My wife’s been helping out with some of my research — and came across this. It was too good to keep to myself. From the March 3, 1952 issue of Time.
The Wages Of Virtue.
Over the dusty cow town, silence hangs heavy as doom. The womenfolk, both spangled and respectable, huddle helplessly on stairways and behind shuttered windows. Tense and motionless at the long bar stands a frieze of deputies and desperadoes. Even the bearded comic for once is solemn and wary. For this is the moment when virtue — lean, clean, manly, and quick on the draw — must face evil in single combat, to triumph or bite the dust.
In the 1,001 variations of this scene that flash yearly across the nation’s television and movie screens, the triumph of virtue is all but inevitable — particularly when virtue is embodied in the lank form of Cinemactor John Wayne. In 24 years of moviemaking, during which he has played some 150 imperceptible variations of the same role, Actor Wayne, a limber-lumbering 6 ft. 4 in. man with a leathery skin and eyes like a sad and friendly hound, has become almost a trademark of manly incorruptibility.
In film after film, Wayne has larned the bad ‘uns that villainy don’t pay. In Stagecoach, possibly the best western picture ever made, he laid low two badmen with his trusty Winchester, reloading for the second kill as he dived to the ground to dodge the bullets of the first. As a white-clad lieutenant in a picture called Seven Sinners, he managed, by sheer force of innocence and a trusting heart, to turn a bedizened sinner (Marlene Dietrich) into a good woman and to preserve the honor of the U.S. Navy as well. Only very rarely is Wayne shown to be mortal—or at any rate expendable—as in the bloody Sands of Iwo Jima (1950). But even on Iwo, his sterling example (with an assist from the U.S. Marine Corps) assured a victory for the right side.
To millions of moviegoers and televiewers, in whose private lives good & evil often wage dreary, inconclusive little wars, John Wayne’s constant re-enactment of the triumph of virtue is as reassuring as George Washington’s face on a Series E bond. And virtue, in Wayne’s case, brings just as solid returns. This year, for the second year in a row, the Motion Picture Herald poll of U.S. theater owners and exhibitors showed John Wayne the country’s top box-office draw. When a breathless pressagent first called to tell him the great news, Wayne’s modest response was characteristic. “Why?” he drawled.
Why, Indeed? It was a good question. Why does the U.S. public like him better than Betty Grable, Bing Crosby or Martin & Lewis? His legs are not as pretty as Betty’s; his voice is not as sweet as Bing’s; he is nowhere near as funny as Martin & Lewis. And he is not the best of Hollywood’s actors. In fact, it is an open question whether he can act at all. “How often do I gotta tell you (thus Wayne to a persistent interviewer) that I don’t act at all—I re-act.” By this, Wayne means that on the set he responds to a cue precisely as he would in his own backyard, regardless of what the script and the director may say. John Wayne, at 44, is 1) a businessman who firmly believes in the profitable product he sells, and 2) a craftsman who has learned his trade.
In the best American tradition, John Wayne started his trade at the bottom—as a property boy on the old Fox lot on Hollywood’s Western Avenue. He was then a lanky young football player at the University of Southern California, equipped with an amiable grin, formless energy, and a vague ambition to become a lawyer. Like all genuine Hollywood actors, he was born (in Winterset, Iowa) with an alias: Marion Mitchell Morrison. When he was five, his parents moved to California and settled in Glendale, where his father ran a drugstore.
Marion was a healthy, husky kid, a dutiful son and a student who liked sports better than study. In high school he was unwillingly drafted into a student play, to give a rawboned caricature of a British peer. The experience rid him of the hated name Marion by capping him with the slightly suspect nickname “Duke.” It did not attract him in any way to the acting profession. After graduating from high school, he joined several other U.S.C. footballers who were working as part-time stagehands at the Fox Studio. And the more young Morrison saw of the studios, the more fascinated he became with their product. “All of a sudden,” he says, “I realized that this business is a damn fine business, and I got proud of it.”
High, Low, Jack.
