Wednesday, April 2, 2014

New book: John Wayne the Life and Legend, by Scott Eyman

Scott Eyman, the author of eleven books and the critically acclaimed biographer of Hollywood legends Mary Pickford, Ernst Lubitsch, Cecil B. DeMille, Louis B. Mayer, and John Ford (as well as the author of highly recommended study The Speed of Sound: Hollywood and the Talkie Revolution 1926-1930), has now penned a great big detailed and highly readable biography of John Wayne. Eyman's new book, John Wayne the Life and Legend, is just out from Simon and Schuster. It mines new sources and new material to bring readers the definitive biography of the legendary leading man. Learn more, read more, about this terrific new book at the publisher's website.

According to the publisher, "John Wayne was one of Hollywood’s most famous and most successful actors, but he was more than that. He became a symbol of America itself. He epitomized the Western film, which for many people epitomized America. He identified with conservative political causes from the early 1930s to his death in 1979, making him a hero to one generation of Americans and a villain to another. But unlike fellow actor Ronald Reagan, Wayne had no interest in politics as a career. Like many stars, he altered his life story, claiming to have become an actor almost by accident when in fact he had studied drama and aspired to act for most of his youth. He married three times, all to Latina women, and conducted a lengthy affair with Marlene Dietrich, as unlikely a romantic partner as one could imagine for the Duke. Wayne projected dignity, integrity, and strength in all his films, even when his characters were flawed, and whatever character he played was always prepared to confront injustice in his own way. More than thirty years after his death, he remains the standard by which male stars are judged and an actor whose morally unambiguous films continue to attract sizeable audiences.

Scott Eyman interviewed Wayne, as well as many family members, and he has drawn on previously unpublished reminiscences from friends and associates of the Duke in this biography, as well as documents from his production company that shed light on Wayne’s business affairs. He traces Wayne from his childhood to his stardom in Stagecoach and dozens of films after that. Eyman perceptively analyzes Wayne’s relationship with John Ford, the director with whom he’s most associated and who made some of Wayne’s greatest films, among them She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, The Quiet Man, and The Searchers. His evaluation of Wayne himself is shrewd: a skilled actor who was reluctant to step outside his comfort zone. Wayne was self-aware; he once said, 'I’ve played the kind of man I’d like to have been'."

This past weekend, director Peter Bogdanovich gave the book a great review in the New York Times. Read his review here.

As fans of Louise Brooks know, the actress appeared in one film with John Wayne, Overland Stage Raiders, from 1938. The film, which features a group of characters called the "Three Mesquiteers" (a play on the French "Three Musketeers") is set in the modern-day West, where buses bearing gold shipments to the East are being hijacked. To thwart the bad guys, the Mesquiteers ride their horses and even use an airplane to track the buses and capture the crooks. Brooks has a supporting role in the 55 minute film. Long available on VHS, Overland Stage Raiders was released on DVD and Blu-Ray in 2012 by Olive films.

The "Three Mesquiteers" was the overall title of a series of 51 B-westerns released by Republic Studios between 1936 and 1943. The films feature characters Stony Brooke, Tucson Smith, Lullaby Joslin, and Rusty Joslin. Over the run of the series, each were played by various B-western stars.

John Wayne, Ray Corrigan and Max Terhune along with Louise Brooks
Overland Stage Raiders marked Wayne's second appearance in the series. Wayne took over the role of Stony Brooke in 1938, and appeared in eight Mesquiteer films over the course two years. During that time, he was joined by Ray Corrigan as Tucson Smith and Max Terhune as Lullaby Joslin in six films, while former silent film star Raymond Hatton (who starred alongside Brooks in Now We're in the Air) played Rusty Joslin in two more films. All eight Mesquiteer films featuring Wayne were directed by George Sherman.

Eyman devotes about half-a-page in his new book to Overland Stage Raiders. Eyman writes, "It's a fairly standard Mesquiteer's picture, except for the fact that the leading lady was Louise Brooks, the luminous erotic icon of G.W. Pabst's Pandora's Box, who drank and talked her way out of a potentially great career."

Eyman goes on to quote Brooks. "At sunrise one August morning I was driven in a company car to location on the ranch where Republic shot all its westerns. Where was I supposed to go I wondered, after I got out of the car and stood alone in a cloud of dust kicked up by a passing string of horses. . . . Up the road a bunch of cowboys were talking and laughing with two men who had stood slightly apart from them. When the company car honked for them to get off the road, the two men looked around saw me, and came to greet me. One was a cherub, five feet tall carrying a bound smile; the other was a cowboy, six feet four inches tall, wearing a lovely smile. The cherub, who was the director, George Sherman introduced me to the cowboy who was John Wayne ..... Looking up at him I thought, this is no actor but the hero of all mythology miraculously brought to life."

Louise Brooks and John Wayne at the
wrap party for Overland Stage Raiders.
Along with Empty Saddles (1936), an earlier B-Western starring Buck Jones, Overland Stage Raiders is one of the more atypical and least interesting films to feature Brooks. Why did she do it? When asked in later years, Brooks replied that she needed the money. "I felt that I was reaching the end of my career in 1938. . . . the sorely needed $300 salary did little to cheer me up at the prospect of working in a typical Hollywood western whose unreality disgusted me." This prosaic programmer turned out to be the last film Brooks ever made.

At the height of Wayne's popularity in the 1950's and 1960's, a number of his earlier films were reissued, including Overland Stage Raiders. These re-releases were screened in theaters, usually local revival houses, and shown on local television, often as the "afternoon movie." In all likelihood, Overland Stage Raiders marked one of Louise Brooks' very first appearances on American television.

Here is the trailer from the 1950s reissue of Overland Stage Raiders. Unfortunately, it doesn't include any footage of Brooks, as the original 1938 trailer had. At the time, Brooks was largely forgotten and wasn't considered a draw. Likewise, the posters, lobby cards and other promotional materials from the time also left-off Brooks' name.

If you have an interest in John Wayne and like reading film biographies, the Louise Brooks Society highly recommends this new book by Scott Eyman. Wayne started in films during the silent era, and John Wayne the Life and Legend is a detailed, revelatory study of one of the longest lasting careers in Hollywood history. The early notices have been rightly positive.

“Scott Eyman has taken a legend and a statue and given us an odd, decent, muddled but deeply likeable man. That’s what makes this book so readable and so touching.” (David Thomson, author of The New Biographical Dictionary of Film and Moments That Made the Movies)

“Drawing deeply on interviews with family and friends, acclaimed biographer Eyman colorfully chronicles Wayne’s life and work. . . . Compulsively readable.” (Publishers Weekly (starred review))

"A fine show-biz biography, delivering what fans want about the star’s career but probing with uncommon depth into his personality.” (Booklist)

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