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About John Wayne--Background to "Dear John Wayne"

John H. Lenihan

Wayne, John (26 May 1907-11 June 1979), actor, was born Marion Robert Morrison (four years later changed to Marion Mitchell Morrison) in Winterset, Iowa, the son of Clyde Leonard Morrison, a pharmacist clerk, and Mary Alberta Brown. In 1914 Wayne moved with his parents and younger brother, Robert Emmett Morrison, to southern California, where his father tried farming near Lancaster for two years before settling in Glendale, just north of Los Angeles. In 1925 Wayne enrolled as a pre-law student at the University of Southern California on a football scholarship. Denied renewal of his scholarship after two years, Wayne dropped out of USC and was hired full time as a prop man by the William Fox Studio, where he had worked the previous two summers. For the next two years Wayne also hired out as an extra, to include several films directed by John Ford. It was not Ford, however, but director Raoul Walsh who chose the good-looking, 6' 4" prop man known then as Marion "Duke" Morrison for the lead role in Fox's epic western, The Big Trail (1930). Morrison's name was changed to John Wayne and instant fame seemed assured. But the film proved a financial failure, and after two more films for Fox his contract was dropped. For the remainder of the depression decade, Wayne was relegated to smaller parts in several productions (even playing a corpse in The Deceiver [1931]) and starring roles in some four dozen low-budgeted B films, most of them westerns for "poverty row" studios Monogram and Republic. He was halfway through a Republic contract for eight "Three Mesquiteer" westerns when John Ford offered him the lead role of the Ringo Kid in Stagecoach (1939). This classic western revived Wayne's career and initiated one of Hollywood's most inspired star-director relationships.

By the time of the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Wayne was thirty-four, married to Josephine Saenz (since 1933), and the father of four children. Legally exempt from military service during the course of the war, Wayne pursued building his career with an assortment of westerns, combat films, and screen romances opposite such leading ladies as Marlene Dietrich (three films), Joan Crawford, and Jean Arthur. Averaging nearly four films per year from 1940 to 1945, Wayne alternated between routine Republic productions and larger-budgeted films of major studios, for which he often took second billing to more established stars. Most of Wayne's prodigious fare remained undistinguished, with the possible exceptions of Cecil B. De Mille's Reap the Wild Wind (1942) and John Ford's The Long Voyage Home (1940) and They Were Expendable (1945). By the end of 1945, meanwhile, Wayne was divorced, and in January 1946 he married a would-be Mexican actress he had met in 1941, Esperanza Diaz Ceballos Morrison. Theirs proved a stormy relationship that ended in a bitter divorce trial in October 1953. The next year Wayne married Peruvian actress Pilar Palette Weldy; they had three children before they separated in the mid-1970s.

Beginning with Howard Hawks's classic epic western Red River (1948), the late forties marked a turning point in both Wayne's popularity and development as an actor. The first of several successful collaborations with director Hawks, notably Rio Bravo (1959), Red River highlighted an unprecedentedly powerful performance by Wayne as an aging, violently driven cattle baron. The following year The Sands of Iwo Jima (1949) earned Wayne his first Oscar nomination for his performance as the film's tough-minded but duty-bound combat leader, a role that from The Flying Tigers (1942) to The Green Berets (1968) was second only to that of the western hero in Wayne's evolving screen image. John Ford combined Wayne's military and western personae in three cavalry-Indian films: Fort Apache (1948), She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949), and Rio Grande (1950). The second of these was distinguished by Wayne's moving performance as the elderly Captain Nathan Brittles. For Rio Grande Ford paired Wayne with Maureen O'Hara, thereafter the star's most frequent leading lady. Wayne's romancing of O'Hara was the centerpiece of Ford's The Quiet Man (1952), an Irish battle-of-the-sexes romp and an engaging departure from Wayne's usual action fare. But it was in his next western for Ford, The Searchers (1956), that Wayne delivered what is commonly regarded as the finest performance of his career as the alienated, Indian-hating Ethan Edwards. A 1982 survey of international critics by Sight and Sound ranked The Searchers among the ten greatest films of all time.

searchers.gif (104541 bytes)Wayne's growing credibility as a screen actor coincided with his skyrocketing popularity. In 1949 he broke into the exhibitors' annual list of the nation's top ten box-office stars, where he remained for all but one of a record-breaking twenty-six consecutive years (ranking number one in four of those years). Sheer star appeal was usually enough to help ensure the success of Wayne's worst films, as evidenced by his widely ridiculed Genghis Khan epic, The Conqueror, having grossed nearly as much as The Searchers in 1956. Wayne's marketability also provided him considerable leverage in script approval and related matters affecting the kinds of roles he played. Beginning with Angel and the Badman (1946), Wayne was among the first of his generation of film stars to produce many of his own films, and with the formation of Wayne-Fellows and then Batjak Productions, he produced other films as well. His own productions seldom approached the quality of his best works as an actor, and some were given to excessive displays of his political conservatism, as in the anticommunist Big Jim McClain (1952) and equally didactic The Alamo (1960). Wayne invested heavily and debuted as director (with some assistance from John Ford) for The Alamo; but initial box-office returns proved disappointing, and despite promotion efforts for Oscar recognition, only the film's soundtrack was awarded.