Nobody on the Fox lot in those days cared much whether strapping young Duke Morrison was proud of his trade or not, but they found him a likable, good-natured companion in horseplay. A favorite sport was to get the big ex-tackle down on all fours in signals position and try to push him over. One day the great director, John Ford, joined the game. Duke took his stance. With a deft kick Ford knocked his hands from under him, and the property man’s face hit the floor with a smack. It was very funny. Everybody laughed. Duke got up, his face expressionless. “Let’s try that once again,” he said. Ford nodded. This time Duke charged forward, sent the director flying across the floor on his rear end.
It was very funny, but nobody laughed. Then Director Ford, still sitting down, gave the cue: he threw back his head and rocked with laughter. From that moment, Duke began to revere John Ford. Not to be outdone, Ford gave the youngster his fatherly affection. “I could see,” Ford says now, “that here was a boy who was working for something—not like most of the other guys, just hanging around to pick up a few fast bucks. Duke was really ambitious and willing to work. Inside of a month or six weeks we were fast friends, and I used to advise him and throw him a bit part now and then.”
The tie that really bound the friendship was Ford’s discovery that Duke played a sharp hand at Ford’s favorite game, Pitch. “It’s an old New England game—High, Low, Jack and the Game,” explains Ford. On Ford sets, whenever Duke wasn’t studying the director’s professional tricks or shifting props, the two could be found behind some inconspicuous piece of scenery, “claiming low” on one another.
Six-Foot-Three or Over.
It was tough, one-eyed Director Raoul Walsh who gave Duke his first real part. Walsh was casting a western called The Big Trail, and he couldn’t find the lead he wanted. “They’d been sending a raft of New York stage actors out to the Coast because sound had just come in,” he explains, “but none of them was right. Then I took one look at this guy walking across the set with a broom, and I got him on a horse right away.” Fortunately, Duke had learned to ride when he was a kid. Walsh was ecstatic. “Dammit,” he says in the pure argot of the Hollywood artist, “the son of a bitch looked like a man. To be a cowboy star, you gotta be 6 ft. 3 or over; you gotta have no hips and a face that looks right under a sombrero.” The new actor, rechristened John Wayne by Walsh, put aside his broom and the $35 weekly that went with it.
The Big Trail, expensively filmed as an experiment on 44-mm. “grandeur” film (wider than ordinary film), was a monumental flop. Caught between a national depression and still unpaid bills for expensive new sound equipment, few theater managers in the early ’30s were inclined to buy still more new equipment to show the wide film. Nonetheless, John Wayne was launched as an actor. His starting pay was $75 a week.
For close to a decade after that, Wayne appeared in one quickie western after another. He was usually on horseback—and most of the horses were white and named Duke. “Everything bad that can happen to you in pictures happens in those,” says Wayne. Sometimes he was working in as many as seven pictures at once. Everybody pitched in to do whatever chore needed doing: hustling props, handling stock, playing one part with face to the camera and another with back turned. Wayne loved these rough & tumble makeshifts. His contentment was not even spoiled by a dismal period when he became “Singing Sandy,” the movies’ first crooning cowboy (another voice was dubbed in on the sound track to replace Wayne’s toneless groans). “They don’t have the best actors in the world in horse operas,” says Wayne, “but they’re mostly damn fine men, rough and tough, and they teach you a lot.”
Most of Duke’s closest friends today—e.g., Ward Bond (6 ft. 3 in.) and Grant Withers (6 ft. 4 in.)—are the big, rough pals of this period (John Ford is a comparative midget—6 ft. 1 in.). Yakima Canutt, a top rodeo hand turned movie stuntman, served Wayne as a model for his rolling walk and drawling cowboy accent. Yak also taught Duke such useful tricks as the right, relaxed way to fall off a horse in the midst of a stampede.
In 1939, when Producer Walter Wanger happened on the set of Stagecoach and saw his new star climbing to the top of a careening coach to fire at pursuing Indians, he screamed: “Get that guy off there before he kills himself!” “Hell,” grins Wayne, “he didn’t know I’d been doin’ stunts like that for years, just to eat.”
