Before John Wayne became one of America’s most iconic actors, he was a good-looking ex-football player embarrassed by his dreams of stardom. In his book John Wayne: The Life and Legend, Scott Eymann relies on interviews with the actor’s friends and associates as well as material drawn from years worth of audiences with “The Duke” himself to create an indelible portrait of a complicated man who loved Latin women, big country, and the pioneer spirit he came to embody for so many Americans.
The story of the christening of John Wayne varies only slightly in the telling.
Raoul Walsh had approached Fox Film Corporation head Winfield Sheehan regarding a western about the pioneers’ trek west. The film was to be based on a Saturday Evening Post serial by Hal G. Evarts entitled The Shaggy Legion that ran from November 30, 1929, to January 4, 1930, and was later published as a novel. The serial’s title referred to the last great herd of buffalo, but Walsh’s imagination converted it into a vast saga of western expansion, a sound version of The Covered Wagon or The Iron Horse – two of the greatest hits of the silent era. Fox signed Evarts to a screenwriting contract in February 1930 that paid $1,000 a week.
That was easy; the hard part was the casting. As Evarts would write, “the male lead must be a true replica of the pioneer type — somewhat diffident with women, being unused to them, but a bear-cat among the men of the plains. Walsh was afraid that the sophistication of an experienced actor would creep through and be apparent to the audience. As against that was the probability that a man chosen from the ranks of the inexperienced would be unable to carry the part in so big a picture.”
When people at the studio grumbled about Walsh’s plans to hire Duke Morrison, an unknown, he told them, “I don’t want an actor. I want someone to get out there and act natural – be himself…. I’ll make an actor out of him if need be.”
As Walsh said at the time, “If there was one thing I did not want, it was an established star for the role of Breck Coleman…. I wanted… a personality, not an actor.”
Walsh remembered that the critical moment came when he saw Morrison lugging some furniture across the soundstage for John Ford’s Born Reckless, which was being shot early in 1930. “He was in his early 20s – laughing and the expression on his face was so warm and wholesome that I stopped and watched. I noticed the fine physique of the boy, his careless strength, the grace of his movement.”
Walsh walked over and asked the boy his name. The gangling youngster looked him over and said, “I know you. You directed What Price Glory. The name’s Morrison.” He explained that he wanted to be in pictures, but “this is as far as I’ve come.”
“What else can you do besides handle props?” Walsh asked. “I can play football.”
“I believe you. Let’s see how much you want to be an actor. Let your hair grow. Come and see me in two weeks.”
Duke believed that Walsh had first noticed him at a Fox company picnic a week or so earlier. Morrison was hungover, having a beer, wearing a Harris tweed suit, and eventually competed in a walking contest, which he narrowly won against a “little grip that’s just right on my ass.”
A few days later, Walsh saw Wayne crossing the lot with a table on his head and “it must have reminded him of the picnic. Actually, I was goin‘ to a Ford set, and Walsh asked [producer] Edmund Grainger who I was, and Eddie yelled to me. I came over, we were introduced, and then Walsh came over to the set. I guess he talked to Ford then. That night, as I was leaving, Eddie came around: ‘Jesus, don’t cut your hair – Walsh wants to take a test of you for this picture.'”
The clock was ticking — the picture had to start shooting in the spring — and Walsh needed a leading man right away. “The part wasn’t too exacting,” remembered Walsh. “What I needed was a feeling of honesty, of sincerity, and Wayne had it.”
In the future, Duke would claim that he was thunderstruck by the invitation to act, that “it was the furthest thing from my mind.” But in 1946, he confided to the gossip columnist Louella Parsons that John Ford thought he had the makings of an actor rather than a technician, and “I was ashamed to admit I was hipped on the idea of acting. That’s why I started in with the props.”
There was a screen test of course – million-dollar movies weren’t hung on people who might not photograph. Before that, Morrison was sent to a drama coach, who he recalled as one of many “phonies” who washed up in Hollywood after the coming of sound to teach elocution. “All day long, this drama coach had me declaiming in deep, stentorian tones. Over and over again, I had to roar, ‘Tell that great white mountain hello for me.’ After a few weeks of that, I quit. A Shakespearian delivery wasn’t for me.”
Morrison reported back to Raoul Walsh, who set up a different test. There was no script, no lines to memorize. Instead, Walsh had Ian Keith and Marguerite Churchill, both experienced actors, ask him questions in character, with Duke responding in character.
How long was the trip? Will we see buffalo? Any danger of Indian attack? Wayne felt self-conscious with the camera on him, a feeling that would plague him for years, so he combatively turned the tables. “Where you from, Mister?” he asked Keith. “Why do you want to go west? Can you handle a rifle?”
Walsh called “Cut!” A week later John Ford told the boy he had the job. He was no longer making $35 a week; Fox generously gave their new star a whopping $75 a week.
Since Marion “Duke” Morrison was not a name that carried much synchronicity for the part of a fearless young scout, studio head Winfield Sheehan decided to change his name. Raoul Walsh claimed that he came up with the name “Wayne,” and that Sheehan added the “John,” but Duke said that the whole thing was Sheehan’s idea. Sheehan was a fan of Mad Anthony Wayne, the Revolutionary War general, because “he had been tough and a non-conformist.” The “John” seems to have been an afterthought, but it worked – gave the two halves of the name the equivalence of two blocks of granite that miraculously fit together.
As far as the newly christened star was concerned, the name was irrelevant. “I was known as Marion Morrison to my family and older friends, and I had become Duke Morrison to my generation – neither of which is a good theatrical name. Duke Morrison would sound too much like a stunt man or something, and Marion Morrison would have probably got me in more fights than I’d normally get in.” In Fox’s eyes, “Marion” was a problem even retrospectively; they decided to tell the press, in the person of Louella Parsons, that the boy’s name had actually been Wayne Morrison before they changed his name.
Excerpted from John Wayne: The Life and Legend by Scott Eyman. With permission of the publisher, Simon and Schuster. This selection may not be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form by any means without the prior written permission of the publisher.
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.”
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.