John Wayne: John Ford, Creator and Star-Maker–Part 2

Part Two

Please read Part One

John Wayne: John Ford as Creator and Mentor–Part 2

Master and Apprentice

Despite their growing off-screen friendship, their professional relationship was to remain that of master and apprentice almost to the end.

Act our age, go to bed

Gene Autry had observed that Wayne “could be tough and rowdy but in the presence of Ford, whom he revered, he could be as obedient and innocent as an altar boy.”  Wayne was actually afraid of Ford; if the director thought he had too many drinks he would reproach him in public, “Act your age. You’re not a prop boy any more. Go to bed.”  Wayne would then promptly retire.

An incident, occurring when they worked on a television special, was indicative of their special relationship. The night before the telecast, Wayne was drinking hard and, uncharacteristically, arrived three hours late on the set.  Ford was furious at him for holding up the rehearsal, and keeping the entire crew and cast waiting and waiting.

Wayne just kept ducking his head, scuffing his toe in the sand and saying, “I’m sorry, boss.” Ford was determined to punish him and subsequently demanded one too many rehearsals that involved Wayne. “You’ll not get so much as a drop of water,” he told Wayne, to which the latter replied, “Yes, boss.”

At the same time, Ford told Gene Autry, who also appeared in the show, “Gene, about twenty minutes before we get on the air I want you to give Duke a good healthy slug of bourbon. And halfway through the show give him another.  But don’t let him know that I know.”

Long after Wayne established himself as a star, Ford continued to treat him as a student, an apprentice, and Wayne always took it as a scolded schoolboy, apologizing to Ford, “Sorry, coach.”

That said, there was a good deal of respect, and in later years, John Ford was more dependent on Wayne than the other way around.

Wayne was always on Ford’s mind whenever he read new scripts.  As a result, Ford provided him with the richest parts of his career.  The duo had the most unusual contract, more of a verbal agreement, and unusual rapport, based on few words.

When, where, what clothes you want me to wear?

Whenever Ford needed Wayne, the actor would drop whatever he was doing and made himself available. “I’ve never had a written contract with him,” said Wayne, “but if he wants me, I just ask, ‘when, where, and what clothes do you want me to wear'”

For him, it was the expression of loyalty to “the man who gave me my breaks.”  That said, Wayne also knew that the collaboration would pay off, “any picture he puts me in will be a fine picture, and probably a great picture.”  For three or four decades, John Ford was one of the most respected filmmakers in Hollywood, manifest in numerous Oscar nominations and Best Director Awards.

Wayne realized that none of the “B” Western stars of his cohort made it big as a leading man, and that without Ford he would never have reached the heights of his profession.  An offer from Ford, even for less money, had special meaning and took priority over other commitments. Wayne never forgot he “owed” his career to Ford, as he said in 1946, “I’d like to get up on house steps and shout out what I owe to that guy. I simply owe him every mouthful I eat, every dollar I’ve got and practically every bit of happiness I know, that’s all.”

Ford was the only director who Wayne had never dared to contradict–he was literally terrified of him. Ford functioned more than just a director; he was Wayne’s severest critic.  Wayne knew that “Stagecoach made me a star, and I’ll be grateful to him forever,” but he had doubts whether Ford “really had any kind of respect for me as an actor until I made Red River. Even then I was not quite sure.”  Indeed, Ford is reported to have said after this movie, “I never knew the big fellow could act.”

Ford gradually changed his mind until he was proud to proclaim in public that Wayne was “a splendid actor who has had very little chance to act,” and that he was such “a good actor, he just don’t know how good.”

You’re an actor now

Wayne recalled with immense pride how after She Wore a Yellow Ribbon “Ford sent me a cake, with one candle, that said, ‘You’re an actor now.'” Ford’s reaction was particularly important because in this movie he departed from his traditional hero image.

The association between Ford and Wayne was mutually fertile and was as long and productive as any between actor and director in American film. Wayne brought physical and moral strength to Ford’s films and endowed them with qualities that were very different from Ford’s movies with Henry Fonda, his other favorite star.

The studios which released their films cashed in on their successful collaboration, as the advertisement campaign of Rio Grande, in its world premiere in Texas, illustrates: “Never in the history of motion picture industry, has a director-actor team given so many big money hits as John Ford and John Wayne.”

Wayne’s last several films for Ford declined in artistic quality and overall impact.  Were they getting too old? Too accustomed to their habits?  Lack of strong material to challenge their respective abilities? No matter, their collaboration weakened considerably.

The Wings of Eagle was a rather solid, if sentimental biopicture of Frank “Spig” Wead, and Ford’s direction not very imaginative.

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance turned out to be a nostalgic Western in which Ford overindulged himself, shooting it on the studio lot.  “The Old West,” wrote the New York Times, “ravaged by repetition and television, has begun to show signs of age.” Crowther thought that neither Wayne nor Stewart were “really convincing,” because they “are obviously not the young men they are supposed to represent.” The whole picture seemed “baleful evidence of creeping fatigue in Hollywood.”

I beg to disagree with this assessment and for me The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is not only a string Western, but one that brought out the best in both director and star, not to mention the fact that in this Western, Wayne co-starred with a terrific Jimmy Stewart for the first time.

Donovan’s Reef

Ford-Wayne’s last film, Donovan’s Reef, in 1963, an adventure comedy set in the South Pacific Islands, was possibly one of their weakest together.  It is not a bad film, just a light one, and a tad too pleased with itself Wayne’s advancing age–he was too old for the part–and Ford’s uneven direction seemed to dull the cutting edge of their collaboration.

But Ford ended his glorious career on a high note.  His last movie, Seven Women in 1966, is still an underestimated film that calls for serious critical reevaluation.  Despite failing health, an eye ailment, and a broken hip, which  hampered his activity in his final years, Ford made an interesting film that, for a change, was dominated by women–and cast with the best actresses in the industry, including Anne Bancroft and Margaret Leighton.

Though Ford and Wayne did not work together, the friendship between them, and the hero-worship on Wayne’s part, continued up until Ford’s death of cancer, in 1973. Wayne kept a huge portrait of Ford, which he admired, in his California home; he would show it with great pride to his visitors.

In 1978, five years after Ford’s death, Wayne showed up unexpectedly at the front door of the Old Prospector Trail in Palm Springs.  “My name is John Wayne,” he told a nurse, “I came to visit Mary Ford on her birthday.”  Wayne spent the entire day sitting by her bed and reminiscing nostalgically about his friendship and work for her late husband.  “I just came to reminisce,” he later said, “We don’t have many to reminisce with any more.”

Little did Wayne know than within less than a year, he himself would be dead, also of cancer.


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