Why is the year 1946 significant in the career of John Wayne? It was the first year since he’d started his career in films that he had only ONE movie in release.
Hello, everybody. Those classic movie guys, Joe Morella and Frank Segers, here again to discuss one of Hollywood’s biggest stars.
John Wayne got his start in uncredited bit parts in silents, generally as a bystander to the main action. (Wayne did not get consistent billing in films until 1930.) He was tall, handsome and some thought he could act. He was given every opportunity to succeed. He was reliable, and worked hard.
His first film was 1926’s Brown of Harvard, in which he posed as a Yale football player. His last, 50 years later, was The Shootist with the actor providing in his final years (Wayne departed this mortal coil at age 72 in 1979) his warmest and gentlest portrayal.
Some sources claim he made 200 films, other list nearly 175. At least 155 can be documented.
Of course many of those films were B westerns made between 1930 and 1939. By one count, the actor appeared in about 100 movies during the decade, generated at a series of poverty row studios and at Republic Pictures. In 1939, director John Ford asked Wayne to play Ringo Kid in the now-classic western, Stagecoach. The role and the movie proved to be a personal career-maker.
After his breakthrough in Stagecoach, Wayne was able to broaden his range at Republic but mostly at other studios. And during WW II, when many of the bigger stars (Jimmy Stewart, Clark Gable, Henry Fonda, among others) were in the service, Wayne was given the chance to shine. (He appeared in about a dozen films during the War.)
Ironically, now recalled as a warrior (because of those War movies) and a staunch patriot (because of his political activities), Wayne did not serve in the Armed Forces. The story was that as a young man who had just dropped out of college he’d tried to join the Navy, and had been turned down.
A more realistic explanation is that because he was 34 years old at the time of the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor, had had a broken marriage that left him with four children to support, and was still not a big star, Wayne was averse to heading for the local enlistment office.
At the time, he was hardly rich. In order to cash in on Stagecoach, he felt strongly that he needed to continue working right then. Wayne worried by the time that he completed a stint in the military, Hollywood would consider him over the hill as a leading actor. (Ok, so everybody’s insecure.)
Figuring he could do more at home as an actor playing rugged Americans overcoming great odds, Wayne angled for and received a 3-A status deferment for family dependency reasons. But perhaps no other actor could come across more convincingly in military roles in war movies.
Before you scoff, check out Wayne’s superb performance in Ford’s excellent, 1949 combat drama about PT boats in the Philippines, They Were Expendable. Wayne is absolutely dead on as hard bitten Navy lieutenant Rusty Ryan, who falls for a military nurse played by Donna Reed, in perhaps her most luminous movie role. (Costarring, by the way, is Robert Montgomery, who really did service in the military during the War.)
Director Robert Parrish, who worked with Ford as an editor through the World War II, recalls attending a 1948 luncheon in the director’s office where John Wayne was a guest. In his 1976 memoir Growing Up In Hollywood, Parrish wrote that Ford dominated the conversation with reminiscences that he and I had experienced during the war. This was slightly embarrassing because, for various good and sufficient reasons, the other guests… happened not to have been in the war.
But there is no denying that Wayne’s movie career is hugely prolific, and includes some of the best westerns ever made including Ford’s Fort Apache and The Searchers (1956) and Howard Hawks’ magnificent Red River. Marion Michael Morrison, the star who made the most films.