By the time Director Ford finally got around to giving his young friend a really good role, the Ringo Kid in Stagecoach, Wayne had married a college sweetheart, Josephine Saenz, daughter of a retired Los Angeles doctor, and was living with his growing family in a duplex apartment. His salary was now up to $6,000 a picture, but “we were always just one jump ahead of the bills,” he says.
Without defying the accepted formula in any way, Ford’s Stagecoach raised horse opera to a higher level and became both a critical and box-office success. The part of the sleepy-eyed, lightning-fast, misunderstood outlaw Kid fitted Wayne’s pattern to a T. Soon every studio in Hollywood was asking for him. Republic, the studio which then had him under contract, considered his popularity a passing fad, and went right on casting him in low-budget westerns. But he was lent to other studios for bigger jobs, and he signed future commitments on his own, right & left. The Waynes were soon able to move out of their flat and buy a substantial $15,000 house on sturdily respectable Highland Avenue. Eventually, Republic caught on to the value of its property, and began putting time and money into Wayne pictures. The results were the biggest box-office smashes (Wake of the Red Witch, Sands of Iwo Jlma) in the studio’s history.
A year and a half ago, when the movie industry was at a low point, no fewer than nine Los Angeles first-run theaters were showing Wayne pictures. Those that couldn’t get new ones were scrabbling for the old. TV producers across the land were finding Wayne’s ancient quickies a more than adequate challenge to Hopalong Cassidy. As one famed producer sat listening in growing irritation to the alibis and explanations of his colleagues, he finally burst out: “What they’re all trying to say is that there’s nothing wrong with this damned industry that a dozen John Waynes couldn’t cure.”
Call It Corn.
Many a Hollywood actor who hits the jackpot is content to make hay while the sun shines, buy up a few annuities and wait uncertainly for the certain end. But Wayne, who is well aware that he is no actor, takes a somewhat longer view. “All I do is sell sincerity, and I’ve been selling the hell out of that ever since I started. But I’m an investment, and I gotta protect that investment.”
He probably exercises a tighter control over the films he appears in than any other top star in Hollywood. He insists on simple stories, sympathetic parts that fit his personality, and dialogue that he can speak convincingly. Most Wayne pictures are heavily larded with his own pet phrases (“Let’s get charging! Saddle up!”). “If someone starts acting phony at a party,” says Wayne, “you go out and get a drink and the hell with him. But if I start acting phony on the screen, you gotta sit there. Pretty soon you’re just looking at me instead of feeling with me. When I do a scene, I want to react as John Wayne.”
The late great Stanislavsky, who taught his pupils to “react” as everything from mad monks to coffee percolators, might have shuddered at such a theory of acting, but for Wayne, it works. “Sometimes they call it corn,” he admits with a grin, “but I’ve always felt that if a scene is handled with simplicity—and I don’t mean simple —it’ll be good.”
Success and the complications that go with it have robbed Wayne’s own life of much of the simplicity he finds good. Before Stagecoach, he was a “serenely happy” husband, says Josephine Wayne. Five years later, after the birth of their fourth child, Josephine and Duke were divorced. Busy with his commitments at one studio after another, and conscientiously conferring over every step of every production, he found less & less time for the hearty outdoor pastimes—hunting, fishing, deep-water sailing—he likes best, and the long evenings of poker, bridge and horseplay he shared with his strapping friends Bond, Withers and John Ford.
Idylls & Ulcers.
In 1946 Wayne married again, this time a velvet-eyed Mexican movie actress named Esperanza Baur, whom he calls Chata (Pugnose). Tall, graceful Chata is almost a female counterpart of Duke’s men friends. She loves to ride and shoot, and she plays a skillful hand of gin rummy. But Wayne has found little time to enjoy these pastimes with her. “My husband,” Chata explained recently, “is one of the few persons who is always interested in his business. He talks of it constantly. When he reads, it’s scripts. Our dinner guests always talk business, and he spends all his time working, discussing work or planning work.”
