The Star: John Wayne, The Director: John Ford for the Classic Symbiotic Collaborations Blogathon

When Theresa Brown, the wonderful blogger behind CineMaven’s Essays from the Couch announced that she’d be hosting a blogathon looking at famous actors or actresses and the influential directors that they worked with to make movie magic, I knew I wanted to participate.  As I scanned the Star/Director pairs classic movie bloggers were submitting, I noticed that one pair was missing,  so I decided to sign up and write about those two:


John Wayne and John Ford

These two men, powerhouses in their chosen careers, had a  complicated relationship that I believe stems from their childhoods.   Digging first into Wayne’s, most film buffs know that Wayne was named at birth Marion Robert Morrison, in Winterset, Iowa, 1909.  His father, Clyde, was a kind man with a reputation of being extremely nice to all he met.  Contrasted with a gentle father was Wayne’s mother, Mary-nicknamed Molly- who was harsh. Harsh, in that she wanted perfection, openly doted on her younger son, Robert-she actually took away Marion’s middle name in order to name her second son Robert.   Who does that???  Anyhow, she was not a loving or kind person and didn’t hesitate to disparage her husband in front of their two sons.  Clyde was a pharmacist but wasn’t good at keeping any kind of steady job.  Employment failures in Iowa led to a farming venture in California.  Clyde’s father owned some land in Palmdale and he asked Clyde to move there and farm it.  The Morrison’s went and  lived in poverty while trying to make the farm work.  After that venture proved disastrous, the family moved to Glendale.  Young Marion excelled at school academically and athletically.  His parents’ eventually divorced with Molly taking Robert to live with her in Long Beach.  Marion chose to remain in Glendale with Clyde.  Interesting family dynamics ensued as the two Morrison boys grew into adulthood, Marion was a lot more driven to succeed, which he inherited from his mother, Molly.  Younger brother Robert was a lot more laidback and lacked ambition, which he inherited from his father, Clyde.  Years later, Marion, now known as John Wayne, allowed that his father was, “…the kindest, most patient man I ever knew.” 1       The conflicting emotions, of not feeling loved by the mother, never being able to please her, and being distressed by the father’s lack of provision for the family stayed with John Wayne all of his life and I believe caused him to look for a “Father Figure” as he shaped and pursued his acting career.

Enter John Ford.   I read a biograpy on John Ford over a year ago-the man was an enigma to me.  He grew up in Portland, Maine, his parents were Irish immigrants to the U.S., and Ford was 1 of 11 children.  He did fine in school but excelled on the highschool football team-a common factor he and Wayne shared.  His older brother, Francis, a vaudvillian, made it to Hollywood and was a successful silent film actor.  Younger brother John decided to follow Francis and ultimately became an excellent director, beginning in the movie business as a stuntman, propman, handyman, stand-in for his brother, assistant, and finally, director.  I found Ford an enigma as he could be harsh and cold to those he worked with, with his wife and kids, and yet create such tender-hearted moments in his films.

Football, as it turns out, is how Wayne and Ford first met.  Young Marion Morrison won a football scholarship to attend University of Southern California-USC.  The coach at USC, Howard Jones, knew some of his players needed money to survive on as the scholarship didn’t pay for all that a college education would cost in 1925.  One of Coach Jones’s friends worked at the Fox Studio and the friend agreed to ask silent film actor, Tom Mix, to get part-time jobs at the studio lot for the USC football players.  In 1926, Marion was hired to be a goose shepherd on John Ford’s silent film, Mother Machree.  The film had several scenes where geese were shown walking around a farm.  Morrison’s job was to keep the geese in a penned area so they’d be ready for their scenes.  One day, according to Morrison, he heard a voice yell at him, “Hey, gooseherder!”  It was John Ford.  Ford continued, “You’re one of Howard Jones’s bright boys?”  Morrison replied, “Yes.”  Ford went on, “And you call yourself a football player?”  Morrison got tongue-tied, “I don’t…mean…well…”   Ford,”You’re a guard, eh?  Let’s see you get down in position.”  With Ford and his assistants watching, Morrison got into the 3 point stance and then Ford kicked Morrison’s hand out from under him causing the 19 year old to fall on his face.  “And you call yourself a guard.  I’ll bet you couldn’t even take me out.”  Morrison got up and said, “I’d like to try.”  Ford agreed and trotted out 20 yards away, then ran at Morrison who stuck his leg straight out, hitting Ford in the chest and knocking him down.  Ford took it well, landing on the ground and laughing, which was a signal for his assistants to laugh, and Morrison joined in too.  That began Wayne and Ford’s  association and friendship. 2

To young Morrison,who absorbed a lot when on a movie set,  Ford was a man  in complete command.  He made decisions, decisive ones,  and he didn’t back down from his decisions.  In effect being the father figure Morrison probably would have liked to have had, despite the niceness that was in Clyde Morrison.

