It’s a fine man’s name, though you don’t hear it used much. Marion Morrison, who surely could have found fame using his real name, became better known as John Wayne, then dubbed simply “Duke”.
I gave Mark a boxed set of 20 John Wayne films for Christmas. They range in production dates from hour-long black and whites of 1933 to1963’s McClintock, a full length movie in color. My first exposure to John Wayne conveyed the rich qualities he brought to Rooster Cogburn’s character. That precedent left me disappointed with the Wayne westerns I saw after it.
Middle-aged Wayne was not bad looking; the drawl, the walk, all the traits that made his star quality, came across, larger-than-life. I took them for granted; I was not impressed. But now, watching a young John Wayne in these old films has made me truly take a second look. In the 1930s black and whites, he has a smooth, soft quality that comes across even in the fist fights. I’d call his face beautiful; I feel a bit pie-eyed along with each starlet of the hour when they close in on her pretty face, gazing up at him. Of course, he always winds up with the girl.
I’ve been surveying these old flicks with a critical eye, keeping a lot of factors in mind. It was the 1930s. There was a lot happening here. It was the end of one era, the beginning of a new one, and John Ford, who directed these, was forging this new medium of film on the spot. One of the shows shot an early model truck racing a speeding train with John on his horse, galloping alongside. There were no computer graphics to change appearances or add stunts later. When I consider what Ford had to plan in order to capture things as believably as he does, it is a marvel.
The story lines were almost by formula. Each 50-minute film contained prescribed amounts of fist-fighting, shoot-outs, thrill-riding and other stunts, and, certainly, a required number of long close-ups on the girl. There was no daytime television (nor many publications) for women to keep up with the latest Hollywood hair and make-up trends. That 90-second close-up on the pretty girl was worth most of the five cents of your movie admission. The romance, as she finally fades into the sunset with John, was worth the rest. If you happened to like the action and the stunts along with the guys, that was all gravy.
There were plenty of stunts. In just these first four shows, we’ve seen “Wayne” (or a stuntman) leap from his mount to the backs of a runaway horse team to bring them into control, latch onto a rolling stagecoach from a camouflaged pit in the road, take a plunging dive from a rocky precipice above a waterfall into the pool below, and use a reed as a snorkel in an underwater scene, to thwart his would-be captors; they tried it all. They set standards for the film industry to come.
If you’re a true film buff, especially of westerns, you may know all this. I did not, but I’m surely glad to be appreciating it now. It’s no wonder I love old films. They don’t make ’em like they used to.
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