John Wayne: Movie Star–Wayne Vs. Humphrey Bogart, Clark Gable, Cary Grant–Part 2 of 9

Part Two In a Series of Nine

Of all of Hollywood’s star-auteurs, John Wayne was probably the only one to exercise such degree of control over the construction and continuity of his image.

One of the distinguishing traits of Wayne’s screen work was his determination to carve his own career, which he accomplished quite effectively from the 1940s on.

John Wayne stands in sharp contrast to Clark Gable and especially Robert Taylor, who were the creations of of publicity machine of their studio, MGM.

Clark Gable

Clark Gable had fully cooperated with his studio because he wanted to be a successful star and he knew that he could not achieve that without the studio’s active sponsorship.  He became a model of cooperation, never giving anybody trouble, always on time for photo sessions and always polite to the press.

He largely accepted what the studio told his to do; his contract denied him choice of screen roles.  “I just work here,” he once said, “I try to work well and hard.  It’s my business to work, not to think.”

Gable benefited from MGM’s tight control because he was not a very good judge of his abilities–even when given the choice.  He spent 23 of his 30-year-career at MGM, which created a charming screen image for him and promoted his popularity through careful planning and extensive exposure.  Gable was even told how to lead his romantic life off screen, how to spend his leisure time–and he listened.

In 1955, however, he decided to become a free-lance actor, as was the fashion at the time. But with the exception of “The Misfits,” none of the nine films that had made before his death, in 1960, was as good as, let alone superior yo in any way, his MGM formulaic movies.

Gable realized that without the studio’s machine, his career was not viable, and I can only hypothesize what kind of movies he would have made in the 1960s and 1970s—had he lived longer.

Robert Taylor

Younger than Gable by a decade, Robert Taylor, another MGM product, also lacked control over his career.  “I stayed with the studio for 24 years,” he later recalled, “I did my work, I took what they gave me to do.”  Much less ambitious or talented that either Gable or Wayne, Taylor summed up his career as, “I was just a guy gifted with looks I had done nothing to earn, a man who fell into a career that I was never overly ambitious about.”

Humphrey Bogart

Humphrey Bogart, by contrast, fought constantly with his employers at Warners for better scripts and better parts. Like his fellow actors, Jimmy Cagney and Bette Davis, he was suspended several times for refusing to abide by the studio’s rule.

In 1946, at the peak of his career as the screen’s highest-paid actor, he signed a fifteen-year-contract with Warners, which broke all precedents.  Two years later, however, he formed his own company, Santana, releasing his movies through another studio, Columbia.  But the six movies he produced, in four of which he starred, were for the most part undistinguished and unsuccessful at the box-office.  Bogart’s experience as a free-lance actor and independent producer was unrewarding because he could not get the properties he wanted and also because he was not a very good judge of scripts suitable for him.  With few exceptions, his best work was at Warners, despite the disagreements and suspensions.

Cary Grant

John Wayne’s career resembled in some respects that of Cary Grant.  A few years older than Wayne (he was born in 1904), Grant began his acting work at Paramount in 1932, playing second fiddle to the studio’s then major star, Gary Cooper.

Then, in 1937, after five years of routine pictures, except for the camp comedies opposite Mae West, “She Done Him Wrong,” he became Hollywood’s first successful free-lance actor.

Determined never again to sign exclusively with another studio, he became responsible for his own career, choosing most carefully screenplays and directors.  Indeed, many of his films after 1937 were not only popular but classics of their kind, including three first-rate screwball comedies, The Awful Truth, Bringing Up Baby, and His Girl Friday.

Wayne, like Grant, gave his best performances when he was on his own.  Moreover, the distinctive screen image of both Grant and Wayne took shape after leaving their sponsors and home studios: Grant after Paramount, and Wayne after Republic.

But perhaps more than Grant, what made Wayne a unique actor-auteur was not only the coherence of his image, but also the fact that his screen persona blended completely with his personality off-screen–until the actor and the person became indistinguishable.

Unlike Grant, who was not political, Wayne chose a path that gradually became a reflection of his ideological and personal values, reiterated in film after film.  His image was so consistent that audiences knew what to expect of his pictures. As the critic-director Peter Bogdanovich noted: “Wayne brings to each new movie, good or bad, a resonance and a sense of the past–his own and ours–that fills it with reverberations above and beyond his own perhaps limited qualities, which is the true measure of what makes a great movie star.”


This essay was updated in October 2030.