Marion Robert Morrison was born on May 26, 1907, in Winterset, Iowa. He was the first child of Clyde "Doc" Morrison and Mary "Molly" Brown. After his brother, Robert Emmet was born, his middle name was changed to Michael.
In 1912 Doc was diagnosed as having tuberculosis. He decided to move to a warmer climate, Palmdale, California. There, he bought a small 80 acre homestead. In 1914 the rest of the Morrison family joined him.
When the homestead failed in 1916, the family moved to Glendale. This was ten minutes from downtown Los Angeles. Doc got a job in one of the local pharmacies. Even though he was only eleven and still at school, Marion also worked. He delivered the Los Angeles Examiner in the morning and in the afternoon, prescriptions for his father. On Saturdays, he found work at the local picture theatre.
Marion owned an Airedale dog. Both were inseparable. Local fireman, seeing the pair of them wandering around the streets of Glendale, gave them a nickname. It was to stick with him until the day he died. They were called "Big Duke" and "Little Duke".
Years later Duke recounted:
"There've been a lot of stories about how I got to be called Duke. One was that I played the part of a duke in a school play, which I never did. Sometimes, they even said I was descended from royalty! It was all a lot of rubbish. Hell, the truth is that I was named after a dog!"
Duke won a college Football Scholarship to the University of Southern California. Whilst at University, Duke began working at the Fox lot on Western Avenue. Here he met the man who was to be one of the biggest influences in his life: director John Ford. Duke was 6'4 tall. He moved props around on the Ford sets. One day, Ford gibed Duke about his football prowess, inviting him to try to tackle him. Duke obliged and was tossed, unceremoniously, on the ground. Duke saw red. Invited to have another go by a jubilant Ford, he did. John Ford had never landed so hard. He lay there dazed and winded. On the football field it would have been an illegal tackle. A fifteen yard penalty would have been awarded. Duke's job was on the line. John Ford gazed at him for a while, then slowly rose to his feet. Everyone waited for the fiery Irishman to erupt. It never happened. Instead a big grin appeared on Fords face. They were to remain the best of friends until Fords death on August 31, 1973.
Duke became a permanent fixture on the Fox lots. He continued to move the props. Did some stunt work. Fed and watered the animals used on the various sets. Appeared in crowd scenes. (In Hangmans House, Duke actually appeared as a silhouette.)
In 1930, Raoul Walsh, the director who made the first outdoor western, In Old Arizona, was contracted to the Fox Studios. He was about to make another western, The Big Trail. A young trail scout was needed. No one could be found to play the role. Discussing the matter with Ford, Ford suggested that he look at a tall young fellow by the name of Marion Morrison. Walsh liked what he saw. A screen test was arranged. Duke passed with flying colours. There was one problem: his name. It would be difficult to convince the American public that Marion Morrison was a tough trail scout. Duke Morrison was considered and dropped. The name of a General from the American War of Independence was suggested. "Mad" Anthony Wayne. Anthony was replace with John. Consequently, without any say in the matter, Duke acquired his screen name: John Wayne.
In late 1930, The Big Trail, starring Marguerite Churchill, Tyron Power Snr, and John Wayne, was released. It had been shot in both 35mm and 70mm (known as Grandeur). It was epic in its size. It was a mammoth failure. Because of the depression, Fox had only been able to install the 70mm screens, and not the 70mm projectors. On the small screen it was little more than another movie. (Twenty-five years latter, Fox would film again using 70mm film. The process, with its name changed to CinemaScope, was an instant success.)
Duke worked through the depression. He was fortunate. He still waited for stardom. Between 1930 and 1938 he made some 56 movies, mainly "B" grade westerns.
In the spring of 1938 John Ford asked Duke to read a short story. It was written by Ernest Haycox and published in Colliers magazine. The title of the story was "Stage to Lordsburg". The central characters were a gambler, a drunken doctor, a saloon girl, a lady, a whiskey drummer, a crooked bank owner and a gunfighter known as "Malpais Bill". (Latter the name "Malpais Bill" would be changed for a stronger, more appealing one: the "Ringo Kid".)
Ford asked Duke who he thought should play the part of the "Ringo Kid?". "Why don't you get Lloyd Nolan?" he asked. Ford erupted, "Why, you stupid son of a bitch, I want you to play it!".
In 1939, Stagecoach, starring John Wayne as the "Ringo Kid" was released. It was an instant success. It was Dukes springboard to stardom. John Wayne became a household name.
