George Carpozi’s excellent biography, The John Wayne Story, written just two years before Wayne’s death in 1979, kicks off with the author’s description of how he first met the movie star.
“It was during the 1966 Photoplay Magazine Awards at the Hotel Manhattan.
‘ I want you to meet John Wayne, said Mary Fiore, the editor of Photoplay.
At five-foot-eight, I was level with his tie-clip. I looked up and squinted for a glimpse of his face, which was towering above me like the observation roof of the Empire State Building.
‘Glad to meet you, George’, Wayne drawled, gripping my hand, which pretty much stopped the circulation. He was clutching a Scotch on the rocks in his left hand, and even as he held onto my hand he sipped from the glass, wiped his lips with his tongue, and asked me what else I did beside serve as contributing editor to Photoplay.
‘ I’m a reporter for the New York Post,’ I said.
On hearing that particular newspaper’s name (which was one of the highest circulation evening papers of the time) Wayne went into a public rage accusing Carpozi of working for a ‘Commie rag’, and of being a ‘stinking punk’ for doing so. He then walked away saying he never wanted to see Carpozi again. Carpozi was relieved to say the least.
But in less than an hour Wayne was back at Carpozi’s table.
‘ You’re on the wrong set,’ Carpozi trembled. ‘ We’re not shooting the saloon fight scene until tomorrow.’
Wayne roared with laughter.
‘ Awww, come on,’ Wayne drawled. ‘I’m not really sore at you.’
And with that Wayne gave Carpozi a huge bear hug.
‘ Come on, pal,’ Wayne smiled, ‘have a drink on me.’
The two men disappeared to the bar, where they had a few drinks, shook hands. It turned into a life long friendship.”
I quote from Carpozi’s book because it’s a superb first hand reference to Waynes seemingly dual character — one of an unflinching political belief, coupled with an offer of true friendship when he found someone he liked, no matter what their own political beliefs might be.
And it was friendship that was at the core of Wayne the man, plus we now realise that his overtly right-wing political stand was possibly as much a cover for the secret naval intelligence work he may have undertaken with John Ford during World War II, as it was a reality.
If we look deeply enough we know in our hearts the man who comes across on the screen is no fascist, and certainly no racist, and that all of his films are little more than stern moral tales of good and evil, but tales told wonderfully well, and with spirit.
Many years earlier John Wayne starred in one of the most influential westerns ever made: The Big Trail.
Made in 1929 -30 The Big Trail is, on the surface, a simple tale of a wagon train heading west in the 1850s. But after about ten minutes — when the 22 year old Wayne first appears — it becomes obvious that it’s so much more, and not just in terms of the story, but how that story is going to be told, and, not least, how certain directors and producers in the movie industry had at last taken on the challenge of scope and depth, a challenge thrown down in 1915 by D.W. Griffith, when his masterpiece, The Birth of a Nation, went on general release .
But there is something else in The Big Trail that marks it as different. And at first I couldn’t put my finger on it, but then it dawned on me that I was in effect watching the real thing. It wasn’t a film anymore: I was witnessing a ‘reality’.
The ‘reality’ is firstly in the look of the film, which is infused with the sort of light that often illuminates our dreams. The film also has an extraordinary depth, and by depth I mean that in virtually every shot, whether external or internal (and most of the internal shots have a view through an open window or a door) there is constant movement in the background, movement that is not just the photographed comings and goings of an unaware public but a choreographed, deliberate movement that builds upon the story being told in the foreground. This is not a film being made on a back lot, but, as director Rauol Walsh always preferred, shot wholly on location. That is the one ‘reality’.
The other is that the film, for some, was made within living memory of the actual events, with many of the extras (and some of the main actors) ex-cowboys who had, as youngsters, driven cattle in the latter days of The Chisholm Trail. So, this mix of perceived ‘reality’, and the actual reality of a time line, and the memory of real people, makes The Big Trail an extremely moving, and important, cinematic event. And the young Wayne came into contact with these old cowboy’s and took on board their mannerisms , and their experiences, making them his own. Therefore what we see in this film, and in many of Wayne’s subsequent films, is that same reality, which, sadly, is a reality that many have questioned and misunderstood.
In The Big Trail we see an industry coming of age, we also see a young genius at peace with the medium he has chosen, and the start of a career where he becomes the mouthpiece for a lost generation of pioneers.
The Big Trail was also the career launching-pad for Tyrone Power and Ward Bond, with the latter quickly becoming a close friend of Wayne’s, and in later years a member of the Wayne ‘repertory’ company.
