John Wayne: Actor? Duke Vs. Clark Gable and Gary Cooper?

One way to evaluate an actor’s contribution to film art is to examine his output in terms of the number of movies that have withstood the test of time.

Using this criterion, John Wayne had rendered at least ten marvelous performances in movies that have become classics of their kind.

The scholar Allen Eyles has suggested that when the name of a screen role is as readily remembered as the actor who played it, it’s a measure of the part’s impact on audiences’ collective memory.

There have been at least ten such roles in Wayne’s career:

Ringo Kid in Stagecoach;

Ole Olsen in The Long Voyage Home;

Thomas Dunson in Red River;

Nathan Brittles in She Wore a Yellow Ribbon;

Sergeant John M. Stryker in Sands of Iwo Jima

Sean Thornton in The Quiet Man;

Ethan Edwards in The Searchers;

John T. Chance in Rio Bravo;

Rooster Cogburn in True Grit;

John B. Books in The Shootist.

The aforementioned performances are considered to be among the best portrayals by male actors in the history of American cinema, not just in Wayne’s oeuvre.

Significantly, five of these roles were contained in John Ford’s movies, and two in Howard Hawks’s.

These performances ensure Wayne a firm place among Hollywood’s immortal stars.

Some may consider this to be a modest cinematic contribution. However, put in perspective, had Gary Cooper, or Clark Gable, or Humphrey Bogart had give more than ten really good performances

Was Clark Gable a Better Actor than Wayne?

One really has to stretch the imagination to compile a list of ten achievements by Gable.

There is no doubt over five films: It Happened One Night, The Mutiny on the Bounty, Gone with the Wind, Mogambo, and his last film, The Misfits. Gable was older than Wayne by six years (born in 1901), but began his career at approximately the same time.

However, Gable became a star a few years after his debut, doing his best work during the first decade of his career–unlike Wayne. Gable appeared, of course, in many popular movies, such as Red Dust, San Francisco, Boom Town, but it is doubtful that his work in these films would be considered exceptional.

Moreover, Gable made his best film and reached the top of his form by the late 1930s, whereas Wayne was a late bloomer, who continued to stretch and to develop as an actor.  Wayne’s career also benefited from the untimely deaths of Gable (at 60) and other stars, such as Gary Cooper.

Gary Cooper

Gary Cooper, who some critics consider to be an exceptional screen actor, a uniquely cinematic phenomenon, who rendered many subtle and understated performances.  Though he might have made better and more popular films than other stars of his generation, Cooper did not give more than ten distinguished performances.

A list of Cooper’s achievements would probably include, chronologically, The Virginian, Morocco, A Farewell to Arms, The Lives of a Bengal Lancer, Mr. Dees Goes to Town, The Westerner, Meet John Doe, Sergeant York, The Pride of the Yankees, High Noon, and Friendly Persuasion.

Note that like Gable, Cooper’s best films were made in the earlier part of his career.  Also like Gable, after 1942, Cooper made very few good pictures, though he continued to be a box-office attraction almost up to his death (in 1960).

Next to Wayne, Gary Cooper is the other actor who had contributed most to the Western genre, but of Cooper’s best films only four were Westerns.

Wayne’s Personal Favorites

Wayne’s favorite films, those he considered “up to standard,” were usually the films that got the critics’ approval. Rooster Cogburn was his all-time favorite character, perhaps because of the recognition and the Oscar Award he received for it.

But asked if True Grit was his best picture, he said: “Two classic Westerns were better: Stagecoach and Red River–and a third, The Searchers, which I thought deserved more praise than it got, and The Quiet Man was certainly one of the best.”

Wayne also singled out The Long Voyage Home, as “the one film  that all the college cinematography students run to all the time.”

He named The Searchers as John Ford’s best film, but said he enjoyed appearing in two other Ford Westerns, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon and The Horse Soldiers.

“You like different pictures for different reasons,” he has said, so judging by the joy of making a film, he had “the most fun” making the 1952 romance, The Quiet Man.