Stagecoach was also to introduce another star, the setting: Monument Valley. It was the first time that Ford shot there. It was not to be the last. He used it in many of his latter westerns. She Wore a Yellow Ribbon was one such movie. Here Ford, filming at sunset, used the Monument Valley backdrop to capture a haunting, but tender moment. Duke visits his wife's grave. He sits down on a stool. Watering the flowers around the grave, Duke sadly relates to her the news about Little Big Horn, and the death of their dear friend, George Armstrong Custer.
Two Oscars were won by Stagecoach. Thomas Mitchell, as the drunken doctor, won "best supporting actor". Richard Hageman and his associates won one for "best musical score".
Between Stagecoach and True Grit, Duke made many memorable movies. Notable amongst these are: They Were Expendable, Fort Apache, Red River, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, The Sands of Iwo Jima, Rio Grande, The Quiet Man, (written by Maurice Walsh - and reproduced here as it appeared to in the Saturday Evening Post February 11, 1933), The Searchers, The Horse Soldiers, North to Alaska, The Comancheros, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, and Hellfighters.
In 1969, Duke made a movie for Hal Wallis, True Grit. It won him the Oscar, he long sought. Duke plays an U. S. Marshal by the name of Reuben J. "Rooster" Cogburn. It was Duke to a "T". Who will ever forget the scene were Rooster comes across Ned Pepper and his three henchmen. Rooster invites them to surrender, "or be shot". A look of disbelief crosses Neds face. He looks at each member of his gang, then coldly stares back at Rooster. "Bold talk, for a one-eyed fat man". Visible anger appears on Roosters face. "Fill your hand, you son of a bitch!". Placing his horses reins between his teeth, Rooster charges. Pistol blazing in one hand, the Winchester in the other. His firepower is deadly. Ned and his boys never stood a chance. All were gunned down. Rooster crowed. He was still crowing in 1970, when he received his Oscar.
Duke went on to make eleven more films. Everyone in the film industry knew he had cancer. He had two major operations to try to cure him of it. He thought he had "licked the big C".
The Cowboys, made in 1972, showed us another side of Dukes acting capabilities. His presence was inspiring to a bunch of schoolboys who are to become men before the end of the cattle drive. Bruce Dern plays the evil "Long Hair". He intimidates the boys and steals Duke's cattle. Duke is gunned down by the cowardly Dern, after Duke had beaten him in a fair fistfight. The boys turn into men, avenging their mentor, and successfully complete the cattle drive.
In 1975, the sequel to True Grit, Rooster Cogburn and the Lady, was made. The interchanges between Duke and Katharine Hepburn simply sparkle. (Reminiscent of the dialogue between Duke and Victor McLaglen in She Wore a Yellow Ribbon). The action is also very rivetting.
In 1976, Duke made the Shootist . It was to be his final movie. Ironically it is the story of an ageing gunfighter, J. B. Brooks, diagnosed as having cancer. He has only a few weeks to live. Brooks arranges a gunfight, in the local saloon. Three men, with "old scores" to settle, have been invited to kill him. None of them manage it. Brooks kills them all, but is wounded in the process. A shotgun blast, by the bar keeper, finally kills him. An avenging angel, in the form of Ron Howard, picks up Brook's pistol and shoots the cowardly barman.
Duke eventually died of "the big C" at 5:23pm, on June 11, 1979, at the UCLA Medical Centre. He was buried on June 15. The memorial service was held at Our Lady Queen of Angles parish, Newport Beach. Because of expected crowds, the Mass was conducted at 5:45am. Only family and close friends attended. The press was not invited. A second grave was dug and his funeral flowers placed on it. This was done so that Duke's last resting place would not be disturbed by souvenir hunters or vandals.
Before his death, Duke wanted a simple epitaph carved on his headstone, "Feo, Fuerte y Formal". Translated it means "He was Ugly, Strong, and had Dignity". Sadly, his wishes were never carried out. Dukes grave, in Pacific View Memorial Park, still remains unmarked to this day.
After 20 years John Wayne's burial site now has a headstone. The headstone is a bronze plaque featuring an image of John Wayne astride a horse, near the Alamo.
Its inscription reads:
"Tommorow is the most important thing in life. Comes into us at midnight very clean. It's perfect when it arrives and it puts itself in our hands. It hopes we've learnt something from yesterday."
For further information please visit: "Pacific View Memorial Park"
John Wayne Filmography
Victor McLaglen ... huge in every respect, ... the consummate sergeant from John Ford's cavalry trilogy ... a brief view of this loveable character.
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