Most major stars are recognized and embraced by the public right away – Greta Garbo, Clark Gable, James Cagney, Katharine Hepburn and Errol Flynn, for example, all shot to the top very early in their careers. In fact, there remains today a strong feeling among movie executives that if a performer doesn’t catch fire quickly, he or she probably never will.
One director at Fox, John Ford, was especially impressed with Morrison’s strength, tenacity and willingness to take on the toughest jobs. A brilliant, autocratic filmmaker who could sometimes be mean, even sadistic, Ford loved to challenge people in order to test their character. One day he began playing a dirty trick on Morrison, who proceeded to demonstrate a Trojan tackling technique on the esteemed director. Instead of getting fired, as he probably should have been, the kid earned Ford’s respect; so began, in Morrison’s words, “the most profound relationship of my life and, I believe, my greatest friendship.” Ford and Wayne would become a magical team in Hollywood … but that came later.
Wayne (then Morrison), a good student and overachiever at Glendale High, where he was president of the senior class in 1925, came to USC on a football scholarship. Football scholarships then were not what they are now. They covered tuition ($280 a year) and one meal a day at the training table if you were on the regular squad.
“The training table was a five-days-a-week thing,” recalled Eugene C. Clarke, a former USC trustee who was a boyhood, high school and college friend of Wayne’s, in a 1979 Trojan Family article. “We sort of had to scratch around for our other meals and for all of our meals on weekends. We were always pretty hungry by Monday morning.”
One of Wayne’s campus jobs was to “sling hash” at sorority houses. He joined a fraternity, Sigma Chi, along with several of his high school friends. One of them, Ralf “Pexy” Eckles, recalled in a newspaper interview that Wayne once got out of a college fight by putting ketchup in his mouth and letting it leak out.
“The guys let him go because they thought he was bleeding. He would have got away with it, if he hadn’t started to laugh.”
After breaking his collarbone while surfing and losing his football scholarship, Wayne had to leave USC shortly after beginning his junior year. (His younger brother, Robert, later made more of a contribution to USC football as a fullback, earning a letter in 1932.)
Clarke remembered this as a hard time for Wayne. “Duke was in bad shape, financially. He owed money to the fraternity for his dues, room and board, and he didn’t have a dime. The fraternity was urging him to pay up; he felt his football playing days were over because of his bad shoulder. So he did what he felt he had to do. He quit school and went to work at the studios.”
His friend Eckles found him a place to live. “He had no place to go and he knew my folks, so I brought him home and he lived upstairs over our garage for a while.”
Wayne continued with grip work and other blue-collar jobs at Fox. It’s difficult to determine exactly when he moved from behind the camera to in front of it, but sources indicate that his first bit of acting occurred in 1928. However, there is no doubt that his initial breakthrough came in 1930 when Fox elevated him to the starring role in its $1 million epic western, The Big Trail. Not fancying his name, the Fox executives changed it to John Wayne, a straightforward moniker that he never completely accepted. He always preferred to be called by his childhood nickname, “Duke.”
Wayne’s leap from small
upporting parts to the lead in an expensive production also provoked the studio to assign a combination elocution teacher/acting coach to improve the neophyte’s delivery of lines and thespian abilities. But Wayne didn’t take well to the overly rigid, academic training, causing his tutor to quit in disgust. “If you live to be 100 years old,” the tutor said, “you will never become an actor.”
The director of The Big Trail, Raoul Walsh, was not disturbed one bit by this. His formula for a western star was “six foot three or over, no hips and a face that fits in a sombrero.” John Wayne matched the description perfectly.
The Big Trail turned out to be a flop. The film actually holds up well, but it was released just as the worsening Depression was forcing many fans to abandon their movie-going habits. Unfortunately and quite unfairly, a significant portion of the blame for its failure landed on Duke’s broad shoulders. Having apparently bungled his big chance at stardom, he soon found himself ensconced in B-cowboy hell, where he would remain for the rest of the decade.
A bit of background. In the ’20s, ’30s and ’40s, several different studios and independent production outfits made B-westerns. Produced on tiny budgets, these films were aimed at rural audiences and the so-called “Saturday matinee” crowds of kids in big cities. As one who spent many hours of my childhood at the Belmont Theater in Nashville toward the end of the “Saturday Matinee” era, I remember that even though those glorious Saturdays always featured action films and cartoons and serials, there was often more mayhem in the audience than there was on the screen.
Those who made B-westerns occupied the bottom rung on the Hollywood totem pole. Since the films were generally shot in less than a week, a member of a B-western team worked long, hard hours for comparatively small wages. There was absolutely nothing glamorous about the vocation. It was the Hollywood equivalent of being a plumber.
Still, it was a job and jobs were scarce in 1930s America. If you were the leading man – as Wayne was in more than 60 of these pictures – and were willing to accept as much work as they could throw at you, you could make a very decent living.
B-cowboy plots, characters, dramatic situations and romantic relationships varied little from picture to picture. Neither did the titles. During the ’30s, our hero appeared in films titled Desert Trail, Sagebrush Trail, Telegraph Trail, The Oregon Trail, The Lonely Trail and The Trail Beyond. And let us not forget that The Big Trail led him to all these lesser trails.
Wayne made cheap westerns for Columbia, Warner Bros. and Universal as well as fringe studios like Mascot, Monogram and Republic. Years later, he recalled: “Some of these early westerns were done in four days. I’d change my clothes, read the lines, change my clothes, read some more lines. We’d start before dawn using flares to light the close-ups. When the sun would come out, we’d do medium-range shots. In full daylight, we’d do distance shots, following the sun up one hill and down the other. It didn’t matter who was directing. They had no chance and I had no chance.”
Yet, despite the absurd schedules and the absence of depth in his roles, Wayne took advantage of the experience to refine his craft. He learned to throw away bad lines of dialogue and began to build up his own style and screen persona. The unique walk, the special way he straddled a horse, the drawl, the squint, the “no fooling” glare; indeed, the full catalogue of expressions and gestures and vocalizations that would later become a gold mine for parody comedians such as Rich Little began to take shape during Wayne’s B-cowboy days.
While he was ambitious and clearly longed for better parts in bigger pictures, Wayne remained the consummate professional throughout the ’30s. He was always on time, always knew his lines and was always ready to do whatever was necessary to get the best possible picture in the can. This often included performing his own stunts.
Only once did he balk and that was when they turned him into a singing cowboy. “Singin’ Sandy Saunders” first appeared in Riders of Destiny (1933), to be followed by other guitar-toting, harmonizing cowpokes in films released over the next two years. Kids loved the characters but John Wayne didn’t, especially when fans would ask him to croon during personal appearances. Since he couldn’t sing a lick (his songs had been dubbed), he informed his producers that he would play no more melodious characters. This paved the way for Gene Autry, Roy Rogers and others who would soon turn the singing cowboy into an absolute rage.
The most amazing thing about Wayne’s B-cowboy phase is that he ultimately transcended it. Being a performer in B-westerns was akin to being in the Mafia – once in, it was almost impossible to get out. In 1937, for example, the most popular B-cowboy stars – as listed in an annual exhibitor poll conducted by the Motion Pictur . BY Rick Jewell