October 3, 2008

Hollywood Hero

Weekend Fest, Major Exhibit Honor John Wayne

By Cristy Lytal

A century after his birth, one of the great icons of Hollywood and America was back on center stage when USC celebrated the legacy of John Wayne with a three-day film series, panel discussions and the kickoff of a four-month exhibition of the Duke's life and times.

USC celebrated the legacy of John Wayne with a three-day film series and on-going exhibition.
The weekend extravaganza, which featured 10 titles ranging from Stagecoach (1939) to The Shootist (1976), began on Friday, September 26 and culminated on Sunday with a reception in Queen's Courtyard and appearances by Wayne's family members, film scholars and Hollywood colleagues.

Speaking to the throngs of students and fans packing Frank Sinatra Hall, Dean Elizabeth M. Daley told the story of how Wayne, born Marion Morrison in 1907, came to USC in the mid-1920s. Majoring in pre-law, playing football, and serving the community as a member of the Trojan Knights and the Sigma Chi fraternity, the 6-foot, four-inch Wayne cut a dashing figure on campus before he launched into a career as one of the biggest movie stars of all time.

"Whether it was training Marines in Sands of Iwo Jima or riding across the forbidden wilderness of Monument Valley in Stagecoach, he was the model of courage and resolve that defined the American spirit," said Daley.

During the discussion that ensued, moderator and SCA professor Leonard Maltin and five panelists—Wayne's daughter-in-law Gretchen Wayne, filmmaker Mark Rydell, actresses Stefanie Powers and Lee Meriwether, and screenwriter Miles Swarthout—reminisced about the man behind the myth. "He was very emotional," revealed Gretchen Wayne. "He could cry easily."

SCA Professor and film critic Leonard Maltin, Gretchen Wayne, director Mark Rydell, actresses Stefanie Powers and Lee Meriwether, and screenwriter Miles Swarthout shared memories of actor John Wayne.

But the other panelists remembered Wayne more for his easygoing humor. During The Cowboys, Rydell shouted at Wayne for starting a scene before the cameras were rolling. "I felt like he was taking over the picture," Rydell admitted. That night, over a leisurely dinner, the actor did everything he could to put his young director at ease. "Wayne said, 'Excuse me, I have to go to the bathroom,'" Rydell recalled. "He came back, and the whole side of his pants was wet. I said, 'What happened?' He said, 'It always happens to me. I'm standing at the urinal, and some guy [turns to me and] goes, 'You're John Wayne!'"

Wayne's humor also served him well when Harvard's Hasty Pudding comedy troupe gave him a pejorative award for his conservative political stances during the Vietnam War. "He entered the campus of Harvard University in a tank, which he borrowed from the National Guard," said Powers, who costarred with Wayne in McLintock!  "And of course, they fell in love with him, as you could."

"Being politically conservative, Wayne's opinions proved upsetting to many, especially during the turbulent 1960s and '70s," said Professor Rick Jewell, who, in addition to being an expert on American film, was one of the main organizers of the weekend event. "But even those who disagreed with the man generally respected him because it was obvious that he cared passionately about his country and its people."

When it came to his work, Wayne was equally passionate. "What impressed me was his professionalism," said Meriwether. "He was co-starring with Rock Hudson [in The Undefeated ], and I had never seen two giant men—in stature and in personality and in their standing in the business—that worked so hard to be the first one on set when called. They knew each other's lines. Literally, one take."

Wayne continued to give his all during his final and 171st film, The Shootist. "His health was so shaky that the producers had to pay a doctor under the table money to get him physically insured for the motion picture," Swarthout said. "He did say to one journalist, giving an interview, he said, 'The irony of this motion picture gets to me.' I mean, he's playing a legendary gunfighter or cowboy hero who is dying of cancer, and he was dying of cancer at the time, and he knew it."

In the interests of passing the legacy of Wayne and other cinema icons on to future generations, Gretchen Wayne presented the inaugural Michael Wayne Film Preservation and Restoration Fellowship to second-year Ph.D. candidate Taylor Nygaard, who works in the Warner Bros. Archive at USC.
Gretchen Wayne presented the inaugural Michael Wayne Film Preservation and Restoration Fellowship to SCA Ph.D. student Taylor Nygaard.

"This fellowship is really great, because the resources that were allocated to pay my salary are now free to be used for projects at the archive," said Nygaard. "Right now, we're trying to figure out how we can digitalize a lot of what's there and make it available online for scholars. We stumble across some great pictures. There's one of John Wayne, actually, in a bathtub smoking a cigar."

Sunday was also the kickoff of the exhibition "Duke: The Life and Legend of John Wayne," located in the David L. Wolper Center in the lower level of Doheny Memorial Library. The collection, which features artifacts and memorabilia from Wayne's Batjac Productions and the Hugh M. Hefner Moving Image Archive at the school, is open to the general public and will run until February 6, 2009.