A Salute to The Duke

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“Future historians of the art of film will probably pause at the name of John Wayne only because he appeared in some of John Ford’s best Westerns; but it is a name which gives pause to everyone interested in the industry…during the 23-year period 1949-1972 there was only one year (58) when he was not one of the USA’s 10 top draws..,” wrote David Shipman in The Great Movie Stars: The Golden Years (1989).

The Redford Theatre and Michigan Theater recently celebrated the 100th anniversary of John Wayne’s birth with showings of the first and last Westerns that the Duke made with director John Ford.

On May 25 and 26 (Wayne’s birthday), the Redford presented the famous 1939 film Stagecoach, which made Wayne a star after he had paid his dues in a decade’s worth of obscure cowboy films. On June 3 and 5, the Michigan kicked off its 2007 Summer Classic Film Series with the dramatic 1962 movie The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.

A Changing Image

Seeing these two films on the big screen just a few days apart was an education in how the passing years can bring changes to many things in the movies—a film star’s image, a director’s style, the treatment of a familiar theme.

As I watched The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance on June 5, I kept thinking back to the images of Stagecoach, which I saw on May 26. I don’t know if director John Ford intended this, but the two films complemented and mirrored each other in ways that brought deeper meanings to both films. It seemed like Ford was showing the full history of one man of the West, as played by John Wayne.

The energetic young Ringo Kid of Stagecoach gave way to the weathered, bitter Tom Doniphon of Liberty Valance. A cobwebbed old stagecoach in Liberty Valance was a dim reminder of the title “character” of the earlier film. In Stagecoach, John Wayne was enriched by a woman he found (Claire Trevor), but in the later movie, he was torn apart by the loss of another woman (Vera Miles).

Stagecoach showed the Wild West in all its danger and glory, while Liberty Valance showed the Old West in its painful, ambiguous transition into the New West. The interactions between lawyer James Stewart and Wayne in Liberty Valance showed how one way of life gave way to another, with railroads and statehood pushing things along.

John Wayne’s entrance in Stagecoach brought much applause from the Redford audience, with the camera zooming in to fill the screen with Wayne’s face. The Duke’s first appearance in Liberty Valance was much more subtle, as he slowly rode his horse into town, with the camera quietly acknowledging him as he rode by.

Happy Birthday

“We are here to celebrate the great John Wayne—one of the icons of Hollywood,” said Redford stage announcer Gregory Sumner May 26 on the 100th anniversary of Wayne’s birth. Several moviegoers wore western clothing on a night that climaxed a week of John Wayne celebrations on TCM, AMC and other television stations.

As I watched Stagecoach, I tried to appreciate the intuitive insight of John Ford’s decision to cast Wayne in this film. What did Ford see that no else had found in the many years that Wayne was churning out Saturday afternoon fare like The Big Stampede (1932), The Trail Beyond (1934) and Pals of the Saddle (1938)?

I remember seeing many of these hour-long 1930s horse operas on an all-night movie show on Channel 4 in Indianapolis in the 1970s. Wayne was forging an image of toughness, humor and gallantry that would serve him well for 40 more years.

In some ways, Liberty Valance was a sequel to the 1956 Ford/Wayne film The Searchers; both movies showed a darker side of Wayne. I enjoyed the rich, vibrant colors of The Searchers at the Michigan one weekday afternoon about eight or nine years ago, when it was shown as part of a University of Michigan film series.

At the Redford in August 1999, I had the privilege of seeing my favorite John Wayne movie—Red River (1948). I’ll never forget how dramatically the sky filled many of the scenes in this cattle drive epic. A nighttime scene of the cattle being driven through a town looked like a rapidly flowing river.

And in Liberty Valance, the big screen brought out details that I didn’t appreciate in my television viewings of this film. In a scene in a kitchen, Wayne silently stood behind James Stewart and Vera Miles. This great action hero showed his underrated acting skills with subtle facial reactions as he realized that he might be losing the woman that he loved.

Fifty years ago this month, the Redford presented another Ford/Wayne collaboration—The Wings of Eagles. A March 21, 1957 Ann Arbor News ad for this movie (showing at the State) blazed with the news of the Duke’s latest picture:

WHAT-A-GUY WAYNE! And his great new picture is the life-inspired story of Commander ‘Spig’ Wead—who faced life with a laugh and a challenge! And once more his director is famed John Ford, master of movie thrills, the hit-maker who gave you ‘The Quiet Man’!

A half a century later, this great movie star inspires the same excitement for new generations of fans.

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Copyright © 2007 by Robert Hollberg Smith, Jr.


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