John Wayne: The Early Years

This is John Wayne month here on TCM and that means a five day marathon of movies, starting this week, starring the Duke.   Seeing as he acted in well over a hundred movies (closer to two hundred, really), it also means that plenty come from early in his career.   Doing my part, I even wrote up two early oaters, The Big Stampede and Somewhere in Sonora.  The fact is, most stars have brief early careers before someone realizes they have the charisma necessary to be a top marquee name.   Marlon Brando, to use an easy example, had one film, The Men, before A Streetcar Named Desire.  Even though he was famous on Broadway at the time of The Men‘s release, it did nothing for his superstardom.  When Streetcar was released, it was a different story.  He became a star, immediately, and his pre-A-List career remains that one, single movie.  An even more extreme example is Katherine Hepburn.  Her very first movie, A Bill of Divorcement, made her a star.  By her third movie, Morning Glory, she was an Oscar winner.  Pre-A-List career: non-existent.   But some actors, like the Duke, have pre-A-list careers that are almost as long, in number of movies made, as their A-list careers.   In Wayne’s case, it made him a better actor.


John Wayne was a star for years on the B circuit.  For a full decade, and then some, before Stagecoach, Wayne starred in low budget serials and oaters, often billed alongside his horse, Duke.  Yes, his horse was named Duke, not him.  Also, his family dog.  No, that’s not an Indiana Jones joke, John Wayne’s dog growing up was named Duke and he liked that name better than his name, Marion, so he adopted it.  So if Wayne made dozens of movies where he was the star, why did it take so long for him to make the A-list?  Honestly, it was because he was so good at what he did.  That is to say, Wayne, who was tall and formidable in person and onscreen, worked perfectly as the type of hero for exactly the type of audience that second billed westerns attracted: teenage boys.  He kept those teenagers who were so interested in catching the latest John Wayne movie so entertained, it seemed wrong to ruin a good thing by putting him in movies intended for the adult paying customers who might not like him as much.  That is, until John Ford did that very thing and Wayne never went back to the discount end of a double-bill again.

But in those second billed movies, Wayne had an entire second career from the one for which the world came to know him.  There were many actors doing western serials, from Roy Rogers to William Bendix to Ken Maynard, and they all enjoyed success but never became A-list superstars like Wayne.  Conversely, most superstars never had second careers as B-movie stars either, although some did.  Wayne’s not unique but he is a rarity.

Wayne’s early movies provided powerful training for what would come later.  For one, he learned the ropes of movie acting in ways very few others did.  Working for so long on the B circuit, he became conditioned to working under less than stellar conditions and understanding how to do your scene and move on because there were seventeen more to film before lunch.

The Big Stampede clocks in at only 53 minutes which feels the perfect length for the story at hand.  It was a remake of an earlier film starring Ken Maynard and they even used some of the earlier stunt footage in this one, which wasn’t very difficult given that both Wayne’s horse, Duke, and Maynard’s horse, Tarzan, were both white.  As long as they remembered to dress Wayne in the same clothes as the previous footage (they did), it was fine.   I mention The Big Stampede not because I’m going to go into the plot of the movie (if you’d like a general idea, here’s the link to my article on it) but because Wayne’s performance is almost a precursor for his work in Stagecoach, seven years later that made him a star.  He plays big and heroic in The Big Stampede but also cocky and commanding.   The point being, without this early career, without movies like The Big Stampede, there may never have been a Ringo Kid because it was these early films that gave him the training and conditioning that finally caught the attention of John Ford.  Well, sort of.   Contrary to popular belief, Stagecoach was not the first film that Wayne and Ford worked on together.  They actually worked together on numerous occasions before then except that in at least seven of those movies (yes, they worked together a lot before Stagecoach), Wayne was no more than an uncredited extra or bit player.  But it was enough and Wayne and Ford became friends and through the years, Ford saw how well Wayne had developed as an actor and when he got the chance to direct Stagecoach, despite the studio wanting Gary Cooper, he insisted on John Wayne.   We all know what happened next.


There’s something appealing about an actor cutting their teeth on low budget productions for years before hitting the big time.  Another actor that springs to mind is Jack Nicholson, who had as long a pre-A-list career as John Wayne before becoming an international phenomenon with Easy Rider.  What’s appealing about it?  I don’t know for sure, but for me it has something to do with knowing they worked hard to develop the skill and techniques of movie acting before hitting it big, meaning, at least in my romanticized notion of it, they probably had a better appreciation for that stardom when it came along.  Enjoy the John Wayne classics playing all this week but also check out some of his earlier, lesser known works.  They display an actor both learning and confident, possessing of a real charisma and presence.  And one more thing:  they’re damned entertaining.

20 Responses John Wayne: The Early Years
Posted By Ken Polinskie : April 23, 2014 5:21 pm

The 58 movies are just too much to present one after the other. Very limited viewing,I think, and some like “Blazing Star” nearly unwatchable.

Posted By Doug : April 23, 2014 9:22 pm

My initial response when I saw that this was a post on John Wayne:
I assume that most of us have at least one DVD set of his early stuff-he shines in comparison to those around him that weren’t ever going to go beyond the ‘B Westerns’.
Being a bit older than some, I remember when Wayne was still acting; I remember seeing “True Grit” in a movie house. Most people loved him and I imagine that even his few critics respected him. Thank you, Greg, for this post. TCM is doing right by the Duke.

Posted By chris : April 23, 2014 9:43 pm

Nice post. I remember as a kid(8-12 years old) watching a lot of those B-movies featuring John Wayne late night on the local station that had them playing on a regular basis(along with a lot of the old RKO movies–this was one of the stations that picked the lifetime RKO package in the ’50s). They were great fun!

