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For many people, John Wayne was less an actor than a symbol--a fascinating, unparalleled phenomenon who, 16 years after his death, remains America's favorite movie star. In this new kind of book--a biography of an idea--the bestselling author of "Lincoln at Gettysburg" shows how much Americans invested thri emotions in this embodiment of their deepest myths.
Topic sentences come thick and numbingly familiar: "The disappearing frontier is the most powerful and persistent myth in American history ... The Western deals with the 'taming' of the West ... (The) air of invincibility gave Wayne his special status." Everybody got that? Wills wanted to write the book, he says, because Wayne is an intellectually unfashionable star who has figured prominently in the public imagination. Fair enough. But Wills overestimates how deeply Wayne has penetrated into the American psyche. Wayne's popularity spanned decades, but as an American icon, Wayne has remained static (unlike Elvis, whose mutability seems nowhere near exhausted).
Wills' real problem, though, is that he simply doesn't know how to read movies. He claims that John Ford wasn't trying to make Wayne a star with the famous shot in "Stagecoach" that introduces Wayne (a laughable claim to anyone who's seen it and fallen immediately for this intensely likable kid). He falls for the "greatness" of later Ford duds like "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance," that pile of blarney "The Quiet Man" and the overrated "classic" "The Searchers," while completely missing what may be the older Wayne's most appealing picture, Howard Hawks' relaxed and thoroughly engaging "Rio Bravo," a movie where his authority carries some weight precisely because it isn't invincible.
After slogging through John Wayne's America, I still wasn't sure why Wills wanted to write the book. But I got a clue from the author photo -- Wills in Monument Valley, trying to look both like a regular guy in his running shoes and baggy chinos, and authorial as he clutches a pencil and book. Wills is too much the serious academic to admit it, but I think that, for him, John Wayne's America is a way of living out a fantasy of being a man who can take the measure of men, of paying homage to a male authority figure who fascinates him without violating his own reputation. "How the fuck can John Wayne die?" asks a mobster in the new movie "Donnie Brasco." Wills doesn't have an answer to that. But his book does show how the Duke might be embalmed. --Salon
At one time or another John Wayne has been blamed for everything from cowboy diplomacy to the Vietnam War; the critic Eric Bentley called him "the most dangerous man in America." But as Wills expertly details, the fault is not so much with Wayne as with ourselves: "By a confluence of audience demand and commercial production, the Wayne that took shape in the transaction between the two expressed deep needs and aspirations that took `Wayne' as the pattern of manly American virtue." Wills is not particularly interested in Wayne's personal life, although he offers a number of fascinating details. He focuses almost exclusively on a close analysis of Wayne's image as it played itself out in his major movies (made with such visionary directors as Raoul Walsh, Howard Hawks, and John Ford). Most of these films—classics such as 'Stagecoach', 'Red River', and 'The Searchers'—were prime examples of a uniquely American genre. "The Western," Wills writes, "can deal with the largest themes in American history—beginning with the `original sin' of our country. . . . It explores the relationship of the people with the land, of the individual with the community, of vigilante law to settled courts." With their themes of sacrifice, order, and duty, Wayne's films (Westerns and non-Westerns alike) were perfectly attuned to a newly imperial America. What Wills has wrought here is little short of a masterpiece. His intelligence and perception, his range of ideas, and his sheer readability set a high standard for writing about American culture and entertainment. He completely redefines our understanding of Wayne's work, its meanings, and its impact on our collective imagination.
A major achievement in cultural criticism that will not be easily surpassed.
Dennis McLellan Los Angeles Times A stunning book...essential reading for anyone interested in Wayne and popular culture.
Molly Haskell The New York Times Book Review I hope this new book will find its way into the hands of those who are ready to think seriously about a pivotal figure in our culture, a figure who was a great star and a flawed man.
Mark Feener The Boston Globe No one has ever written better about the cultural ideology of John Wayne's career than Garry Willis does here.
John Wayne, like Ronald Reagan (born four years after him), was part of Iowa's great exodus to California. A net of commercial and filial connections dragged people from their cornfields off to citrus groves. Wayne's family was typical: first his paternal grandfather went, then his father, then his mother with his maternal grandmother and grandfather. Reagan went, taking a whole cluster of friends from his broadcasting days, to be followed by his brother and his parents. Iowans turned like sunflowers toward the California sun.
Wayne forgot Iowa, and Iowa forgot him, while Reagan kept up ties with his Midwestern past. This is mainly, but not only, because Wayne left as a child (seven), and Reagan as a young man (twenty-five). Studio publicists highlight or invent links to a star's roots if they are useful to the star's image. It served Reagan to be a homey and down-to-earth Iowan, the unpretentious star of Des Moines radio. But Western heroes appear from nowhere. Their past is mysterious, their name a title or a mask—the Virginian, the Texan, the Kid. Is Shane a first or last name—or both, or neither? Even when not masked, this Western hero is always a lone ranger, come back from beyond the farthest ridge, not formed "back East" in settled ways. John Wayne had nothing to gain from the farmlands in his past. It is accidental but appropriate that Reagan lost his nickname (Dutch) in California returning to his real name (Ronald), while Wayne lost his real first name (Marion) there, gaining a nickname (Duke) before trading his family name (Morrison) for a stage name. If Wayne was not quite Sergio Leone's "Man with No Name," he was at least a man from nowhere. The nowhere was Winterset, Iowa.
