First published in The Old Cowboy Picture Show, July 2001, vol. 5 no. 7
If one were to ask a random person on the street to name a star of Western movies, chances are very good that the reply would be "John Wayne." Even today, twenty one years after his death, John Wayne not only remains one of America's favorite Western stars, but one of its favorite stars, period.
If John Wayne continues to be considered one of America's foremost cowboy stars, it is not without good reason. He first came to national prominence with Stagecoach (1939). With Red River (1948) he became a veritable superstar. Afterwards John Wayne became so identified with the Western that it is hard to conceive him doing anything else. While there can be little doubt that the classic films that John Wayne made with such directors as John Ford and Howard Hawks were largely responsible for his success as a movie star, it is also safe to say that the foundations were laid in a most unlikely place--Western B movies of the 1930s.
Throughout the Thirties John Wayne made a number of B Westerns for various studios, the best known perhaps being those he made for Monogram and Republic. In the majority of these pictures John Wayne received top billing (both as a lone hero and as one of the Three Mesquiteers). In fact, John Wayne was so successful as a cowboy star that he ranked in the top ten of the Motion Picture Herald's poll of favorite B Western stars for three of the years he spent in the field. It is perhaps a measure of his success as a B Western star that over forty of the sixty five movies he made in the Thirties were horse operas.
Despite John Wayne's success in the genre there is very little in his childhood that would have proved him as a future Western star, let alone the Western star. John Wayne was born to pharmacist Clyde Morrison and his wife Molly on May 26, 1907 in Winterset, Iowa (Madison County). While John Wayne's birth name is often give as "Marion Mitchell Morrison" and sometimes "Marion Michael Morrison," his birth certificate gives his name as "Marion Robert Morrison." And while various authors conflict over John Wayne's middle name, there was apparently no conflict in his own mind. When Wayne requested a copy of his birth certificate from the Madison County courthouse, he signed a letter confirming his name was "Marion Robert Morrison." "Marion Robert Morrison" is also the name on his death certificate as well.
Marion Robert Morrison spent little time in Winterset. The economic realities of life in Iowa at the time forced the Morrisons to move several times in the first seven years of young Marion's life. In 1914 they left Iowa entirely and headed to California. There in an arid basin called Antelope Valley, Clyde Morrison tried farming. To a large degree Antelope Valley was still "the Old West." The area still depended on gas for lighting and outhouses were more common than indoor plumbing. Antelope Valley even looked like the Old West--it was a dusty area filled with wild game.
Oddly enough, the man who would later become America's foremost Western star initially hated the West. Young Marion disliked the gas lighting in his family's house and hated the rattlesnakes that haunted the outdoors. Even his first experience with a horse was a less than pleasant memory. He had to ride to school in the nearby town of Lancaster on a horse afflicted with a disease that kept it rail thin.
Fortunately the Morrisons did not remain in Antelope Valley long. In 1916 they moved to Glendale where Marion Morrison would have fonder memories of the West. It was there that he would first encounter the Western movies of Harry Carey Sr. Carey's performances would have a lasting impact on Morrison---of the cowboy stars of the early silent era, Marion Morrison found Harry Carey Sr. to be the only one who was totally convincing. It should come as no surprise that John Wayne patterned many of his own mannerisms after those of Harry Carey Sr. The cinema was not the only place young Morrison was exposed to the "Old West." A voracious reader, among Marion Morrison's favorite books were numbered the Westerns of Zane Grey.
It was also in Glendale that Marion Morrison befriended Bob and Bill Bradbury (Bob would later become famous as cowboy star "Bob Steele"). Their father, Robert North Bradbury, directed commercial shorts and would later direct John Wayne in Monogram B Westerns.
It was also about this time that Marion Robert Morrison became "Duke." He had never particularly cared for the name "Marion," which was the source of much teasing from other boys. As a twelve year old Marion threw newspapers and often took his Airedale, Duke, along with him on his route. One of his stops was the fire station, where the fireman jokingly called the dog "Big Duke" and young Morrison "Little Duke." Morrison liked the nickname and claimed it as his own.