Raoul Walsh was 43 when he made The Big Trail (amazingly, in 1930, his 63rd film), and he would go on to make such classics as Captain Horatio Hornblower RN (1953), and the controversial movie version of Norman Mailer’s first novel, The Naked and the Dead (1958). Raoul learned his craft as an assistant to Griffiths during the making of The Birth of a Nation, where he also played the part of Booth, the assassin of Lincoln. Walsh made 136 films in total, in a career lasting 52 years. He died in 1980.
Although a rift had existed between Wayne and John Ford for nine years, Ford knew he had to cast Wayne in the part of the Ringo Kid for his new film, Stagecoach, if only to reinvent his own career. Ford knew — after The Big Trail — that Wayne was set to become a movie legend, and the director wanted to help create that legend; he also needed him, at the start of World War II, to help with his own activities within US Naval Intelligence.
By 1939 Wayne had made over 30 films, most of them Western shorts, such as The Dawn Raider, Blue Steel, The Desert Trail, and so on. These serial films, where Wayne invariably played the same character, were usually shot within a week and screened on a Saturday mornings for the youth of 1930s America.
But these kids, chewing their popcorn, also became the fighting soldiers, airmen and sailors of the 1940s. Wayne, in those short moral tales, gave adolescent America a lesson in good and evil, becoming something of a hero himself along the way.
In these films, and a handful of feature length titles he made in the 1930s, Wayne learned his craft thoroughly. Don’t ever imagine Wayne didn’t know the film industry, and the art of film acting, he was its most professional exponent.
And this sheer professionalism comes through like a lantern in his first film for Ford: he is, when he appears, the antidote to all the histrionics going on around him. He is the lamp that — against all natural odds — calms the acting moths. It is a moment, a glorious moment, of cinematic truth.
Stagecoach also gives us 1930s Hollywood acting at its zenith: a style that gives a genuine glimpse of what it might have been like to watch Booth the younger at his peak, especially in the wonderful grand posturings of Canadian actor Berton Churchill, whose long stage career had given him a style that suited the bombastic, flustered, guilty character of crooked banker Elswood Henry Gatewood. His success in Stagecoach promoted Churchill quickly up the Hollywood B list of supporting actors; sadly he died less than a year after the film’s release.
Churchill’s wonderfully crafted, but hateful character, is beautifully counter-balanced by the Oscar winning performance of Hollywood stalwart, Thomas Mitchell, whose portrayal of the whiskey-sodden doctor is an acting masterpiece that every drama student should still be made to watch. Mitchell’s doctor is wholly Dickensian, and like virtually all of Dickens’ characters this one is hugely funny, yet dreadfully flawed. Watching Mitchell’s comedic and tragic journey into a dusty drunken Hell, and then back again, is to see an actor at the pinnacle of his profession. His Oscar was justly deserved.
Before we even get a glimpse of Wayne we have been treated to some of the finest ensemble acting you’ll ever see in a film of this age, led (leaving Mitchell and Churchill to one side) most notably by Andy Devine, whose broken voice somehow creates a wide dynamic that allows the mouse-like totterings and twitterings of whiskey-drummer Donald Meek, and John Carradine’s smooth ex-Confederate officer and Southern gentleman gambler to shine through.
These male actors also create a slightly different dynamic that enables the fading feathery beauty of Claire Trevor’s saloon hooker, and the tired, almost Pre-Raphaelite elegance of the pregnant army officer’s wife, played by Louise Platt, to leave their mark indelibly upon our senses.
And when we eventually see Wayne waving down the stagecoach, with a stance that reminds me of the famous ‘Carpenter’ portrait of Walt Whitman, we see all of the waywardness, and the vulnerability, and the confidence of his youth that we first saw in The Big Trail nine years earlier.
Wayne’s part in Stagecoach, which is one of the most beautifully crafted films of the 1930s, is one of the smallest, but one of the most important.
This lovely film was made in the foreboding months before the outbreak of World War II, and in a way the film’s very disparate group of outcast characters, forced to leave town by stagecoach, in a way represents the inevitable and violent break-up of Europe. Consequently they can be seen as the inherent weakness of the old European order (and their victims), and the intolerant small-mindedness and dishonesty of Nazism, and, in 1939, Russian communism. Some of them, naturally, represent the honesty and decency of a more liberal centre ground, most obviously in the character of the US Marshall, and of course John Wayne’s Ringo Kid.