XV: Small Town Life

John Wayne (1907-1979) Actor

            John Wayne still looms large in American popular culture, his visage racing daily across television screens and staring at us from picture frames in bars, barber shops, firehouses, police stations, and truck stops–wherever blue-collar men gather to work and drink. He was born Marion Robert Morrison on May 25, 1907 in Winterset, Iowa, to Clyde and Mary Morrison. Clyde was a druggist who never stayed more than a step or two ahead of bill collectors. Mary, or Molly, was an odd woman.  She had named her first born after her father Robert but took an immediate dislike to the baby. At first she called him “Bobby.” But in 1912, when her second son was born, Molly named him Robert Emmett Morrison and began calling him “Bobby.” She had her first born’s name legally changed to Marion Mitchell Morrison. No wonder Wayne’s recent biographers wrote, “Her chilly disdain was the great mystery of his life–unfathomable, inexplicable, and undeserved.”

            In 1914, the Morrisons moved to Glendale, California, a suburb of Los Angeles. The oldest boy thrived there. A gifted athlete and student, he graduated second in a high school class of two hundred and won a football scholarship to the University of Southern California. Football players got summer work at the Fox Studio in Hollywood, where director John Ford noticed Morrison and put him to work. A bit part in Brown of Harvard soon came his way in 1926, and others followed. Studio heads renamed him “John Wayne,” although Morrison never used it privately. By the time his big break came in 1930, when director Raoul Walsh cast him for the lead in The Big Trail, Wayne had already appeared in eighteen films.
            The Big Trail was a box office disaster, and Wayne ended up making “B” films. Between 1931 and 1939, he appeared in sixty-one serials and westerns, most of them the likes of Texas Cyclone (1932), Two-Fisted Law (1932), and Haunted Gold (1932). There, on Saturday afternoons in the darkened theaters of the South and the West, the John Wayne persona emerged and gained a following. Every few weeks or so a new movie was out, framed in western landscapes and featuring a laconic hero who readily employed violence to foil evil.   Obscurity ended in 1939 when John Ford cast him as Ringo in the popular and critical success, Stagecoach.

            World War II proved to be a watershed in Wayne’s life. Because he wanted to exploit his recent celebrity, Wayne postponed military service. At thirty-four and the father of four, he was eligible for deferments and took them. During the war, between 1940 and 1945 he made over twenty films, the most famous of which, such as They Were Expendable (1945)portrayed him as a soldier battling to save comrades and country. 

            Wayne felt guilty about being a heroic figure who had never served in the military. That guilt changed his politics. The former Roosevelt Democrat turned to the Republicans and to the flag. As head of the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals, Wayne campaigned to root Communists out of the industry. By that time, because of Fort Apache (1948), The Sands of Iwo Jima (1949), and The Quiet Man (1952), he was the biggest box office draw in Hollywood and the personification of America. In his 1960 film The Alamo, he turned early Texas history into a Cold War drama, and in The Green Berets (1968), he defended the United States war effort in Vietnam.
            Wayne mellowed a bit in the 1970s. In his 1969 film True Grit, Wayne lampooned his own persona and won an Oscar for Best Actor. In 1976, he appeared in the last of his 177 films  The Shootist the story of an aging gunfighter dying of cancer. Life was imitating art. John Wayne died of cancer on June 11, 1979. 
James S. Olson


Sam Houston State University
Randy Roberts and James S. Olson, John Wayne American (1995).