At Glendale Union High School young Morrison participated in several school activities. He was a member of the dramatic society and was even chosen to represent the school at the Southern California Shakespeare contest. It would be his place on the football team, however, that would lead him to acting. Duke Morrison received a football scholarship to the University of Southern California, where he was one of the team's tackles. Hollywood regularly depended upon the USC football team for extras in the popular college melodramas of the day. Duke Morrison's first appearance on film was then while he was at USC. In Brown of Havard he doubled for Francis X. Bushman as a football player.
Duke Morrison found there was money to be made both working odd jobs at the studios and as an extra in movies. In the summer of 1926 he served on his first Western, The Great K and A Train Robbery with Tom Mix. Duke Morrison was an extra on the film and a prop boy as well. It was also around this time that Morrison met and befriended director John Ford. While Morrison would play a few bit parts in Ford's films of the time, it would be years before Ford would use Wayne in any important roles in his films.
After 1927 Morrison appeared in various films as an extra until he finally received a billing in Words and Music in 1929 (where he was billed as "Duke Morrison"). What could have been his big break came in 1930 when director Raoul Walsh cast him in the lead role of his Western epic The Big Trail. Raoul Walsh was already a bit of a legend in Hollywood. In 1929 he directed the first "Cisco Kid" movie, In Old Arizona, which was also the first Western with sound. Walsh taught Morrison how to ride (although it was with an "Indian slouch") and how to move convincingly. Walsh also gave Duke Morrison a new name--"John Wayne."
Unfortunately for the newly named John Wayne, The Big Trail would fail at the box office. Walsh's Western epic was an early example of a movie shot for wide screens on a 70 mm cameras. Concurrently it was also shot on 35 mm camera for the standard movie screen of the time. Naturally the 35 mm version lost a good deal of the picture and as a result much of The Big Trail's visual impact. This worked against The Big Trail at the box office as the vast majority of theatres showed the 35 mm version. After all, the Depression was well under way. Most theatres had only recently converted to sound. and, with little money to spare, could not afford the technology needed to show 70 mm films. With The Big Trail'sfailure at the box office it would be years before John Wayne would have a major role in a major motion picture.
In 1931, following the failure of The Big Trail, John Wayne signed a five year contract with Columbia Pictures. It was here that John Wayne appeared in his first B Westerns, although in the beginning it appears that he was intended for other things. John Wayne's first film was Men Are Like That (also known as Arizona), an adventure melodrama with Wayne as an army lieutenant and Laura La Plante as his former girl friend. It would be the casting of Wayne and La Plante that would inadvertently lead to Wayne's roles in Columbia B Westerns according to one apocryphal story. Supposedly Harry Cohn, the notorious head of Columbia Pictures, had more than a passing interest in La Plante. When rumors that Wayne and La Plante were having an affair reached Cohn, the studio head resolved to "punish" the young actor. Perhaps significantly, John Wayne's next role was that of a corpse in The Deceiver (1931).
Whether or not the story of a jealous Harry Cohn is true, John Wayne soon found himself playing secondary and even tertiary roles in Columbia oaters. Range Feud (1931) marked John Wayne's first appearance in a B Western. He received second billing to Buck Jones, playing one of Buck's friends who is falsely accused of murder. While Wayne's role in Range Feud was substantial and it was a fairly good B Western, it was not the start of a promising B Western career at Columbia. The Duke received only fourth billing in the Tim McCoy Western Texas Cyclone (1932), a movie which also marked Walter Brennan's first appearance on film. In Two Fisted Law (1932), another Tim McCoy Western, Wayne was reduced to little more than an extra, even though he received credit for his role.
Concurrent with and subsequent to John Wayne's work at Columbia, he made three serials at Mascot and a film at Universal. It was while working on the serials at Mascot that Wayne would meet Yakima Cannutt, the stuntman extraordinaire who would have a huge impact on Duke's future career. After Columbia did not renew his contract in 1932, it was not long before John Wayne signed with Warner Brothers. Warner Brothers had decided that it could make cheap, cost effective B Westerns by recycling clips from old, silent Westerns starring Ken Maynard. Maynard was perhaps the best trick rider in Western films of the silent era and his horse, Tarzan, was considered to be the best in the business. All Warner Brothers needed was a tall, handsome actor to substitute for Maynard and a magnificent horse to substitute for Tarzan. John Wayne provided the actor. Duke "the Devil Horse" provided the horse.
