Friday, October 17, 2014

American Titan: Searching for John Wayne by Marc Eliot

American Titan: Searching for John Wayne
by Marc Eliot
Dey St. Books (HarperCollins)
97800622690030 - Hardcover
432 pages
November 2014

Barnes and Noble
IndieBound (your local Indie bookshop)

"As a crusader for freedom, he loved beating up on bad guys. He was, after all, the king of the cowboys." - Marc Eliot

American Titan: Searching for John Wayne is my fourth Marc Eliot biography. I've read his books on Cary Grant, Jimmy Stewart and Steve McQueen (and my husband reviewed his book on Michael Douglas). Eliot’s bios have always proven to be informative and entertaining. They’re not definitive or exhaustive rather they paint a picture through story-telling.

Eliot refers to this book as a “revisionist biography” of John Wayne. He says, “I wanted to examine him from an auteurist point of view, to put the emphasis on his work, to show how the films reflected his personal life, and how in turn, he reflected himself in his films.” He didn’t interview any of Wayne’s family members, friends or colleagues, something he admits to in his author’s note. Eliot says, “I prefer to bring my point of view of my work, rather than having a point of view influenced by ‘experts’.” However, Eliot does indirectly rely on these experts and he often cites memoirs written by Maureen O’Hara and Wayne’s third wife Pilar as well as interviews by Peter Bogdonavich throughout the text.

John Wayne and Maureen O'Hara in Rio Grande (1950) (source)

“John Wayne is not just an actor, and a good actor, he is the United States of America.” – Maureen O’Hara 

Born Marion Mitchell Morrison in 1907, Wayne’s parents were less than ideal role models in his life. His father Clyde made bad business decisions and put little effort into his marriage to Wayne’s mother Molly. She doted on Wayne’s brother Robert and often neglected her oldest son. The parents’ influence on a young Wayne would greatly affect his financial decisions and romantic relationships as an adult.

John Wayne at USC

Wayne picked up the nickname “Duke” as a kid. He named his dog “Duke” and the local firefighters would refer to the pair as big Duke and little Duke. Eventually, the firefighters started referring to Wayne as Duke and the name stuck. Wayne went to USC on a football scholarship. Finances were tight so he depended on the scholarship and extra jobs to be able to finance his education. It was while at USC that Wayne got into films playing bit parts and working as a stage hand. His early encounter with John Ford and other important people in the industry helped him get in start in films. Ford was impressed with Wayne’s ambition, his willingness to work and his honesty. Raoul Walsh was also impressed by these qualities and cast him in The Big Trail (1930). Walsh said “what I needed was a feeling of honesty, of sincerity and Wayne had it.”

"I got nothin' to sell but sincerity, and I been selling' it like the blazes ever since I started." - John Wayne

Marion Morrison soon became John Wayne. He developed many trademarks including his speech, walk and gun twirl. Wayne was determined to do good work. He knew his limitations as an actor but also realized that he had a lot to offer audiences. Wayne worked with John Ford, Howard Hawks, Howard Hughes, William Wellman and John Huston among others. He had contracts with Fox, Columbia Studios, Monogram Pictures, RKO and created his own production companies including Wayne-Fellows and Batjac.

John Ford and John Wayne (source)

“If Ford justified Wayne’s star power, Wayne helped Ford join the pantheon of American auteurs. Each made the other greater by his presence.” – Marc Eliot 

Eliot’s biography focuses on two things: his career as an actor and his relationship with key figures in his life. If John Wayne is the main character of the story, John Ford is his trusty sidekick. Together they made 23 films and Ford features most prominently in this biography. Ford was tough on Wayne, especially on set, but at a certain level they understood each other. I thought Maureen O’Hara, a good friend of Wayne’s and famous for being his leading lady, would appear often in this biography but alas she did not.

The author delves into Wayne’s three marriages with Josephine, Chata and Pilar as well as his relationships with Pat Stacy, Marlene Dietrich and Claire Trevor. He isn’t afraid to dig up some dirt but in comparison to the Cary Grant and Steve McQueen biographies, this one is pretty tame. As a Latina, I have always been amused by Wayne’s penchant for Hispanic women.

"Some men collect stamps. I go for Latin Americans." - John Wayne

John Wayne with his first wife Josephine and Loretta Young

John Wayne with his second wife Chata

John Wayne with his third wife Pilar (source)

Wayne’s body of film work is key to understanding his life and career. Eliot takes his time with the big movies as well as the failures that influenced Wayne’s career trajectory. Readers will learn about films such as The Big Trail (1930), Stagecoach (1939), Red River (1948), Rio Grande (1950), The Quiet Man (1952), The Searchers (1956), Rio Bravo (1959), The Alamo (1960), True Grit (1969) and more.

He had professional rivalries with Gary Cooper (he had a strong, negative reaction to the film High Noon) and Henry Fonda. Wayne often negotiated good terms on his movie deals. He’d ask for money up front or against profits plus up to 10% of future profits. He made a lot of money but never really built any substantial wealth. Wayne was reckless with his money, made bad investments, his marriages and divorces drained his funds and a few people took advantage of his trustworthy nature and stole from him.

There is a lot of focus on Wayne’s politics in this book. He was conservative and very anti-Communism. Wayne served as president of the Motion Picture Association and according to some was responsible for the blacklisting of several people in Hollywood. Wayne’s politics drove much of what he did however he wasn’t above working with or becoming friends with Hollywood liberals.

Eliot makes an interesting observation about Wayne’s public battle with cancer. He likens it to Rock Hudson’s public battle with AIDS. Being open with fans and media outlets about their health created awareness. Eliot’s epilogue recounts Wayne’s final days dealing with stomach cancer and his last public appearance at the Oscars in 1979.

Overall American Titan is a good and informative read but I feel like I might have outgrown Eliot’s biographies. I wanted something more substantial. My husband has been reading this biography alongside with me and I think it’s more well-suited to him than it is to me. Carlos reads for entertainment and I read to study and learn. I’d be remiss not to mention Scott Eyman’s biography on John Wayne which also published this year. It’s been getting rave reviews and although I’ve never had any particular interest in John Wayne, I’ll probably read it to get a different look at Wayne’s life and work.

Carlos reading American Titan

I won a copy this book from Goodreads as part of their First Reads giveaway program. What I received was a galley/ARC (uncorrected proof) which contained errors, inconsistencies and some missing back matter which should be corrected/added upon final publication. Throughout the first half of the book, availability of Wayne’s films often appeared as footnotes. It was noted if the film was on DVD, YouTube or aired on TCM (note that the lifespan of a free movie on YouTube is very short so those notations will quickly become outdated). This was terribly distracting and I’m hoping they’ll work this into a list in the back versus keeping this as footnotes in the text. There wasn’t an index or any photos but I’m sure these will be added later. The photos, if they are added, will most likely be an insert in the middle of the book. I also hope the Author’s Note gets moved to the front matter. I found Eliot’s explanation of his intentions with this biography to be useful in understanding the book and would have served me better had I read it first.

Thank you to Goodreads and Dey Street Books (Harper) for sending me a copy of American Titan to review!

1 comment:

  1. Scott Eyman's bio of John Wayne was incredible - you should definitely check it out soon!

    I've read a couple of Eliot's bios before and though they were never immersive, they were still entertaining, so I totally agree with all that you said about the author in this post.


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