- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 16, 2007

“Celebrate John Wayne’s 100th birthday” recommends the cover of a current catalog devoted to movies on home video. Items therein range from single titles to bargain packages of two, four, five, seven, eight, 14 and 23 titles. The most voluminous set, which presumes to call itself “The Ultimate John Wayne Film Collection,” specializes in ephemera, dredging up 20 of the B Westerns that defined the star’s career in the 1930s and adding a trio of serials that refuse to vanish almost 75 years after they were made. All for a price $20 — that averages less than a dollar a forgotten title, recalling the typical admission price of 50 or 60 years ago.

Turner Classic Movies will be in on the celebration in an ambitious way, reviving about three dozen Wayne features in the five days prior to the May 26 birthday itself. The American Film Institute Silver Theatre began its salute last weekend, with a revival of Raoul Walsh’s 70 mm epic of 1930, “The Big Trail.” Nine other familiar Wayne titles will join the AFI Silver repertory between now and July 4.

Cast as the scout for a wagon train in “The Big Trail,” Mr. Wayne was a beautiful camera subject at the age of 22. Though uncertain as an actor, he was a self-evident photogenic asset to the medium, which responded to his lean and engaging promise by discounting it for the next several years. The unmerited box-office failure of “The Big Trail” exiled the young and newly christened John Wayne to a prolonged apprenticeship in low-budget Westerns and action melodramas. (He was born Marion Morrison in Winterset, Iowa, the county seat of Madison County, later renowned in best-seller lore as the site of picturesque covered bridges. He was known as Duke Morrison from about the age of 9, while growing up in Glendale, Calif.)

Recalling the early phase of his film acting career years later, Mr. Wayne commented, “I’ve been in more bad pictures than just about anyone in the business. But it doesn’t matter. As long as you project yourself, and you’re not mean or petty, the public will forgive you.”

In all likelihood, a loyal Western public would have stood by John Wayne indefinitely, right into the television era, which also welcomed William Boyd, Gene Autry and Roy Rogers as popular transplants from big to small screen.

Curiously, Mr. Wayne was rescued for major stardom by one of his earliest bosses, director John Ford, who began employing Duke Morrison as a prop man, stuntman and bit player in the late 1920s, after a shoulder injury interrupted a promising football career at the University of Southern California.

Mr. Wayne’s biography parallels the evolution of the movie industry in several respects: the migration to Southern California from the East and Midwest, boyhood proximity to early movie studios and influences, athletics and behind-the-scenes jobs as an unwitting preparation for an acting career, the progression from B-movie staples to prestige productions, the emergence of popular actors as producers or directors after the decline of the studio system. It was Duke Morrison’s fate to grow up literally next door to Hollywood. Meanwhile, Hollywood experienced a maturation and then aging process that resembled John Wayne’s.

John Ford had drifted away from Westerns during the 1930s while they became the bread-and-butter genre for his former protege. Attracted by “Stagecoach,” Mr. Ford also insisted upon casting Mr. Wayne as the romantic lead, the easygoing and gallant Ringo Kid. It proved a perfect match of actor and role. Eventually, both director and star became identified with the Westerns that frequently reunited them from the late 1940s through the early 1960s.

Seven of the nine remaining movies in the AFI centennial series were directed by Mr. Ford; six of them are Westerns whose titles immediately recall a distinctive partnership: “Stagecoach,” “The Searchers,” “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance” and the cavalry trio of “Fort Apache,” “She Wore a Yellow Ribbon” and “Rio Grande.” A couple of worthy collaborations haven’t even made the cut: “3 Godfathers” and “The Horse Soldiers.”

The AFI tribute includes two Westerns directed by Howard Hawks, “Red River” and “Rio Bravo,” so with the exception of Mr. Ford’s Irish idyll of 1952, “The Quiet Man,” all the Wayne pictures being showcased at the Silver document his prowess as a Western hero.

That’s a formidable heritage, of course, but while they were at it, the programmers might have included another Wayne classic outside the Ford-Hawks orbit, the 1969 movie version of “True Grit,” which provided the actor with a superlative role as an aging, weathered Westerner and won him an Academy Award.

It was only his second nomination, and neither came in a characteristic vehicle directed by John Ford or Howard Hawks. Peers had been susceptible to his hard-bitten portrayal of a Marine sergeant in “Sands of Iwo Jima,” but not to his ruthless cattleman in Mr. Hawks’ “Red River,” circa 1948, or his hard-as-nails loner in Mr. Ford’s “The Searchers,” circa 1956.

“Rio Bravo,” which revamps the romantic elements of “To Have and Have Not” in a Western setting, testifies to Mr. Wayne’s skill as a romantic foil while being seduced by Angie Dickinson, who inherited the role contrived for Lauren Bacall 15 years earlier. It’s satisfying to be reminded that he could sustain romantic interplay, even if cast as a Westerner or professional soldier. You’ll need to consult TCM or video retailers for examples that have fallen into neglect: opposite Marlene Dietrich (an off-screen paramour in the early 1940s) in “Seven Sinners” or “The Spoilers,” Jean Arthur in “The Lady Takes a Chance,” Claudette Colbert in “Without Reservations,” Donna Reed in “Trouble Along the Way” and Capucine in “North to Alaska.” There’s more variety in the Wayne arsenal than posterity is inclined to remember.

SERIES: “The Duke: John Wayne’s Centennial”

WHERE: American Film Institute Silver Theatre, 8633 Colesville Road, Silver Spring

WHEN: “Stagecoach” (1939): Friday-Monday and Wednesday; “She Wore a Yellow Ribbon” (1949): May 25, 26 and 28; “Fort Apache” (1948): May 27, 28 and 30; “Rio Grande” (1950): May 27 and 28; “Red River” (1948): June 1, 4, 5, 6 and 7; “The Quiet Man” (1952): June 8-10; “The Searchers” (1956): June 22, 23, 25, 27 and 28; “Rio Bravo” (1959): June 29 and 30, July 1 and 4; “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance” (1962): June 29 and 30, July 1 and 4.

ADMISSION: $9.25 for the general public; $7.50 for AFI members, students and seniors (65 and over); $6.75 weekdays before 6 p.m. Special price for the “trilogy” triple-bill of “Fort Apache,” “She Wore a Yellow Ribbon” and “Rio Grande” on May 28, at 1 p.m. of $12 for the general public and $10 for members.

PHONE: 301/495-6700

WEB SITE: www.afi.com/silver

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