An Icon to Remember: John Wayne
A Picture Gallery of Memories
By: J. Marlando
This remembrance of John Wayne begins with someone you probably have never heard of, for that matter, you’ve probably never heard of John Wayne either if you were born in the 1970s or thereafter. Chuck Keen was prsident of Alaskan Pictures a small company compared to the big studios but a film and documentary making company nevertheless.
I knew Chuck very well as I worked for him off and on for at least ten years. Chuck idolized John Wayne and had been a front line Vietnam War photographer for nearly a decade—indeed he had flown around the world—with stops—27 times. He was a devoted Republican too; an absolute portrait of the classic right-winger. If ever there was a man who walked the talk of John Wayne, Chuck Keen was that man—Chuck was a dyed-in-the-wool American patriot and a man who had really gone from rags to riches—he purchased his first movie camera with the money he earned as a logger but that was Chuck—uniquely an individualist who, like John Wayne, was beyond all else, his own man.
At this early juncture the reader may be wondering why an article about John Wayne starts out talking about someone else. Well, the answer is, I want to share a story with you that is unknown to John Wayne fans. This is what happened: Chuck was deep in Mexico shooting a documentary about desert plants as I recall. When he came into the little Mexican town that evening he went into a bar to relax and have something to eat.
Taking a seat at the bar, Chuck noticed a group of men sitting at a table. Lo and behold, it was Chuck’s super hero, John Wayne with a group of men traveling with him. Chuck wanted to cross to Wayne’s table but for once in his life he found it difficult to muster the courage. Finally, however, he dared to go to the movie star’s table. “Hello, Mr. Wayne, my name is Chuck Keen.”
John Wayne graciously shakes Chuck’s hand and asks him what he’s doing in Mexico. Chuck tells him about the documentary he is shooting but also about a documentary he’s going to be shooting in the following year—a highly patriotic documentary about the Vietnam War. John Wayne was appreciative of Chuck’s apparent patriotism and offered to narrate the documentary for him. Chuck was flattered but admitted that he did not have the budget to hire a super star as John Wayne was. But Wayne loved the idea of the documentary and told Chuck not to worry about the money that he would come to Alaska in the following year and do the voice over work.
Chuck was of course ecstatically enthusiastic and he asked John Wayne, where to send the contracts. And John Wayne said, “my word is my contract.” And Chuck was humbled but worried by the response since a man as busy as John Wayne could easily forget going to Alaska for voiceover work especially when the handshake agreement had happened in a bar.
At a designated time and date, approximately one year later, John Wayne arrived in Juneau and did all that he said that he would do. This was John Wayne in the movies and John Wayne in life. He and Chuck had hit it off and they remained friends from that time forward.
The point here is that John Wayne in real life was much the same as he was on screen—a man of character…a man of honor.
The above photographs are of the world that John Wayne was born into—He was born on May 26, in 1907, in this house in Winterset, Iowa and given the name, Marion Michael Morrison.
His father Clyde was a pharmacist and his mother, Mary “Molly” a spunky, Irish housewife and mother of two boys. Marion (John) was her oldest.
When young Marion was seven, the family moved to Lancaster, California where Clyde attempted to become a farmer. The attempt had failed and so they moved to Glendale where young Marion was given his famous nickname, “Duke.”
It is said that the boy and his dog, Duke” became inseparable friends—they went just about everywhere together, played together and slept together. This love between the boy and dog was so apparent that people began calling him “Big Duke” and the dog “Little Duke.” The name Duke would stay with Marion for the rest of his life.
Growing up, Marion attended Glendale High School and won a football scholarship to the University of California. After two years, however, an injury occurred and that ended the scholarship. In the meantime, Marion had been doing some extra work at Fox Studio. In fact, once he was given the on-screen credit of Duke Morrison. The movie was Words and Music 1929.
Actually, in 1930 the director Raoul Walsh had seen Morison moving some heavy furniture around working as a prop boy and something about the big man—he was 6’ 4” tall—that prompted or inspired him to cast the future John Wayne in his first starring role. “The Big Trail” It was at this time that Walsh realized that Marion was not going to work as a name for the new actor and so he suggested Marion change his name to Anthony Wayne. The studio head, however, thought that sounded too Italian so Walsh then suggested John Wayne and the rest is history.
JOHN WAYNE’S HOLLYWOOD 1930
The Big Trail was the first big-budget, outdoor spectacle in Hollywood. This was 1930 and the picture cost $2 million—that was a ton of money back then! John Wayne, incidentally, was earning a whopping $105 a week at the time. (This was not bad money when you consider what earning power most people had back then). While there was no minimum wage during most of the 1930s, President Roosevelt suggested that one be set at 25 cents an hour. Congress rejected the idea but that was around what unskilled labor was making).
