Mother Machree (1928): John Wayne as Unbilled Extra

John Wayne’s major line of work in the late 1920s was as a prop man at Fox, at a salary of $35 dollars a week. Wayne’s appearance in Mother Machree, as an unbilled extra, became important, because of the fateful meeting with the director John Ford.

Written by Gertrude Orr, based on Rita Johnson Young’s short story, Ford’s melodrama concerns the relationship between a poor Irish mother in America (Belle Bennett) and her son (Victor McLaglen). Due to circumstances, landing in the U.S., Bennett gives up her son, hoping he would have a better future without her. She becomes a housekeeper, raising her employers’ daughter. Years later, Bennett’s son and the daughter meet and fall in love, leading to a climactic emotional reunion.

The meeting with Ford was a turning point, as Ford would exercise an immense influence on his career and on his life. It is doubtful that Wayne would have become an actor or reached the professional heights that he did without Ford.

In later years, Wayne recalled that fateful meeting, “I was going to U.S.C., studying to be a lawyer and had no particular interest in the motion picture business. Working at Fox was just something to pay the bills at school. I wasn’t thinking about a future in the studios.”

However, going back to school after his summer job, Wayne began to think more seriously about his future: “The other kids who were going to law school all had connections, fathers and uncles who had law firms. I had none and began to realize that if I went into law, I was going to spent ten years in the back rooms writing briefs before I could get started.”

John Ford became a mentor and a role model in more senses than one: “He was my mentor, my ideal, and I made up my mind, I wanted to be like him.” Wayne’s parents had divorced a few years earlier, so Ford, older than Wayne by 12 years, also served as a surrogate father figure. Wayne said that while working at Fox, he did not think of becoming an actor; his ambition was to be a director like John Ford.

Mother Machree got a lot of press at the time since it was released with some tinted scenes and synchronized sound effects.


Running Time: 75 minutes
Release date: January 22, 1928