In all John Wayne made six B Westerns at Warner Brothers. Some were outright remakes of Ken Maynard films, though all of them used footage from Maynard's silent movies. In most of the films John Wayne played a character whose name was "John" and in each one Duke "the Devil Horse" played a significant role. The plots varied a bit in these movies. In The Big Stampede (1932) Wayne played a deputy who must stop cattle rustlers. In Haunted Gold (1932) John Wayne's character found himself in a ghost town with a real ghost! In Man from Monterey (1933) Wayne played a hero who must save a family ranch from land grabbers. Over all John Wayne's Warner Brothers B Westerns were enjoyable fare, with light humor and sometimes interesting plot twists.
Following his stint with Warner Brothers John Wayne signed a contract with Monogram. There he would make sixteen B Westerns for the studio's Lone Star label. Monogram could probably best be described as the bargain basement of Poverty Row and they made movies on a very thin shoestring. Often their films were regarded as little more than junk, although there were exceptions. Many of the series which Monogram produced still attract viewers today--everything from the Bowery Boys to Charlie Chan. Similarly, they produced a number of enjoyable B Westerns featuring such stars as Tex Ritter, Bob Steele, Buck Jones, and Johnny Mack Brown, among others. John Wayne's Lone Star Westerns were among these exceptions.
That John Wayne's B Westerns at Monogram were better than the studio's average product can largely be attributed to the team that usually worked on them. Robert North Bradbury, father of Bill and Bob (Steele) Bradbury, directed many of the pictures. Bradbury had long been in the business and his experience can be seen in his Monogram B Westerns. The camera man on most of the films was Archie Stout. Stout had shot Cecil B. DeMille's Ten Commandments (1923). Later he would win an Academy Award for his work on The Quiet Man (1952). But in the depths of the Depression he was forced to work on B movies. Despite the low budgets of the films, Stout's talent could still be seen on the screen. Finally there was Yakima Cannutt. Cannutt was a real life cowboy and a rodeo champion. By the time of John Wayne's films with Monogram, Cannutt was already well on his way to becoming the most famous stuntman of all time. He would revolutionize stunt work, instituting many of the safety procedures still observed today and inventing many devices which made stunts safer while keeping them convincing. As might be expected, Cannutt co-ordinated the action sequences on Wayne's Monogram Westerns.
Cannutt would also join Harry Carey Sr., Raoul Walsh, and Zane Grey as one of the man who had an impact on John Wayne as a Western star. Cannutt taught Wayne how to ride without the "Indian slouch" he had picked up from Raoul Walsh. Cannutt also taught Wayne how to stage a fight and perform other stunts convincingly. Indeed, Duke observed how Cannutt walked and how Cannutt talked. Wayne would even try to deliver his lines in the same low, slow, strong way Cannutt actually talked.
As shocking as it might seem today, Monogram initially wanted to use John Wayne as a "singin' cowboy" in a series of films featuring him as "Singin' Sandy Saunders." It should come as no surprise that the idea was probably doomed from the start. Wayne had always disliked the idea of singin' cowboys as it seemed to him to be unrealistic--cowboys in the Old West simply did not ride from town to town singing songs. This may have been the reason Wayne looks so uncomfortable in the scenes in which he had to "sing" in Riders of Destiny (1933), the only Singin' Sandy movie made. As it was John Wayne could not sing well and so his voice had to be dubbed for the scenes in which he sung. As to who dubbed Wayne's singing voice in Riders of Destiny, this has been a source of some controversy. Some claim that it was Robert North Bradbury's son and Bob Steele's brother Bill Bradbury. Others believe it was bandleader Smith Ballew. Still others think that it was Jack Kirk. The one thing on which everyone agrees is that Wayne did not do his own singing.