Later on, residents of Winterset entertained a myth that Wayne sneaked back, once, to look at his native place—as if Wayne could slip unnoticed through the rows of corn. Wayne's son Michael fed this illusion by saying that he showed Wayne, toward the end of his father's life, a movie made in Winterset (Cold Turkey), without telling him where it was set. Wayne, his son averred, found something familiar about the Madison County courthouse—a remarkable achievement for a child who left Winterset at age two, moving on to other towns in Iowa.
The Wayne family took few happy memories away from Iowa, and some of the happy few were false. Wayne later boasted that his father's Iowa pharmacy was a real drugstore, not a place for selling general products. But the store Clyde Morrison owned specialized in paint and wallpaper, and the drugs he sold were mainly patent medicine. Even more important was the memory that Clyde had been a football star, an "all-state halfback" at Simpson College.
The Simpson College yearbooks and school papers tell a different story. Clyde Morrison grew up in Indianola, the site of Simpson College, and attended its preparatory academy. In his freshman year at the college, he started on the football team's first string but was replaced as the season wore on. His hometown paper made this embarrassing report: "Morrison did well [in an early game] but does not get into condition for proper work."' In his second and last season, Morrison was on the bench, not mentioned in a single game's newspaper report. In a college with only 106 male students, one that did not have an entire second eleven (the roster was sixteen players), this is hardly an "allstate" career. Yet the legend is still being passed on.
The Clyde Morrison who went to Winterset in 1906 to clerk in a drugstore was no star, and there would be few memories of him or his family after they left in 1909. Two decades later, when "John Wayne" had acquired some fame, there was an attempt to connect him with the baby Marion Morrison, but local report gave different stories about things as basic as the house where he was born. The woman doctor who delivered him told her daughter that she did it in a second-story apartment. A former secretary of the Madison County Historical Society, Lloyd H. Smith, told the ghostwriter of Wayne's unfinished autobiography, Maurice Zolotow, that there were three or more contenders for the honor. Smith himself assigned it to a house now destroyed, a picture of which appears in Zolotow's Shooting Star 10.
When, after Wayne's death, the Winterset Chamber of Commerce decided to honor the site of his birth, no documents (sale, rent, or phone records) revealed where the Morrisons were in 1907, and no address was given on Marion's birth certificate. Local authorities relied on one woman's testimony. The late Alice Miller, then in her eighties, said that she remembered, as a girl, watching the excitement across the street as John Wayne was born in 1907, though Marion Morrison had disappeared from Winterset in 1909. Alice Miller was also a source for the biographical pamphlet, sold at the birthplace, that remembers Clyde Morrison as a football star.
Perhaps the designated birthplace, which drew fifty thousand tourists in 1994, is the actual house. It has an advantage Lloyd Smith's candidate lacked. It is still standing. Or perhaps when Wayne made his rumored secret visit to Winterset, he was a phantom Iowan visiting a phantom home.
Clyde Morrison went to work in 1906 at M. E. Smith's Drug Store, whose ads ran to items like this: "Foley's Kidney Cure ... Take it at once, Do not risk having Bright's Disease or Diabetes ... 50¢ and $1.00 Bottle, Refuse Substitutes." Clyde proved no more successful at holding a job than at staying on the first string at Simpson. By 1909, he was a drug clerk in another Iowa town (Brooklyn). A year after that, Clyde used some family money to buy a Rexall store in Earlham, a store which folded in a year. This was the place that sold paint and wallpaper—the kind of thing he was selling, a year later, at a general store in Keokuk. In 1913, having exhausted the possibilities of pharmacies and of Iowa, Clyde went to California where his father had preceded him. In 1914, Clyde's wife and two sons joined him there. The future Wayne was seven, and had already lived in four different Iowa towns. No wonder his recollections of the state were vague to nonexistent. In his aborted autobiography, he says that his younger brother ("Bobby") was born in Winterset, though he was actually born two towns later (in Earlham).
The Morrison family had been unhappy in Iowa, and would become unhappier still in California, where Marion was now old enough to hear more of his parents' quarrelings. Clyde, with his unfailing gift for failure, made two reckless decisions -- a) to become, with no experience, a farmer, and b) to do his farming in Antelope Valley. The Valley is an and basin just over the coastal range of California mountains north of Los Angeles. Other Iowans went to lush fruit fields or seaside views. Clyde contrived to find a desert in the garden, one sealed off from verdure and the ocean.
Copyright © 1997 by Literary Research, Inc.