Almost every great movie doubles as an allegory for its own creation. Think of Francis Ford Coppola going up the river and around the bend to make “Apocalypse Now.” Or Dalton Trumbo having Kirk Douglas shout “I am Spartacus!” to reclaim his identity — as Trumbo had just reclaimed his own by securing screen credit after a decade on the Blacklist.
Or think of “The Searchers.” When John Ford’s camera looks out through the closing door at John Wayne as he walks away from his extended family, the door might as well be closing on an entire genre. Critics, including Wayne’s gifted new biographer, Scott Eyman, have rightly if narrowly interpreted this famous moment as the Modern West’s forsaking of the flawed men who helped settle it. But Wayne too, like all those itinerant plainsmen, would spend the next several decades locked out of an entire American generation’s esteem.
Refreshingly, Eyman invites Wayne back through the front door and gives him ample room to stretch out. Others have tried to write Wayne’s life, by no means all of them hacks. Even the great polymath Garry Wills had a bash at it. But no Wayne biography until now has ridden the defile between the reverential and the tendentious with quite the graceful equilibrium of this one.
The Wayne we meet in these pages is a smart guy in a sometimes silly role, a simple man with a complex life. Marion “Duke” Morrison was born in Iowa to a no-account father and a mother who never gave him much credit — a “grievance collector,” in Eyman’s astute phrase. The family moved to Glendale before the boy entered school. As with Shirley Temple, Gregory Peck, Robert Redford, Dustin Hoffman and so many other movie stars, we tend to forget that Wayne was an L.A. kid.
By the time he left Glendale High, Duke Morrison might have been hated if everybody hadn’t loved him. He excelled at almost everything except dating, where he was too shy at first to notice all the swooning bobbysoxers around him. He lettered in football. He bodysurfed at Balboa. He swam in the Los Angeles River back when it needed restraining, not restoring.
Owing to Eyman’s prodigious research, we learn a few other things that the Republic Studios publicity department never told us: John Wayne was president not only of his senior class but of the Latin Society. He wrote for his school paper, went out for debate and acted in plays all through high school. Wayne could also quote Milton from memory, loved Raymond Chandler and shared with Ford his devotion to a forgotten Arthur Conan Doyle novel called “The White Company.”
The mythologists might have us believe that Wayne was a natural, that John Ford saw him on a horse one day and decided to make him a star. At least as much as John Ford chose Wayne, though, Wayne chose him. From the moment they met, Wayne knew Ford for an artistic genius and badgered him for a part for years before the director relented.
Meanwhile, Wayne became a star on his own, cranking out Westerns like widgets on the Republic assembly line. In the industrywide wonder year of 1939, Ford’s “Stagecoach” was only one of six movies he starred in. Eyman gives us a lovely moment to mark the change in Wayne’s fortunes: The week after United Artists released “Stagecoach,” when Wayne stopped by Republic to pick up his mail, the entire steno pool applauded.
Right after this came maybe the biggest mistake of Wayne’s creative life. Just when he could have branched out, surrounded himself consistently with talent to match his own — maybe even found a studio whose writers weren’t paid by the typewriter ribbon — Wayne re-upped with Republic. The money got better, the budgets a little bigger, the schedules kinder. But Wayne would rarely widen his range or lighten his material the way his friends Henry Fonda and Gary Cooper often did. (Then again, perhaps not coincidentally, nobody has published major biographies of Fonda or Cooper lately.)
In Eyman’s telling, Wayne stuck with Republic for several reasons. For one thing, he needed the money. A poor judge of business partners, political causes and wives, he also loved children and ultimately had seven of them to support. For another, Wayne loved work. Not “the work” — as in “it’s all about the work,” or other such self-infatuated actor-speak — but work, hard and rewarding, slow and then sudden, the easy diurnal camaraderie of the camera and the crew.
Wayne kept up a Stakhanovite work ethic for decades, through good movies and bad, great movies and awful. Eyman gets it all down like a pro. He’s done his homework and only occasionally shows too much of it, as when he includes the dubious Hollywood accounting on most of Wayne’s pictures. To paraphrase Maxwell Scott in “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance,” even when the ledger becomes fact, please don’t print the ledger.
Far better when Eyman gets at the details that the bean-counters and myth-spinners miss: “The children would come running into [Wayne’s] arms, ingesting his specific odors — Camel cigarettes, Neutrogena soap, Listerine.”
Already the author of biographies of Ford, Cecil B. DeMille, and a fine one of Louis B. Mayer, Eyman has carved out a nice recent niche for himself as perhaps our premier biographer of Hollywood conservatives. Theirs isn’t a long list, those Hollywood conservatives, and he’s leavened it with good books on Ernst Lubitsch, Mary Pickford and others besides, plus a long career as book critic for the Palm Beach Post. Wayne’s intimates have told Eyman things here that they’ve never told anyone else. Read that passage about how he smelled to his kids, and you can see why.
Kipen is the founder of Libros Schmibros; his journalism has appeared lately in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, Truthdig and Los Angeles magazine.
The Life and Legend
Simon & Schuster: 658 pp., $32.50