Soon after their marriage, Wayne became a producer at Republic (two Wayne productions: The Angel and the Badman, The Bullfighter and the Lady), and the work and the talk increased proportionately. Pacing the floor of his executive’s office, amid the constant clangor of telephone bells and interoffice squawkers, his quick temper frequently boils over. After one of these outbursts, he broods for a while, then seeks out his victim in contrition. “I’m always apologizing to somebody,” he says. He has acquired that final badge of executive success, a gastric ulcer. In 1950, after finishing Jet Pilot (still unreleased) for RKO, Duke decided to take Chata and himself on his first vacation in more than ten years. A trip through Central America in a reconditioned Navy PBY provided by Howard Hughes, the vacation turned out to be just a road-company version of life in Hollywood. A never-ending stream of autograph hunters and command appearances faced the famed movie star at every stop. The air waves hummed with unfinished business. John Ford, impatient to get going on Duke’s new film in Ireland, peppered the wanderers with importunate messages. Tempers were constantly frayed, and the idyll ended with Duke having to fly off to Ireland to get back to work again. Chata regretfully packed her slacks and went back to Hollywood to watch and wait.
A Little Dumb.
Both Wayne and Ford hope and believe that their newest collaboration, soon to be released as The Quiet Man, will be their best yet. If so, it can only add to the complexities that already beset Wayne’s crowded life. An unassuming, worrying man who, in the words of one of his best friends, still thinks of himself as “a stagehand who got lucky,” Duke is in many respects like a high-school football captain drafted willy-nilly as president of the student council and editor of the school paper. John Ford still treats him as a clumsy sophomore and bawls him out unmercifully when they work together. Wayne takes it like a scolded schoolboy and murmurs, “Sorry, Coach,” with abject hero-worship. But in other quarters Duke himself is the worshiped hero. Sometimes he finds the situation confusing.
When Hollywood began to worry about the Communists and fellow travelers in its midst, John Wayne was drafted to head an organization known as the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals. “Hell,” says one friend, “Duke didn’t know anything about the menace of Communism. All he knew was that some of his friends were against them.”
To please his friends, Duke did his best to face the problem as, say, the Ringo Kid might face it. The effort was not altogether successful. When Actor Larry Parks confessed to having once been a party member, newsmen raced to John Wayne for a statement. Caught without a script, Duke fingered his chin, said it was too bad that Larry had been a Communist, but damn courageous of him to admit it. He hoped, he added, that the confession wouldn’t hurt Larry’s career. At a mass meeting soon afterward, M.P.A. Vice President Hedda Hopper put the record straight. John Wayne to the contrary notwithstanding, she told the meeting and its abashed president, Larry Parks would most certainly not be forgiven. “Well, you certainly gave it to me,” Duke told her with a grin. “You certainly deserved it,” said Hedda. Later she confided to a friend: “Duke is a little dumb about these things.”
John Wayne’s dogged loyalty has always been both a trial and a solace to his friends, depending on the direction it takes. Grant Withers, a self-admitted has-been who was a star earning $2,250 a week when Duke was only a prop man, admits that Wayne has kept him in the business for years by getting him parts. “One of the best things you can say about Duke,” says Withers, “is that he was a swell guy when he was making 50 bucks a week and he’s an even better guy now that he’s making half a million a year.”
That estimate of Duke’s earnings is probably conservative. Outside of his film interests, his holdings now include sizable chunks of California real estate, several oil wells, a share of Cartoonist Al Capp’s comic-book publishing company, a piece of a Broadway hit show. With unfulfilled contracts still calling for pictures at Warners, RKO and Republic, and an unwritten agreement with Ford to make any picture Ford wants, Wayne last week was busy negotiating the last details of his own producing company.
Last month Chata, fed up with the inroads Duke’s work has made on their private life, left him. Last week they were together again and Duke, holding her hand, grinned boyishly at this latest proof that in a well-ordered world, everything turns out right in the end. In any event, to millions of satisfied moviegoers, Duke’s movies will go on saying so.
Copyright © Time Inc., 1952.
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