As an actor, John Wayne was pretty much a one-trick pony whose persona remained unaltered regardless of the film character he was playing, but he still managed to star in almost 170 movies over a 43-year career, writes Tom MacParland.


He was big. Very big. Not as tall as James Arness (6 feet-7inches) or even Clint Walker (6 feet-6inches), yet at 6 feet-3¬inches, he was somehow the biggest.

When for health reasons Idaho pharmacist Clyde Leonard Morrison moved his family to Glendale, California, his son John was rarely seen without his large Airedale pet dog Duke. Since both dog and man were enormous, it wasn’t long before the Airedale’s name became the master’s nickname.

Morrison’s school grades were largely poor. As an adolescent he worked in an ice-cream shop for a man who shod horses for Hollywood studios. He briefly attended the University of Southern California on a football scholarship playing on the USC team but an injury meant he lost funding and was forced to leave.

As a favour to silent cowboy star Tom Mix, director John Ford hired Morrison as a prop boy, scene shifter and general odd job factotum. Odd jobs became occasional silent bit parts as guards, spectators, etc. – hardly world-shattering roles.

His first fourteen movie appearances between 1926 and 1929 were as uncredited extras. It wasn’t until Words and Music (1929), a frothy college musical, that he got his first name check as Duke Morrison, decades before either James Arness or Clint Walker was ever heard of. Morrison temporarily disappeared into credit anonymity for another six movie titles until October 1930.

On the advice of John Ford, director Raoul Walsh selected the still relatively unknown Duke Morrison for the part of Breck Coleman in his sprawling two-hour talkie western The Big Trail. But the Duke Morrison name had to go. Walsh and a Fox executive decided on the substitution of John Wayne in his absence. The 22-year-old star of their talkie he may have been, but not star enough to be consulted even about name or casting.

Though his birthname Marion Robert Morrison would remain unchanged, disguised as John Wayne he would play Marion Robert Morrison for the rest of his 142-movie career. The story, action or character might change but his ‘the hell ya won’t!’ persona remained unaltered. And it never varied because John Wayne was a one-trick pony who could only act one part, take it or leave it. Cinemagoers chose to take it for over 50 years.

Since The Big Trail was a box office failure, Wayne would have to wait another nine years playing mostly cowboy bit parts before Stagecoach, John Ford’s 1939 western and the role of Ringo made him a mainstream star.
In 1931 he played second fiddle to ‘B’ western hero Buck Jones in The Range Feud, a ‘mystery western’ about quarrelling ranchers. Not yet the customary Wayne we would come to expect, but a start. That same year in Columbia’s The Deceiver he played the greatest dramatic role of his career to date: as a corpse.

In 1933’s The Kid’s Last Fight Wayne is a prizefighter who accidentally kills a man at a party and, to escape police interrogation, he hides at a health farm for invalid youngsters. There he begins to lose his cynicism under the influence of the children. Main star billing went to Douglas Fairbanks Jr. and Loretta Young. Wayne mainly provided the brawn as the vulnerable, conscience-stricken Smith.

The movie is only notable as the basis for the highly successful The Quiet Man (1952). In that, the reason for the now Irish-born boxer’s journey was the purchase of his old family farm and the then subsequent complications – romantic and otherwise – with Maureen O’Hara.

Continue reading in this week’s Ireland’s Own