Despite the "singin' cowboy" concept, Riders of Destiny was a promising start for Wayne's Monogram career. While the movie is somewhat cliched and predictable, it featured some impressive camera work on Stout's part and some fine direction on Bradbury's part. For the most part Riders of Destiny is typical of Wayne's Monogram Westerns--entertaining if somewhat predictable movies with occasional touches of brilliance. Sometimes the pictures even featured inventive twists on the typical Western plot. For instance, The Dawn Rider sets up a love triangle between the hero, his best friend, and girl whose brother killed the hero's father! Wayne's Monogram Westerns also featured some interesting casting at times. In The Star Packer (1934) George "Gabby" Hayes (who appears in most of the movies) took a rare turn as a villain. The Trail Beyond (1934) featured both Noah Beery Sr. and Noah Beery Jr.
The Lone Star Westerns John Wayne made at Monogram also established Duke's screen persona so familiar to viewers today. John Wayne already moved with a rolling walk, already made the small but powerful gestures with his hands when emphasizing a point, and already spoke in that slow, strong voice. The heroes John Wayne played in the Lone Start B Westerns differed little from the heroes he played in A Westerns made for the major studios. The typical John Wayne hero of the Monogram B Westerns was generally a loner, strong of heart and strong of body. Not one for small talk, he was the man of action who defended the innocent and meted out justice to evil doers.
And even as early as the Lone Star B Westerns it was evident that the John Wayne screen persona appealed to audiences. When the Motion Picture Herald reviewed Blue Steel (1934), Wayne's fifth film for Monogram, it commented, "Of Wayne's popularity there can be little question, and a certain quota of Western fans can be relied upon to respond to the call of the Wayne name on the theatre marquee."
Despite the success of the John Wayne B Westerns, Monogram was not faring well in the mid-Thirties. With many of their other features failing at the box office, the studio was deep in debt. In order to survive Monogram merged with Mascot and Consolidated Film Industries to form Republic Studios in 1935 (Monogram would later regain its independence, but that's another story for another time...). For John Wayne the merger changed very little as he continued ot star in B Westerns for the new studio. He still worked with Bradbury, Stout, and Cannutt. One thing that did change was the budgets of the movies, which was generally larger. Wayne's first film for Republic, Westward Ho (1935), cost $34,0000.
The scripts for the Republic B Westerns differed very little from those of the Monogram B Westerns. With the United States still in the Depression it was fashionable to use big businessmen, bankers, or lawyers as villains in films. Lawless Range (1935) used the time honored plot of ranchers being forced off their land, this time by a crooked banker. In Winds of the Wasteland (1936) John Wayne played a former Pony Express rider who must compete with a crooked stagecoach operator for a government contract. In The Lawless Nineties (1936) a big rancher attempted to stop a territory from attaining statehood. With regards to casting, of particular interest is Ann Rutherford's appearances in there of the Republic B Westerns: The Lonely Trail (1936), Lawless Nineties, and Oregon Trail (1936). These are among her earliest appearances on film.
Over all, the movies John Wayne made at Republic from 1935 to 1936 were very well received. In all likelihood "John Wayne" was already a household name in the Southwest and the Midwest where Westerns were popular. In 1936 John Wayne ranked 7th in the Motion Picture Herald's poll of the most popular B Western stars. Even The New York Times took notice of John Wayne--their lead critic of the time, Bosley Crowther, praised The Lawless Nineties.
Despite his success, John Wayne was probably eager to move onto major motion pictures and may well have wanted a change of pace. It may have been for that reason that John Wayne signed a contract with Universal in 1936. The studio planned to star Wayne in acton movies which fell somewhere between A and B movies. Unfortunately none of the films succeeded at the box office.
