Posted by Greg Ferrara on April 23, 2014
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.
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