Wayne quickly rebounded with a steady succession of profitable films, beginning with the rambunctious comedy-adventure North to Alaska (1960) and including his last classic western for Ford, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence (1962). Several epics of the early 1960s featured him as part of an all-star cast in bit roles. Although the western ceased to dominate Hollywood's output as it had in the 1950s, it became more than ever Wayne's stock in trade. Increasingly he played characters commensurate with his own advancing years and reinforcing his self-image of a traditionalist frequently at odds with modern trends. While Wayne remained at his best when directed by veterans such as Ford, Hawks, and Henry Hathaway, his own Batjak productions from McLintock (1963) to Cahill, United States Marshal (1973) represented the clearest expressions of his conservative defense of rugged individualism, personal and family loyalty, and other values he associated with America's frontier heritage. Politically outspoken off screen, Wayne had actively embraced the attack on Hollywood leftists during the McCarthy period and thereafter generally supported Republican policies and candidates; partisanship did not, however, preclude his invitational attendance at Jimmy Carter's preinaugural gala or supporting President Carter's Panama Canal treaty. The Green Berets (1968), which Wayne produced and directed as well as starred in, vividly expressed his support of the Vietnam War at a time when other filmmakers refused to broach the issue. Reviewers typically attacked Wayne's hawkish bias, but the film was the tenth largest moneymaker in 1968.

Political differences mattered little the next year when audiences and critics alike warmed to Wayne's Oscar-winning performance as the cantankerous one-eyed marshal, Rooster Cogburn, in True Grit (1969). Of Wayne's remaining dozen screen appearances, mostly formulaic westerns and two ill-received attempts at the currently popular crime genre (McQ [1974] and Brannigan [1975]), only his last film, The Shootist (1976), generated much favorable notice. This elegiac western about a gunfighter dying of cancer was a grim reminder of Wayne's real-life battle with the disease that he had apparently won in the mid-1960s but would soon be fighting again. Two years after making The Shootist Wayne underwent open-heart surgery and in early 1979 was operated on for stomach cancer. Shortly after an appearance at the Academy Awards ceremony in April to present the Oscar for best picture, Wayne succumbed to what he had termed "the Big C." He died at the UCLA Medical Center.

"In an age of few heroes," President Jimmy Carter eulogized on Wayne's death, "he was the genuine article." Two weeks earlier, Wayne was awarded a congressional gold medal--with the inscription "John Wayne, American." These and similarly worded tributes speak to Wayne's iconic importance as a celebrity whose public life had become inseparable from the heroic screen image he had cultivated in a career that spanned five decades. Ideological hostility had dissipated somewhat since the mid-1970s, and in his many interviews and public appearances Wayne appeared less strident and more good natured, if still unwavering and forthright, in voicing his traditionalist beliefs. Short of according him the status of a great actor, colleagues commonly attested to his professionalism and film critics/scholars increasingly credited the emotive power of his unique screen presence as indispensable to the artistic merits of his best films.


Sociocultural analyses of Wayne's image and importance are provided by Emanuel Levy, John Wayne: Prophet of the American Way of Life (1988), and Richard D. McGhee, John Wayne: Actor, Artist, Hero (1990). For a film-by-film assessment of Wayne's screen career, see Allen Eyles, John Wayne (1979). Wayne's importance as a western film star is covered briefly in Archie McDonald, "John Wayne: Hero of the Western," Journal of the West 22 (Oct. 1983): 53-63. Among the several popular biographies of Wayne, the most comprehensive are Donald Shepherd and Robert Slatzer, with Dave Grayson, Duke: The Life and Times of John Wayne (1985), and Maurice Zolotow, Shooting Star: A Biography of John Wayne (1975). A detailed biography is Randy Roberts and James Olson, John Wayne: American (1995). For more personal accounts of Wayne, see Pilar Wayne, John Wayne: My Life with the Duke (1987), and Pat Stacy, Duke: A Love Story (1983). An obituary is in the New York Times, 13 June 1979.

Source:;   American National Biography Online Feb. 2000. Access Date: Sun Apr 8 11:36:52 2001 Copyright (c) 2000 American Council of Learned Societies. Published by Oxford University Press. All rights reserved.

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