In the summer of 1927, Morrison injured his shoulder during some horseplay in the Pacific Ocean.  The injury caused him to lose his scholarship, so dropping out of USC, the young man decided to get work at the movie studios, full time work.  Being a prop man was his first job and then he also got some bit parts to play in some films.

In 1929, Raoul Walsh, movie director, wanted to make a Western epic and found his chance in The Big Trail.  He had spied Morrison moving a table for a scene set-up on the studio lot and decided he wanted  to screen test the prop man to possibly play the male lead.  Morrison passed the screentest and got the part.  That’s when his name changed to John Wayne.  The Big Trail was hyped in a big way by Fox Studio, as was their new star, John Wayne.  Sadly, the film flopped and Wayne’s fledgling career ended up at poverty row studios, making a lot of B movie westerns.  Wayne would often go to “Pappy”, his  nickname for John Ford, and beg him to put him in one of Ford’s films.  Ford would reassure Wayne that one day, the right script would come along, and then he’d put Wayne in that film.  After 10 years, the right picture finally came along: Stagecoach.

stagecoach movie poster

Coincidentally, while researching for this blogathon, Turner Classic Movies came through like a champ and aired Stagecoach! I tivoed it and watched it again, recently.  I was struck by the amount of shots Ford put on just Wayne’s face.  That moment when we first meet Wayne’s character, Ringo Kid, has become a classic scene and rightly so.  With Ringo trudging across the desert carrying his saddle, standing there strong and twirling his rifle, as the Stagecoach approaches him, Ford zoomed the camera in right at Wayne’s figure then face-a star was born in that shot.  Katharine Hepburn said that George Cukor helped to make her a star in her first movie, A Bill of Divorcement, due to how her character was filmed in her introductory scenes.  I concur, that that was what Ford did with Wayne’s introductory shot in Stagecoach.  Here’s a link to that iconic movie, via Youtube; at the 18:35 minute mark, is Ringo’s entrance into the plot.  Also watch Wayne’s face as one minute he’s laughing with the doc at remembering how the doc helped his little brother’s broken arm and then the change to sorrow when he remembers that the little brother died when someone shot him.  Also  notice Wayne’s face as he watches Claire Trevor’s character hold a newborn baby.  Those ranges in emotions tell me that Ford knew what he wanted his actor to convey in those moments and Wayne delivered excellently.

John Wayne, in the famous shot that introduced him to a wider American audience

John Wayne, in the famous shot that introduced him to a wider American audience

Stagecoach was box office gold and it led to more Ford/Wayne collaborations through the years: 1940’s The Long Voyage Home, 1945’s They Were Expendable, 1948’s Fort Apache,  1948’s 3 Godfathers, 1949’s She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, 1950’s Rio Grande, 1952’s The Quiet Man, 1956’s The Searchers, 1957’s The Wings of Eagles, 1959’s The Horse Soldiers, 1962’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, 1962’s How the West Was Won, and 1963’s Donovan’s Reef.

In the making of Stagecoach, Claire Trevor shared that one of the first scenes shot was when her character, Dallas, receives a marriage proposal from Wayne’s Ringo.  Ringo is a naive character as he doesn’t realize Dallas is a prostitute…he thinks he’s the one being shunned by the stagecoach passengers because he’s a prison escapee.  When they were shooting the scene, Ford kept yelling at Wayne.  He told Wayne to stop moving his mouth so much, that when one acts, one shows it in one’s eyes, not in one’s mouth!  Director Allan Dwan also said that,”Duke(Morrison’s childhood nickname that most people who worked with him in Hollywood called him)was just a stick of wood when he came away from USC…Jack(Ford) gave him character.” 3

