Tuesday, May 26, 2009

John Wayne's Birthday

It was 102 years ago today that John Wayne was born.

I haven't found any scheduled showings of any of his movies to mark the occasion, but Turner Classic Movies will be showing one of his best films, "Angel and the Badman," tomorrow night at 7 p.m. (Central).

I guess it's kind of risky to proclaim any of John Wayne's movies as one of his best. The Duke still has some devoted fans, nearly 30 years after his death, and each has very definite ideas about what makes a John Wayne movie special.

Some of his fans will tell you his best movie was the one for which he won his only Oscar — "True Grit." Others would say 1939's "Stagecoach," John Ford's classic that allmovie.com says "quickly became a template for all movie Westerns to come."

Wayne was the subject of some controversy in the 1940s. Many movie stars enlisted to fight in World War II, but Wayne did not. His film career, thanks in part to "Stagecoach," was blooming in the early 1940s, and, while there were reports of his inquiries about enlisting in spite of the exemption he received because of his age and family status, apparently he never followed up on those inquiries, That may have been because the studio that had him under contract, Republic Studios, allegedly threatened to sue Wayne if he enlisted — although, logically, it seems very unlikely that a studio would sue its most bankable star for choosing to go to war.

Anyway, while other movie stars interrupted their careers to fight the Germans and the Japanese, Wayne remained stateside and made several war–oriented films. I suppose there are some of his fans who would choose movies he made during this period as being among his best, but I'm inclined to think that most of his best films came after the war ended — "Fort Apache" and "Red River" in 1948, "Sands of Iwo Jima" and "She Wore a Yellow Ribbon" in 1949, "The Quiet Man" in 1952, "The Searchers" in 1956, "Rio Bravo" in 1959, "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance" in 1962.

I'm glad that TCM will be showing "Angel and the Badman" this week because I think it illustrates something I have always believed — that Wayne's best films were not necessarily shoot–'em–up Westerns or war flicks but stories about love and redemption. And that is what this film is about. Wayne plays a wounded outlaw who finds shelter with a Quaker family. His character evolves, thanks to the influence of the family's daughter (Gail Russell), but he still wants to kill the man who killed his foster father.

Most people probably wouldn't rate it as one of his best, but I have no problem putting it up there with classics like "Stagecoach" and "The Quiet Man."

Wayne wasn't a great example in his personal life. He was married three times, and his second wife was convinced that he and Russell had an affair during the filming of "Angel and the Badman." A chain–smoker from young adulthood, Wayne was diagnosed with lung cancer in 1964 and had his left lung and four ribs removed. He encouraged people to get examinations, which was good, but he was chewing tobacco and smoking cigars within a few years of his surgery, which wasn't.

He was often criticized for his right–wing politics, and he claimed to have played a role in the blacklisting of "High Noon" screenwriter Carl Foreman.

But his best movies gave us characters and storylines that focus on qualities that most people find admirable.

That, I think, is his enduring gift.