What I remember about my Mama’s daddy is a John Wayne looking man with a big, booming, almost scary voice who was either chewing on a cigar or smoking a cigarette. Although I do not remember cowboy boots, a white hat, or a horse named Dollar, Grandpa did live in Texas. Maybe that is why I always liked “The Duke”.
Born Marion Mitchell Morrison on May 26, 1907, he took his stage name during the 1930s while working in low budget films to support his young family.
Although he had been friends with the successful director John Ford, it was not until 1939 that he was finally given a role in one of his films. It was this film making icon who first began calling him Duke.
- The role as the Ringo Kid in “Stagecoach” became the force behind Wayne’s rise as a western legend. The film became a phenomenal success grossing over a million dollars in the first year and was nominated for seven Academy Awards, including Best Picture. It also is responsible for re-establishing the American Western as a viable entertainment medium.
- In “Stagecoach”, Wayne plays the Ringo Kid, a well liked young man who has escaped from the penitentiary to avenge the deaths of his father and brother. Apprehended by the Marshal who is riding as a shotgun guard for the stagecoach company, he falls in love with Dallas, a dance hall girl who was forced to leave town by the local ladies. The ensuing gunfight with the Plummers and the attack by the Apaches establishes the Ringo Kid’s code of heroism and honor and gains his release from custody.
- John Wayne became a huge success and would go on to star in twenty more John Ford films over the next two decades including the “cavalry trilogy” beginning with “Fort Apache” a 1948 western co-starring Henry Fonda. Wayne plays a Captain in the United States Cavalry who although expecting to take over the command of a remote outpost in Apache territory, serves the inexperienced Lieutenant Colonel with respect and honor.
- The second of the trilogy was the 1949 “She Wore a Yellow Ribbon” and was followed closely by the 1950 “Rio Grande”. They both starred Wayne as an honorable cavalry officer with respect for the Native Americans and fidelity to his troops. In the ending of “She Wore a Yellow Ribbon” all the ladies in the outpost wear yellow ribbons in their hair to show respect and to honor him upon his return to the garrison.
- John Wayne’s 1948 released Howard Hawks’ film “Red River” about the first cattle drive along the Chisolm Trail is widely lauded as one of his best acting roles and was named American Film Institute’s fifth-best Western genre movies.
- In 1953, Wayne produced and starred with Ward Bond and James Arness in “Hondo”, a cavalry set 3D film based on a Louis L’Amour novel. The film grossed over $4 million at the box office and finished sixteenth for the year.
- Although unfounded, rumor has it that The Duke petitioned for the part of Marshal Dillon in the TV series Gunsmoke. He did recommend James Arness for the leading role though and in the introduction to the twenty year long television season stated no one else should play the part.
- In Wayne’s highly successful 1956 western, “The Searchers” his duty to family initiates his years long search and rescue of his young niece who was abducted by a Comanche raiding party. The final scene is a tribute to his recently deceased friend Harry Carey who frequently stood holding his elbow with his other hand.
- Although “The Searchers” was not nominated for any Academy Awards at the time, it has since been deemed “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” by the United States Library of Congress, and selected for preservation in its National Film Registry. It is now regarded as the greatest western of the 1950s.
- One of John Wayne’s last films of the 1950s was “Rio Bravo”. The 1959 movie directed by Howard Hawks was classified a cinematic masterpiece. Co-starring with Dean Martin and Angie Dickenson, Ward Bond, Walter Brennen, and Ricky Nelson, Wayne plays a Texas sheriff obliged to maintain the peace in a suddenly lawless town.
- He and another popular fifties actor, William Holden co-star in “The Horse Soldiers” based on the true story of Union Colonel Benjamin Grierson’s Civil War raid to cut off the Confederate controlled railroad before the Battle of Vicksburg.
John Wayne continued his western genre movie making career into the sixties and seventies without compromising his moral and ethical standards.
He maintained his characteristic demeanor while donning a black eye patch for his Best Actor Award Winning performance as Rooster Cogburn in the 1969 film “True Grit.”
Having cultivated a fair-minded, honest, respectful, and honorable persona throughout his career, Wayne refused to allow Books to shoot a man in the back as originally written in his final film “The Shootest”.
He was quoted as saying “I’ve made over 250 pictures and have never shot a guy in the back. Change it.”
It is those very principles that made John Wayne a lasting American icon and spokesman for the fifties cowboys values and ideals.
Please enjoy this short clip from the Dean Martin Show as John Wayne expresses the values he wants to impart to his eight month old daughter, Marisa.