On the one hand Universal's series of action movies probably failed because of more expensive, upscale acton films from larger studios. After all this was the Golden Age of action movies, when The Adventures of Robin Hood, The Lives of a Bengal Lancer, Mutiny on the Bounty, and many other classic action films were released. Too expensive to be considered B movies and too modest be considered A movies, Universal's series of action films simply could not compete. On the other hand, it is possible that Wayne's position as a B Western star played a role in the failure of the Universal acton films. Most of the people who knew who John Wayne was knew him as a B Western star. Perhaps they simply did not want to see him as a newsreel cameraman in I Cover the War (1937) or a pearl diver in Adventure's End (1937). It could be that Wayne's fans wanted him back on the range.
If that was the case, they soon got their wish. In 1937 Wayne made a B Western at Paramount, Born to the West with Johnny Mack Brown, before returning to Republic. Republic put John Wayne to work on their Three Mequiteeers series of movies. The Three Mesquiteers series was based on a series of novels by William Colt MacDonald and featured three friends, Tuscon Smith, Stony Brooke, and Lullaby Joslin, who constantly got into and out of scrapes. Both RKO and First National had made Mesquiteers films, but Republic took the idea and ran with it. From 1936 to 1943 the studio made fifty one Three Mesquiteers movies.
For the most part Republic's Three Mesquiteers series took place in the contemporary West. And nearly every one of the films followed a definite formula. Stony, Tuscon, and Lullaby would ride into a town, become entangled in that town's problems, and would have to solve the town's problems before they could leave. Stony was the handsome leading man wo often found himself engaged in a rivalry over some girl with Tuscon, the daredevil of the group. Lullaby provided comedy relief as a ventriloquist who had a dummy named Elmer.
John Wayne replaced Robert Livingston as Stony Brooke on the series. On the one hand there was sometimes discord between Livingston and Crash Corrigan, who played Tuscon, on the set. It was hoped that by replacing Livingston with Wayne that it would bring a bit more peace to the proceedings. On the other hand, Republic wanted to star Livingston in bigger budget, A movies. Of course, to do so would mean recasting the role of Stony Brooke. As a well known cowboy star, John Wayne must have seemed like the perfect choice.
As mentioned earlier, the Three Mesquiteers followed a definite formula that varied little from film to film. In Pals of the Saddle (1938), Wayne's first Mesquiteers movie, the trio rescue a girl on a runaway horse. It turns out that the girl is really a government agent investigating the smuggling of monium (a chemical used to make poison gas) into Mexico. Naturally the guys must help her out. In Santa Fe Stampede (1938) the Three Mesquiteers must help a man falsely accused of horse theft and Stony is implicated in a murder. Of particular interest to film buffs is Overland Stage Raiders (1938). Although not one of the best Mesquiteers movies, it is the last appearance of silent screen siren Louise Brooks on film.
The Three Mesquiteers movies made a good deal of money for Republic. And they continued to be quite popular with John Wayne as Stony. In the 1938 Motion Picture Herald poll of favorite B Western stars, the Three Mesquiteers ranked 5th. Unfortunately, John Wayne did not particularly care for the Three Mesquiteers films. Wayne told writer Maurice Zolotow that the movies were "horrible monstrosities."
For Wayne, then, it was fortunate that his old friend John Ford offered him the part of the Ringo Kid in Stageecoach (1939). Stagecoach has sometimes been characterized as a "B Western," although this hardly seems the case. Stagecoach was shot on a budget of $546,200, slightly more than the average B movie of the time. More importantly, its plot was in no way typical of B or even A Westerns of the period. In many respects Stagecoach was closer to movies of the Grand Hotel genre (Ship of Fools, Rules of the Game, and, of course, Grand Hotel are examples of this genre), in which a group of strangers are thrown together for a brief period of time in which whatever pretensions they might have are exposed.
Not only was Stagecoach not a B Western, but it did not spark the rebirth of the A Western as many have supposed. The year 1939 saw the release of many A Westerns (Destry Rides Again, Jesse James, and Dodge City to name a few), some of which were in production before Stagecoach. While Stagecoach alone did not revitalize the A Western, however, it did revitalize John Wayne's career. Many of the film's reviews praised Wayne's performance. Variety said of Wayne that he showed "talent hither to only partially used." Of course, much of Stagecoach's success at the box office might have been due to John Wayne's career as a B Western star. Audiences in the West and Midwest, familiar with Wayne's many horse operas with Monogram and Republic, may have flocked to the new Western featuring their hero.
