Book review: New John Wayne biography hits target dead center
Nonfiction • Splendid account reveals the man behind carefully crafted image.
Published: April 28, 2014 12:07PM
Updated: April 26, 2014 01:01AM
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This book cover image released by Simon & Schuster shows "John Wayne: The Life and Legend," by Scott Eyman. (AP Photo/Simon & Schuster)

Who’s that on the cover of Scott Eyman’s splendid biography of Hollywood’s most enduring movie star? Surely that wavy-haired young fellow in the suit and tie isn’t John Wayne. Where’s the Stetson, the Winchester rifle, the six-shooter, the boots and spurs?

It would be easy to sell “John Wayne: The Life and Legend” with a picture of the Ringo Kid from “Stagecoach” (1939), the movie that made Wayne a star. How about the tough Marine sergeant from “Sands of Iwo Jima” (1949)? Or a picture of the one-eyed marshal Rooster Cogburn from “True Grit” (1969), the role for which he won an Oscar?

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. It didn’t happen overnight or by accident. Wayne worked hard to learn his craft, developed a keen understanding of the movie business and became wildly 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 eventually settled in the Los Angeles suburb of Glendale. His father, Clyde Morrison, failed at nearly every business he tried and died a few years before his son reached stardom. That achievement never seemed to impress Mary Morrison, who would accept her oldest son’s generosity over the years with more sneer than smile.

Known by the nickname “Duke,” the Glendale High class president hoped that football as well as 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. (Duke had appeared in high-school plays and had worked backstage there, too.)

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” (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.

For much of the 1930s, Wayne appeared in some dramas and serials but mostly in low-budget Westerns shot in just days at shoestring studios like Monogram and Mascot. His mentor Ford allowed him to languish — and to learn — until he found the right role for Wayne as the star of “Stagecoach.”

Wayne “had incrementally put together the pieces of a screen character over 10 long years — a voice, a name, a walk that would grow more pronounced in the future, an overall attitude,” Eyman writes. While Wayne considered trying to parlay his new stature into a career as an all-around actor, the author says, he realized that John Wayne was a character worth developing.

For nearly a half-century, Wayne excelled in the make-believe business. Consider that America’s favorite movie cowboy preferred a yacht over a saddle. He might bashfully kiss a girl on-screen but was an unfaithful young husband when the cameras stopped rolling. The nation’s favorite movie soldier never served in the military.

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.

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.”

“John Wayne: The Life and Legend”

By Scott Eyman

Simon & Schuster

672 pages

$32.50