How John Wayne Became John Wayne
Credit: Michael Ochs Archives / Getty Images
The emotional reality was that he would always think of himself as Duke Morrison, not the fictional construct known as John Wayne. In fact, he never legally changed his name; on his death certificate, he's listed as "Marion Morrison (John Wayne)" and for the sake of psychological clarity he always asked people to refer to him as "Duke," not John. "It took me a long time," he reminisced in 1975. "I never have really become accustomed to the John. Nobody ever really calls me John... I've always been Duke, or Marion or John Wayne. It's a name that goes well together and it's like one word – JohnWayne. But if they say John, Christ, I don't look around today. And when they say Jack, boy, you know they don’t know me."

Duke Morrison knew all too well the deprivations of fear and loneliness, the humiliation of poverty, the pain of powerlessness and not a little psychological neglect. He was learning self-reliance (which was very much to his taste), the virtue of hard work (ditto), as well as what he always regarded as the dubious nature of solitude. "John Wayne" would be the vehicle through which Duke Morrison acquired power – as an actor and as a man.

With the casting complete, production of the picture Fox was calling The Big Trail began to move forward. According to Hal Evarts, Raoul Walsh wanted to emphasize authenticity of setting, costume, and props as much as possible. Complicating Walsh’s desire was the fact that the Missouri River near Kansas City, the actual embarkation point for many wagon trains, was now dotted with smokestacks and railroads.

Walsh decided that he and Evarts would go on a location recce, and that they would customize the story and dialogue to the locations. Whereupon they set off east across the Teton Pass by sled, bound for Jackson Hole. "After a 30-mile sled trip across the range, we landed in Jackson a few hours after nightfall," wrote Evarts. "We cruised the valley for two days by sled, then headed out over the pass. A blizzard was in progress; not a cold one, but a wet, sloppy one, the snow falling in wet chunks.... Through it all, we plugged and plugged on the story – adding here, cutting there, while we were preparing to leave for other locations within a few days time."

While Walsh and Evarts were constructing their story, the studio began buying and building thousands of props – yokes, wagon covers, a host of other articles. An old cowhand named Jack Padjan was sent to Wyoming to select Indians from the Arapaho tribe, and a batch of them set up headquarters across the street from the Fox administration building.

Fox issued a press release about their new star, and the process was so hurried that most of it was actually true: "John Wayne was born in Winterset, Iowa, on May 26, 1907. The son of Clyde Leonard Morrison and Mary Brown. Educated in the George Washington Grammar School of Keokuk, Iowa and later at the Lancaster Grammar School in Lancaster, California, to which place his parents moved when he was at an early age. Graduating from the Lancaster School, he entered Glendale High School in Glendale, California, and from there he entered University of Southern California in Los Angeles...." The press release asserted that he broke his ankle in his junior year which cost him the season, and that he left college and “decided to learn to make motion pictures. Secured a position as prop boy and propped on Mother Machree, Speakeasy, Strong Boy, The Black Watch, and Louis Beretti [the production title of Born Reckless]....

"Wayne brought to the part of Breck Coleman absolutely no stage or screen experience other than appearing while at the University of Southern California in a couple of college dramas."

All in all, pretty close to the truth, although no mention was made of his parents' divorce, which was finalized on February 20, 1930. By that time, Clyde was spending time with Florence Buck, a twenty-nine-year-old divorcée with a daughter. A few weeks after the divorce was final, Clyde and Florence got married. The marriage would prove to be a success, and Clyde's drinking moderated, although his difficulties with steady employment remained. A few years later, his situation stabilized, and he eventually became president of the Beverly Hills Lions Club.

It was now the spring of 1930. The studio quickly took some stills of their young star examining guns in the studio prop room along with Dan Clark, who had photographed Tom Mix for years, and Louis Witte, who was in charge of the equipment.

They also began papering the country with the story of his discovery, and characterized him as "a youth who bids fair to prove the screen sensation of 1930... a smile that is one in a million, a marvelous speaking voice, a fearless rider, a fine natural actor and he has everything the femmes want in their leading man. Less than two years ago Wayne was playing football at USC. Watch this boy go."

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Not everybody thought Wayne was a good bet. One trade paper columnist said, "I can't see how anybody could stretch their imagination so far as to gamble $2 million on a novice to make good in a picture that cries for an actor with years and years of experience.” To which Raoul Walsh replied, with considerable insight into his new leading man’s essential character, "I selected Morrison, whose name, by the way, will be John Wayne from now on... primarily because he is a real pioneer type... but most of all because he can start over any trail and finish."

As the script was finalized, Walsh told the newly christened John Wayne to keep letting his hair grow – pioneers weren't neatly trimmed. And one other thing: learn how to throw a knife without camera trickery. Wayne went to an expert knife man named Steve Clemente, who worked with the young man for several weeks. Clemente explained that in theory it was simple: throw the knife so it makes one revolution in twelve feet, or two revolutions in twenty-four feet. More revolutions or fewer increase the likelihood that the knife will land handle-in and fall with a clatter rather than pierce the wood target with an impressive thunk!

In practice, it was not so simple, but he learned. A few weeks later, hair shaggy, armed with a knife he knew how to throw, John Wayne was off to make his first western.