In any case, The Big Trail was a financial failure and this sent John Wayne back into the ranks of small role players. In 1931 he did a picture for Columbia in which he played a corpse.
He did play in a number of low budget westerns however, mostly for Monogram Pictures doing around 80 “horse operas” as Wayne called them between 1931 and 1939.
It was in the year 1939 that John Wayne started his rapid climb into stardom. The Director John Ford took a liking to the young actor and cast him in Stagecoach. After casting the then “B” actor in the lead, Ford had to really struggle to get financing for an A-budget film. He finally had to give Claire Trevor, a top star at the time, top billing in order to acquire the funds he needed.
Nevertheless, Stagecoach was John Wayne’s first big hit—Stagecoach received great critical acclaim plus Academy Award nominations. It is still on the American Film Institute’s list of best westerns!
John Wayne would follow Stagecoach with 19 motion pictures during the 1940s.
JOHN WAYNE’S HOLLYWOOD 1940s
The great westerns that the Duke would do included The Spoilers 1942, Dakota 1945 and Fort Apache to me one of the best motion pictures made but, even in view of this, his great acting achievement did not arrive until 1949 in She Wore a Yellow Ribbon. This intriguing, human drama was again directed by John Ford. He cast John as an ageing Cavalry Captain for which—I believe he should have been given an Academy Award for but it remained in the Duke’s fate not to win that particular acknowledgement for a great many years.
The first half of the 1940s was World War II years and John Wayne did some wonderful war movies during that time. The flying Tigers was produced in 1942, this was followed by the highly entertaining but strongly patriot The Fighting Seabees of 1944. Then, They Were Expendable, 1945 a highly dramatic tale of a squadron of PT boats assigned to defend the Philippines. This impactful, picture was also directed by John Ford and was another triumph of cinema. Back to Bataan followed in that same year. Then, in 1949, John Wayne played the rock-solid Marine Sergeant, John Agar in Sands of Iwo Jima. All these truly “top” motion pictures not only served to solidify John Wayne as a major star but as a most unique American icon which we will be talking about later.
I did not mention my all-time favorite John Wayne film in the above but Red River was also made in the 40s—a tremendous triumph of artistic achievement in 1948 that remains a western masterpiece even today. As far as I am concerned the character development and portrayals deserved multiple academy awards but once again the picture was bypassed. Nevertheless, it is an impactful picture to be remembered.
John Wayne kept working steadily through the 1950s, 60s into the 70s.
JOHN WAYNE’S HOLLYWOOD 1960s-70s
Among the Duke’s triumphs was Rio Grande 1950 one of the most heart-warming adventures of his career a great tale of a military family during the Indian wars which was actually part of John Fords trilogy including Fort Apache and She wore a Yellow ribbon. Another truly wonderful motion picture is The Quiet Man and absolutely entertaining starring the Duke and Maureen O’Hara John Wayne never had a romance with O’Hara but he was a devoted friend of hers. I’ve often thought that she no doubt reminded him of his own mother who, as his father was, of Scotch/Irish descent. Molly, as his mother was called, had been born in 1885 in Nebraska and passed on only nine years before her famous, beloved son.
Another wonderful John Wayne movie is the Searchers and once again directed by John Ford. This motion picture was not only exciting but again had deeply rooted human emotions weaved into the plot. Then The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance with major roles also played by Lee Marvin and Jimmy Steward—with a cast like that, the movie was destined to be the gem that it actually became.
As a quick aside, out of all those great movies that John Wayne starred in—142 in fact—one might ask was there ever any “duds.” Movies like all art are in the eye of the beholder but I thought Green Berets in 1968 was terribly directed, terribly written and terribly acted. For one thing it was clearly a constructed as a propaganda film and used outdated heroics to make its rather gung ho points. I thought The War Wagon of 1967 was just as bad for different reasons. Well, nobody hits 100 every time.
John Wayne acted and directed The Alamo back in 1960 with fascinating stars such as Richard Widmark and Richard Boone best remembered as Palatin on the TV show, Have Gun Will Travel. Nevertheless, The Alamo was slow and not as exciting as Wayne had envisioned and while it is still watched from time to time today, it was basically a box-office flop…and a costly one for Wayne personally. John Wayne appeared in The Longest Day after the Alamo in 1962 which is a most intriguing story of the allied Normandy landing in 1944.