One would think that John Wayne's bosses at Republic would take advantage of his new found success by casting him in A movies. Instead they sought to capitalize on his success with four more Three Mesquiteers films. These new entries in the series differed little from previous ones. In each the Three Mesquiteers became wrapped up in the problems of a community and must solve those problems to extricate themselves. In Three Texas Steers (1939) the Mesquiteers must help a circus owner save the ranch she owns. In New Frontier (1939), Wayne's last Mesquiteers film, they become involved in a land swindle.
These new Three Mesquiteers films did differ from previous entries in one major respect--John Wayne's role was expanded to take advantage of his success from Stagecoach. No longer were the Mesquiteers equal partners; Stony Brooke was now indisputedly the main character and the other two little more than sidekicks.
Like previous entries in the series, these new Mesquiteers movies are interesting to watch for their casts. Up and coming star Carole Landis appeared in Three Texas Steers. Phyllis Isley, who would later become famous as Jennifer Jones, appeared in New Frontier.
While Wayne described the Three Mesquiteers movies as "horrible monstrosities," in their defense it must be said that they were generally harmless, enjoyable pieces of fluff. Although they depended on a definite formula, most of the Mesquiteers pictures can still be enjoyed today for the interplay between Tuscon and Stoney and the antics of Lullaby. Regardless, fans certainly enjoyed the series in 1939. In the Motion Picture Herald's poll for that year, the Three Mesquiteers ranked 6th and John Wayne alone ranked 9th.
Regardless, John Wayne still disliked the series and wanted to move onto other things. John Wayne approached Herbert Yates, head of Republic Pictures, with the idea that Wayne would become the studio's A film star. While Wayne would continue to make movies for Republic, he would also be free to make films at other studios as well. Yates agreed and so ended Wayne's days in B movies.
That is not to say that for the rest of his career Wayne would only appear in major motion pictures on the big screen. With the advent of television John Wayne would make the rare cameo on a TV show--he appeared in both The Beverly Hillbillies and Laugh In. With regards to Westerns, John Wayne introduced the first episode of Gunsmoke, which debuted on September 9, 1955. John Wayne also made a cameo on old friend Ward Bond's TV series Wagon Train. In the episode "The Colter Craven Story" (first aired November 23, 1960), Wayne appeared as General William Tecumseh Sherman. Although shot in shadow, it is recognizably John Wayne.
In all John Wayne spent nearly ten years making B Westerns. Of the over sixty five films Wayne made between 1930 and 1939, the vast majority were horse operas. While today it is often fashionable to credit Wayne's success as a cowboy star to the films of Howard Hawks and John Ford, it seems likely that much of the success was due to the B Westerns he made in the Thirties. After all, "John Wayne" was already a familiar name to fans of B Westerns in the West and Midwest by the time he made Stagecoach. It seems possible, perhaps even likely, that these fans would still follow John Wayne even as he moved to major motion pictures. The fans who enjoyed Rainbow Valley (!935) and King of the Pecos (1936) as children may well have flocked to see Red River (1948) and She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949) as adults. The possibility that John Wayne's success in B Westerns led to his success in A Westerns seems all the more likely when one considers that the basic "John Wayne" persona was largely developed in his B Western career. Howard Hawks' Red River and John Ford's Westerns would further shape the "John Wayne" persona and the persona would vary a bit from film to film. But the fact remains that there is not too much difference between the stern, young loner John Brant in Sagebrush Trail (1933) and the stern, older loner Tom Doniphan in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962).
Even if the B Westerns John Wayne made in the Thirties cannot be credited with much of the success he had in later major motion pictures, they are fine examples of the B Western genre. In particular, the Monogram horse operas show how a talented director (Bradbury) and a talented stunt co-ordinator (Cannutt) could rise above extremely low budgets and create what were largely entertaining products. Even if John Wayne had not become a Western superstar, his B Westerns would still be worth seeing.