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The Life and Legend
by Scott Eyman
THE FIRST time screen siren Marlene Dietrich saw the 32-year-old rising star John Wayne walk into the commissary of Universal Studios, she turned to director William Flew and said, 'Daddy, buy me that.' The director, of course, did what he was told and Dietrich and Wayne went on to co-star in three movies.
Their relationship was as intense off screen as on. Dietrich used to greet Wayne when he came on set by jumping into his arms and wrapping her legs round him. She may have been what Hollywood called 'double gated' (she was, according to FBI files, having affairs with Jean Gabin and Kay Francis), but she couldn't resist the 6ft 4in actor. When she first invited him into her trailer, he looked nervous (he was married with four children) and said, 'I wonder what the time is?' Dietrich, lifting her skirt to reveal a garter with a watch attached, replied, 'It's very early darling, we have plenty of time.'
Today, the received image of Wayne is somewhere between Mount Rushmore and an Easter Island statue, so it's quite refreshing to realise that the still centre of so many Manichaean duels was, according to Scott Eyman's tome, a bona fide hunk rather than a man monolith.
What's interesting about the man who emerges from Eyman's book is that while Wayne despised method actors, 'John Wayne' was not playing himself at all, but projecting the man he had decided to be. Born in Ohio in 1907 and christened Marion Morrison, he moved to California as a young child, changed his name to Duke and won a football scholarship to the University of Southern California. An injury stopped him playing, but by that time Wayne had got the acting bug.
Later on he always pretended to have fallen into acting, a lucky prop man who was picked from the set by the great director John Ford, but the reality was rather different. Wayne got his first leading role very young on the strength of his looks, but the film flopped and he spent the next nine years working round the clock on B movies until Ford cast him as the Ringo Kid in Stagecoach (1939).
In the movies, Wayne very rarely gets the girl. In many of his films, he plays the man who puts honour before personal happiness, an Arthurian knight in leather chaps. Although spectacularly good looking in his youth, he was never cast as eye candy, like Tyrone Power or Randolph Scott. He was always the moral centre of every film he was in - even if his female audiences couldn't help noticing his other charms: one female fan once fainted in his arms saying, 'You have such wicked thighs!'
But while his female fans may have found him irresistible, his spouses did not. Wayne's first marriage, to a Hispanic society woman, did not survive Dietrich; his second, to a Mexican courtesan called Chata, did not survive her alcoholic rages, during which she beat him up. His third wife was the daughter of a Peruvian senator, but she grew tired of the 'six foot club' - the gang of hard-drinking, practical-joking, right-wing cronies who hung around with him on and off set.
Wayne was always the man's man, playing a succession of cowboys and war heroes, and yet when the Second World War broke out, he did not, unlike his fellow stars James Stewart, Henry Fonda and Clark Gable, join the armed services. It was not cowardice that held him back: 'Duke' was a man famous for doing his own stunts. It may have been pride - 'I would have had to go in as a private and I took a dim view of that' - but the real reason, and one that Eyman in his near hagiography only hints at, may have been ambition: with all his screen rivals fighting overseas, Wayne became the biggest male star in the US, making 13 pictures during the war. After it was over he remained box-office gold pretty much for the rest of his life.
Perhaps because of his guilt at not having served his country abroad, Wayne became active in the fight against the enemy within, becoming president of the Motion Picture Alliance, which supported the blacklisting of writers, directors and actors suspected of being connected to the Communist party.
Wayne was not really an actor, as much as a star. He never played roles he felt would mess with the public's perception of him as a man of character, and once berated Kirk Douglas for taking on the part of Van Gogh: 'How can you play a part like that? There are so few of us left. We got to play strong, tough characters. Not those weak queers.'
He was so committed to his idea of a strong America that he very nearly bankrupted himself directing a movie of The Alamo (1960): 'I think we are all in danger of going soft... of forgetting the things that made this a great nation. The best reminder that has ever happened in the history of the world is what took place at the Alamo ... 182 Americans fought for 13 days against 5,000 troops of the dictator Santa Anna. These 182 men killed 1,700 of the enemy before they were slaughtered because they didn't think a bully should push people around.' But the Texan Thermopylae was a box-office flop and as the 1950s turned into the 1960s, Wayne found himself increasingly out of step with the America of Easy Rider and Midnight Cowboy.
Hitchcock once said that no movie should last longer than the endurance of the human bladder. This book fails that test abjectly. There is a fascinating Gatsbyesque story here about a man who invented himself and the America he believed in, but that has been lost in a welter of detail and irrelevance that should have been left on the cutting-room floor.