Posted By Harry : April 24, 2014 12:41 am

Just started watching “They Were Expendable” on TCM. It reminded me that this was based on a book (non-fiction) of the same name by W. L. White that was copyrighted in 1941 that was the story of a MTB squadron in the Philippines at the start of the war. It is a “as told to” story from several surviving members. This is the MTB squadron that took MacArthur part of the way out of the Philippines. If you can find a copy the book is a good read. The movie follows it fairly well.

Posted By Andrew : April 24, 2014 12:16 pm

Just caught The Big Trail on TCM the other day. Wayne was great. It felt like a modern film with John Wayne up there being John Wayne and all this big action and scenery around him it could have been Bruce Willis or Nicholas Cage or Arnold or etc etc. The difference being that there was no Duke persona so he had to act (and he did, rather well I think.)The movie itself was very interesting. It seemed to be way ahead of its time in that it was trying to be a grand sweeping epic centered around a couple of personal stories but it was made before folks had figured out all the techniques. Some of the exposition dialogue is a bit clunky but river crossing scenes and the scene where they lower the wagons down the cliffs were amazing.

Posted By swac44 : April 24, 2014 4:54 pm

The flipside of Wayne’s career would be someone like Tim Holt, who got his start in B-westerns (he’s also in Stagecoach as a cavalry lieutenant, and has a part in My Darling Clementine), displayed some serious acting chops as a lead in both The Magnificent Ambersons and Treasure of the Sierra Madre, two of my favourite films, but for whatever reason decided A-list titles weren’t for him, and went back to doing mostly B-westerns for the remainder of his career. While I don’t think he would have had the career that Wayne did, I always wonder what might have happened if he’s pushed his career further in the direction of his best-known films.

Side note: The Big Stampede is one of a handful of films Wayne did for producer Leon Schlesinger, taking a rare live-action break from overseeing the Warner Bros. animators at Termite Terrace, along with Haunted Gold and Ride Him Cowboy, and they’re conveniently available on one disc (often in DVD bargain bins).

Posted By george : April 24, 2014 5:01 pm

“Conversely, most superstars never had second careers as B-movie stars either, although some did.”

Glad you mentioned Jack Nicholson. Humphrey Bogart also spent years in B movies before becoming a major star.

Posted By george : April 24, 2014 5:04 pm

Conversely, there were former A-list actors (Warner Baxter, Chester Morris, Richard Arlen, Richard Dix) who spent their later years as B-movie stars.

Posted By robbushblog : April 24, 2014 8:33 pm

Those early Duke movies are entertaining, especially the one in which he plays “Singin’ Sandy”: Riders of Destiny. My dad actually preferred the Poverty Row pictures that Duke did to the big studio movies. Those were what he watched growing up, along with the Ranown pictures of the 50s.

Posted By gregferrara : April 24, 2014 8:48 pm

I watched THE BIG TRAIL a couple of years ago on Netflix and wondered to myself what might have happened if Hollywood had adopted a widescreen standard that early. They did so later, in response to tv, so had they done it in the early thirties, would widescreen televisions have been the norm from the start?

Anyway, that was the big movie that might have given Wayne his leap to A-list but because of the widescreen, it had a botched release.

Posted By gregferrara : April 24, 2014 8:54 pm

Humphrey Bogart is a great addition to the short list of A-listers who toiled as B-listers for years. I love his stuff with Corman.

And Chester Morris was better as Boston Blackie than he was in any of the A-list stuff he did.

Posted By gregferrara : April 24, 2014 8:55 pm

Doug, I don’t have a DVD collection of his early stuff. Now I feel left out.

Posted By robbushblog : April 24, 2014 8:57 pm

Bogie made movies with Corman?

Posted By Doug : April 24, 2014 9:52 pm

Greg, I have a set called “The Tribute Collection” from Mill Creek-25 films plus a documentary, “The American West of John Ford” which features Wayne, Henry Fonda and Jimmy Stewart.
Most of the films are from 1932-34, a few in the forties and then “McLintock!” from 1963.
It’s a pretty good 4 disc set that I think I picked up at Wallmart.
Slightly off topic (kinda sorta) but Wayne’s co-star in “True Grit” Kim Darby is also in a “very” little known film by Carl Reiner called, “The One And Only”. Henry Winker stars; I saw it in a theater back in 1977, and recently found it on DVD. Does anyone remember this one?

Posted By george : April 25, 2014 8:28 pm

Chester Morris was TERRIFIC as Boston Blackie. Columbia should put out a box set. They’re all entertaining little mysteries.

Posted By viveca : April 25, 2014 11:57 pm

I Love the week mat. I remember going to see the Cowboys, El Dorado, Big Jake. All theu movies of the late 60′s and 70′s with both my parents because they loved John Wayne. I have a few of his early years, but more of the a movies and still collecting. I I was really glad to see Trouble along the way I haven’t been able to find on DVD. I did feel with one more day we could have seen someone other good ones such as Hondo, The sands of Iwa Jima, The Cowboys, El Dorado ( Robert Michum and a young James Cann) and Donavan!s Reef to name a few. Thank you George and TCM for 24/5.

Posted By george : January 5, 2015 11:17 pm

Scott Eyman’s recent Wayne biography devotes considerable space (nearly 100 pages) to Wayne’s B movies of the ’30s. Glad someone finally paid attention to this neglected part of Wayne’s career. I won’t try to argue that these films are great art, but many of them are very entertaining … especially the three serials.

Posted By Roxanne : October 1, 2015 3:59 pm

i was born too late. John Wayne would have been the love of my life!

Posted By Mike D. : February 3, 2016 2:57 pm

What movie is the above picture of Wayne with rifle from?

Posted By robbushblog : February 4, 2016 7:05 pm

I think it’s from THE SHEPHERD OF THE HILLS, but I might be wrong.

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