During the 1970s, John Wayne made quite a number of other impressive films such as Cahill and Roster Cogburn in 1975 The masterful and lovely Katharine Hepburn added charm and excellence to the Cogburn movie. Then his final motion picture, in 1978, The Shootist Ironically a living legend portraying a living legend that was dying of the same fatal disease that was the same disease that would take the Duke’s life in the following year.
John Wayne the Human Being
John Wayne became known as the symbol for Americanism, patriotism and nationalism. He was especially beloved and admired as a conservative Republican—indeed, a group of wealthy Texans actually wanted to back him for the presidency but he rejected the idea with the idea that others were much more prepared for running the country than he was. He was, after all, an actor, not a politician…at least to that extent.
What will shock a great many conservative Republicans is that John Wayne, as a young man, voted for Franklin D. Roosevelt and advocated…socialism. Well, as for so many others in the ranks of college-age youth, socialism sounds more humane than other forms of government. The Duke was quickly educated though and not only decided on democracy as favorable but adopted right-wing policies. His political interests became the preservation of American Ideals and the rejection of communism. In fact, he became so verbal about the evils of communism that Joseph Stalin ordered him assassinated or so the story goes.
He publically supported Richard Nixon against Jack Kennedy but when Jack Kennedy won the election, he said: “I didn’t vote for him but he’s my president, and I hope he does a good job.”
In 1980 John (Duke) Wayne was (posthumously) awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom—there is no doubt this would have pleased him a great deal as, beyond all else, he stood for individualism and liberty.
The Duke was imperfect like the rest of us. He was married three times and was known for having some hot and heavy affairs. All three of his wives were Latin American women starting with wife one: Josephine Saenz. They were married in 1933 and had four children—Michael, Toni, Patrick and Melinda in 1940.
One known problem for the couple was that he was a devotee to his work and was forever surrounded by associates and friends from the film industry. Josephine probably felt lonely and alone in a house constantly filled with people. I am guessing here, however.
John Wayne met his second wife in Mexico—Esperanza Baur Diaz with the nickname of Chata.
The Duke had been vacationing there—a favorite place for him but they were married on January 17, in 1946 in California. This marriage, it is said was rocky from the beginning and Chata was angered by her husband’s devotion to his work and jealous of his eye for other women. It is said that one night the Duke came home quite late and that Chata, suspecting him of being with another woman, tried to shoot him when he walked in the door.
John Wayne met his third wife, Pilar in Lima, Peru. Pilar Weldy (born Palette) was the daughter of a Peruvian politician and had a beauty and sophistication that would obviously attract a man like Wayne. On the day his divorce was final from Chata, they married.
They would have three children, Aissa in 1956, John Ethan in 1962 and Marisa Carmella in 1966. The third marriage lasted for seventeen years but ended in divorce. Pilar would only say that she tired of her husband’s long stays away from home and he would only say they had lost interest for each other. There were more complex problems than this.
The truth however is that probably the Duke was hard to live with—he was a heavy drinker, heavy smoker, fast to temper and it seems far more the man’s man than a homebody. After a risky bout with lung cancer in 1964, he was disallowed smoking, but he ended up smoking cigars for the rest of his life.
While it is no doubt true that Wayne was an imperfect husband, a heavy drinker, a determined smoker and yes, a bit of a womanizer—his virtues far exceeded his faults and his strengths far exceeded his weaknesses. In overview one can summarize John (Duke) Wayne as being a good man and a good American. He will be remembered in history for his strong and solid masculinity along with his devoted patriotism to the country that he loved.
While it’s true that John Wayne was, beyond all else an actor, he was an actor of a most unique and profound kind: he came to be a symbol of Americanism and he was not only admired by most but beloved as a hero not only in his own country but in a great many countries around the world as well. He portrayed the manhood that nearly every male would have—a manhood that is unafraid and daring; a manhood that has principles and sticks by them; a manhood of solid character and obvious independence. And so, John Wayne stood for what most women desire in their men—a man that they could lean on and be protected by. Yet, a man of compassion and tenderness! The Duke represented this man in all his leading roles. He was husband, brother, friend and father all rolled into one.
I have known two men who knew the Duke—Chuck Keen, who I spoke of at the top of this narrative and my other friend Tiger Andrews, who had acted on screen with him—both men held John Wayne in the highest esteem and spoke of him with admiration and respect. My friends Tiger Andrews and Chuck Keen, incidentally, were both men of solid character themselves.
In any case, I believe that it is safe to say that there will never be another John Wayne—I believe that he is the last legend of the ideals of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness; a final symbol of idealistic America. For this, we bid a sad farewell.