John Wayne: American Movie Star–Greatest Screen Hero in History (Part 1)

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My forthcoming book, John Wayne: Hollywood’s Greatest Movie Star, deals with the various forces that shaped the creation of John Wayne, America’s most durable actor, western hero, ideological symbol, and legendary icon.

Part 1:

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 four decades (he died on June 11, 1979).

Wayne was followed on the poll by Clint Eastwood (number 2), but well ahead of Clark Gable, Jimmy Stewart, Paul Newman, and Rock Hudson.

What made John Wayne (The Duke) so powerful, so iconic, for so long a time? How did that happen?  Can there ever be another star like John Wayne?  

I doubt it.

The screen image of Wayne did not emerge naturally or spontaneously; it was fabricated in a process that was lengthy, gradual and systematic.

Wayne himself admitted that his public 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).

Wayne: I Dreamed Up the Drawl and the Squint

stagecoach_1_wayne“I figured I needed a gimmick,” Wayne 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.”

He was aware that it was a risk and a gamble: “It was a hit-or-miss project for a while, but gradually, it began to develop.”

Early on in his screen 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 said that he got a 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 decided to adopt 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.”  It also convinced him to always listen to his own “gut feeling.” (Seventeen, October 1971).

Macho Man: Choosing More Masculine Screen Name

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The first step in the methodical construction of Wayne’s screen 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 Raoul 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 that 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, and so far too effeminate for a cowboy star.  True, defending his name, Wayne said, taught him to fight at an early age.

What also worked against his real name was that “Duke Morrison didn’t have enough clout, enough prestige, enough gravitas, and it did not sound American enough.”  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.

His screen name was 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.”

pi75hqjbnkuWayne 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 him a sly look, grinned, and said slowly, in his own manner, “But in our America, it belongs to a man.  It’s usually a family name.”  (Michael Wall, Sunday Express, November 2, 1962).

 Wayne’s Screen Image: Trial and Error

Wayne’s screen image, like that of other movie stars (Gable, Cooper, Bogart), took form by trial and error, testing and retesting of various ideas by examining the audience reaction.

Wayne as Singing Cowboy

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It is hard to believe today that Monogram, the B-Level Hollywood studio, 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 want on to make 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 derived from 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).

Gene Autry

Wayne was replaced as a 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 factors 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 proficient. Moreover, there was also public embarrassment, when his fans asked him to sing.

But Wayne would tease Autry about it, saying: “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).

Wayne had never liked the idea of musical Westerns; it did not fit his image of the Old West.  Thus, 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).

 

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