Almost every great movie doubles as an allegory for its own creation. Think of Francis Ford Coppola going up the river and around the bend to make "Apocalypse Now." Or Dalton Trumbo having Kirk Douglas shout "I am Spartacus!" to reclaim his identity — as Trumbo had just reclaimed his own by securing screen credit after a decade on the Blacklist.
Or think of "The Searchers." When John Ford's camera looks out through the closing door at John Wayne as he walks away from his extended family, the door might as well be closing on an entire genre. Critics, including Wayne's gifted new biographer, Scott Eyman, have rightly if narrowly interpreted this famous moment as the Modern West's forsaking of the flawed men who helped settle it. But Wayne too, like all those itinerant plainsmen, would spend the next several decades locked out of an entire American generation's esteem.
Refreshingly, Eyman invites Wayne back through the front door and gives him ample room to stretch out. Others have tried to write Wayne's life, by no means all of them hacks. Even the great polymath Garry Wills had a bash at it. But no Wayne biography until now has ridden the defile between the reverential and the tendentious with quite the graceful equilibrium of this one.
The Wayne we meet in these pages is a smart guy in a sometimes silly role, a simple man with a complex life. Marion "Duke" Morrison was born in Iowa to a no-account father and a mother who never gave him much credit - a "grievance collector," in Eyman's astute phrase. The family moved to Glendale before the boy entered school. As with Shirley Temple, Gregory Peck, Robert Redford, Dustin Hoffman and so many other movie stars, we tend to forget that Wayne was an L.A. kid.
By the time he left Glendale High, Duke Morrison might have been hated if everybody hadn't loved him. He excelled at almost everything except dating, where he was too shy at first to notice all the swooning bobbysoxers around him. He lettered in football. He bodysurfed at Balboa. He swam in the Los Angeles River back when it needed restraining, not restoring.
Owing to Eyman's prodigious research, we learn a few other things that the Republic Studios publicity department never told us: John Wayne was president not only of his senior class but of the Latin Society. He wrote for his school paper, went out for debate and acted in plays all through high school. Wayne could also quote Milton from memory, loved Raymond Chandler and shared with Ford his devotion to a forgotten Arthur Conan Doyle novel called "The White Company."
The mythologists might have us believe that Wayne was a natural, that John Ford saw him on a horse one day and decided to make him a star. At least as much as John Ford chose Wayne, though, Wayne chose him. From the moment they met, Wayne knew Ford for an artistic genius and badgered him for a part for years before the director relented.
Meanwhile, Wayne became a star on his own, cranking out Westerns like widgets on the Republic assembly line. In the industrywide wonder year of 1939, Ford's "Stagecoach" was only one of six movies he starred in. Eyman gives us a lovely moment to mark the change in Wayne's fortunes: The week after United Artists released "Stagecoach," when Wayne stopped by Republic to pick up his mail, the entire steno pool applauded.
Right after this came maybe the biggest mistake of Wayne's creative life. Just when he could have branched out, surrounded himself consistently with talent to match his own - maybe even found a studio whose writers weren't paid by the typewriter ribbon - Wayne re-upped with Republic. The money got better, the budgets a little bigger, the schedules kinder. But Wayne would rarely widen his range or lighten his material the way his friends Henry Fonda and Gary Cooper often did. (Then again, perhaps not coincidentally, nobody has published major biographies of Fonda or Cooper lately.)
In Eyman's telling, Wayne stuck with Republic for several reasons. For one thing, he needed the money. A poor judge of business partners, political causes and wives, he also loved children and ultimately had seven of them to support. For another, Wayne loved work. Not "the work" - as in "it's all about the work," or other such self-infatuated actor-speak — but work, hard and rewarding, slow and then sudden, the easy diurnal camaraderie of the camera and the crew.
Wayne kept up a Stakhanovite work ethic for decades, through good movies and bad, great movies and awful. Eyman gets it all down like a pro. He's done his homework and only occasionally shows too much of it, as when he includes the dubious Hollywood accounting on most of Wayne's pictures. To paraphrase Maxwell Scott in "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance," even when the ledger becomes fact, please don't print the ledger.
Far better when Eyman gets at the details that the bean-counters and myth-spinners miss: "The children would come running into [Wayne's] arms, ingesting his specific odors - Camel cigarettes, Neutrogena soap, Listerine."
Already the author of biographies of Ford, Cecil B. DeMille, and a fine one of Louis B. Mayer, Eyman has carved out a nice recent niche for himself as perhaps our premier biographer of Hollywood conservatives. Theirs isn't a long list, those Hollywood conservatives, and he's leavened it with good books on Ernst Lubitsch, Mary Pickford and others besides, plus a long career as book critic for the Palm Beach Post. Wayne's intimates have told Eyman things here that they've never told anyone else. Read that passage about how he smelled to his kids, and you can see why.
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