Who’s that on the cover of Scott Eyman’s splendid biography of Hollywood’s most enduring movie star? Where’s the Stetson, the Winchester rifle, the six-shooter, the boots and spurs?
Eyman presents John Wayne as what he really was — a generally good-natured actor and filmmaker who created and maintained a persona that Americans took to heart. Wayne worked hard to learn his craft, developed a keen understanding of the movie business and became successful at selling his product.
The family of the boy born Marion Robert Morrison in 1907 in Winterset, Iowa, moved to California when he was 7 or 8 and settled in the Los Angeles suburb of Glendale. His father, Clyde Morrison, failed at almost every business he tried and died a few years before his son reached stardom.
Known by the nickname “Duke,” the Glendale High class president hoped that football and an A average would earn him an education at the University of Southern California. When an injury cost him his scholarship, Duke turned to work as a propman at the Fox studio to earn enough money to stay in school. Director John Ford took the handsome young go-getter under his wing and began giving him small roles.
A big break ended his college plans. But the newly named John Wayne — others at the studio came up with that moniker, and he never assumed it legally — was wholly unprepared for the starring role in The Big Trail in 1930. In spite of studio publicity for the picture and its young lead, the widescreen epic directed by Raoul Walsh failed at the box office. Two more duds ended Wayne’s contract at Fox.
His mentor Ford allowed him to languish — and to learn — until he found the right role for Wayne as the star of Stagecoach. For almost a half-century, Wayne excelled in the make-believe business.
Wayne’s lack of military service and his support of Hollywood’s red scare are examples of Eyman’s evenhanded treatment of complicated subjects and the solid research that backs up his conclusions. People turned off by Wayne’s right-wing politics and the simplistic themes of his movies often underestimated his intelligence. He was a debater in high school, president of its Latin Society and a member of its newspaper staff. As an adult he was a demon chess player and an avid reader. Imagine the star of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance reading The Lord of the Rings.
Another surprise: Wayne listened to people with whom he disagreed and respected their opinions. He wasn’t bothered if his own political and social views didn’t match the tenor of the times or even his personal relationships. In 1971 he said that he believed in white supremacy “until the blacks are educated to a point of responsibility.” Yet he was loyal and generous to friends regardless of race.
Eyman offers perceptive views of Wayne’s many films and a wagon’s worth of revealing and entertaining anecdotes. If you think you know John Wayne, you'll know him even better as a movie star — and appreciate him even more as a person — after reading The Life and Legend.
Douglass K. Daniel reviewed this book for The Associated Press.