as an approximate measure of popular taste over the last half a century. Accordingly, Wayne has been the only star to appear twenty five times on the top ten poll. His first appearance was in l949 (ranking fourth), following Red River and Fort Apache. It is noteworthy that a year earlier, on the l948 poll, Wayne occupied the 33rd position. The last time Wayne was among the top ten stars was in l974, in the tenth position. With the exception of one year, l958, the lowest ebb in his career, after such clinkers as The Conqueror, Jet Pilot, and Legend of the Lost, Wayne was on the poll for twenty-five consecutive years. Moreover, he occupied the top position, the most popular star in America four times: in l950, after the success of Sands of Iwo Jima; in l951, after the war movies Operation Pacific and Flying Leathernecks; in l954, following Hondo and The High and the Mighty; and in l971, following his l970 Oscar Award for True Grit and Rio Lobo.

In l975, Wayne dropped out of favor with the American public, but his decline was gradual: he ranked fourth in l972, ninth in l973, and tenth in l974. He continued to be popular, however, occupying the fifteenth position in l975, and eleventh in l976, due to the relative success of Rooster Cogburn and The Shootist. Film exhibitors ranked him as a popular star in l977 (in the 23rd position) and in l978 (25th), despite the fact that he did not make any movie in these years!

Wayne was among the top ten seven years longer than Gary Cooper (eighteen years) and nine years longer than Clark Gable (sixteen years), the two previous champions. Cooper was popular in l936-7, l941, from l943 to 1949, and from l951 to l957; he occupied the top position just once, in l953, after his Oscar Award for High Noon. Gable was on the poll from l932 to l943, when he was drafted, from l947 to l949, and for the last time in l955, but he was never at the top. Other performers of Wayne’s generation were popular for a lesser number of years: Cary Grant for eleven years, Spencer Tracy and Jimmy Stewart each ten, Humphrey Bogart eight, James Cagney six, Robert Taylor and Tyrone Power each three, Alan Ladd two, and Errol Flynn one year only. Note that Henry Fonda, one of the most acclaimed actors in America, has never become a screen box-office champion.

The average durability of American players, measured by the number of years they were box-office champions, has been five for male and three for female stars. Of the current stars, only three have been on the poll for over a decade: Clint Eastwood eighteen years, Paul Newman thirteen, and Burt Reynold twelve. Newman’s last appearance on the list was in l982 (The Verdict), which means that the only serious contenders to Wayne’s crown as the world’s box-office champions are Eastwood and Reynolds, assuming they continue to make popular films for another decade, which is doubtful.

What is amazing is that Wayne continued to be a popular star long after his colleagues’s popularity declined and long after many retired or died. Humphrey Bogarty was the first of Hollywood’s great star to pass away, in l957, at the peak of his career and at the young age of fifty-eight. Bogart was followed by Tyrone Power, who died in l958, Errol Flynn in l959, Clark Gable in l960, Gary Cooper in l961, Alan Ladd in l964, Spencer Tracy in l967, and Robert Taylor in l969. Of the stars who began their careers in the l930s, only three were making movies in the l970s: Wayne, who died in l979; Fonda, who died in l982; and Jimmy Stewart, the only survivor of this breed. Cary Grant retired in l962, and Cagney in l961; the latter made a comeback in l981 (Ragtime), but died in l986.

Wayne’s durability as a box-office champion spanned a generation, from l949 to l974, regardless of changes in the political, social, and cultural context of the times. One joke in the industry was that Presidents and Administrations have come and gone, but Wayne was still at the top. Indeed, in the early l950s, Wayne was on the poll with Cooper, Gable, Tracy, and Stewart, and in the late l950s, with William Holden, Burt Lancaster, Glenn Ford, and Marlon Brando.

Players appeared and disappeared from the poll quite rapidly, but he remained. In the early l960s, Wayne was a popular star along with Rock Hudson, Jack Lemmon, and Paul Newman, and later in the decade, his star company included another set of actors–Sean Connery, Lee Marvin, and Steve McQueen. And in the l970s, Wayne was joined by yet another generation of actors–Dustin Hoffman, Robert Redford, Clint Eastwood, and Charles Bronson.