Actor Tim Holt, who played the minor part of a young Calvary officer in Stagecoach, got mad at Ford for always picking on Duke during the filming.  He actually yelled at Ford to stop treating Duke in such a bad manner.  Actresses  Anna Lee, Maureen O’Hara, and actor Harry Carey Jr., all said pretty much the same thing, that on a Ford film, if Ford liked you, you got picked on and if Ford ignored you, that meant he didn’t like you.  Ford let Holt know that he had to be hard on Duke in order to “shock” him out of his complacent acting habits that he had picked up from making all of those poverty row B Westerns.  Ford also told actress Louise Platt, who played Mrs. Mallory in Stagecoach, that Wayne would be,”the biggest star ever…because he is the perfect Everyman.”4

What did Ford benefit from having John Wayne star is so many of his movies?  The obvious benefit was box office profits.  Having John Wayne star in one’s movie guaranteed audiences would pay money and see the films.  John Ford  helped create the John Wayne persona, I think modeling in his own mind the perfect man, and I think it was a character Ford wished he could really be, but  couldn’t attain.

Be sure to visit Theresa’s blog at CineMaven’s Essays from the Couch to read all of the wonderful blogs in this very interesting blogathon!!!

Resources:  John Wayne: The Life and Legend   by Scott Eyman   Simon and Schuster  Copyright April, 2014.  Footnotes: 1-P. 18.   2-Pp. 36-37.  3-P. 44.  4-P. 96.

Searching for John Ford: A Life by Joseph McBride   St. Martin’s Griffin  Copyright June 23rd, 2001.

I’ll close out this post with some pictures of Wayne and Ford and others, from the sets of some of their collaborative films.

Wayne, Ford, and James Stewart in a fun shot from the set of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance

Wayne, Ford, and James Stewart in a fun shot from the set of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance

Ford giving Wayne some direction in The Horse Soldiers

Ford giving Wayne some direction in The Horse Soldiers

Ford watching as Wayne drags Maureen O'Hara home in The Quiet Man

Ford watching as Wayne drags Maureen O’Hara home in The Quiet Man

Another iconic film shot, Ford centering Wayne's character Ethan Edwards at the end of The Searchers

Another iconic film shot, Ford centering Wayne’s character Ethan Edwards at the end of The Searchers, always on the outside, looking in.



10 responses to this post.

  1. Thanks for flagging the Ford / Wayne backstory. I was aware of the films but I guess I just thought they made one movie together, liked the experience and so did several more. Interesting thought that Wayne was the man Ford couldn’t be – for all his undeniable talent I’ve never really been able to warm to him.


    • Yes, McBride’s book on Ford spelled out quite a conflicted man. I could have delved more into that but felt my post would be too long! Ford grew up in a functional family, much more functional than Wayne’s. Yet he seemed to always have some inner demons he was battling-I think his choosing alchohol and becoming addicted to it was a way to quiet the demons. When he was working on a film, he didn’t hit the booze but when the film was completed, he’d go off on long benders. So, I think he idolized the character he helped form, the “John Wayne” character.


  2. […] Portraits by Jenni  ……………………………..  John Ford & John Wayne […]


  3. […] Pingback: The Star: John Wayne, The Director: John Ford for the Classic Symbiotic Collaborations Blogathon | p… […]


  4. That is a terrific story re: how John Ford and John Wayne became friends. I liked that you included some biographical background on both men.

    And THANK YOU for including the YouTube link for “Stagecoach”. I had no idea a person could watch this for free! I had been meaning to watch it again but hadn’t searched for a site to stream it. Thanks again! 🙂


  5. Ford’s often punishing treatment of actors should have deterred his having a “stock company”, but the work of Wayne and others with the director is usually the best of their careers. That these actors (John Wayne) overlooked or understood Ford’s foibles shows a pride in the films they made together.


    • I agree, Patricia. That fact, that they could work with Ford over and over and over again, does speak a lot as to Ford’s overall talents as a director. I’ve often heard that the teacher one remembers the most in school is the one who pushed you to achieve more than you thought you could. I think that’s another way to look at the Ford/Wayne relationship.


  6. Lovely post about one of my favorite actors and one of my favorite directors! 🙂


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