John Wayne Centennial in Newport Beach
by Scott Holleran
May 4, 2007

Burbank, California—Orange County's coastal city of Newport Beach was the setting for the largest John Wayne screening series last week and what a roundup, with the Wayne family, including the Duke's widow, appearing with many of his contemporaries. The centennial celebration of his 100th birthday—May 26—filled Newport Beach Film Festival seats, from Stagecoach (1939) to The Shootist (1976), at every screening.

Though watching a John Wayne movie on the big screen is itself a treat, the best part is seeing the Duke's movies in the company of those who appreciate him and the type of picture with which he's widely associated, the Western. After a press kickoff on his Wild Goose yacht, which included a tour, randy tales from the Duke's skipper and a lovely remembrance from Mrs. John Wayne, Pilar, the 100 Years of John Wayne events were a huge hit. Both Regency Lido theater showings of The Quiet Man and The Searchers were packed.

Guests were good sports, enduring fast cuts and answering this host's questions and those from the razor sharp audience. Patrick Wayne talked about working with his father and director John Ford on The Searchers, in which he played the young cavalry officer, during a pre-show Q & A, as did director Andrew McLaglen (son of The Quiet Man's Victor McLaglen and director of John Wayne's similarly themed McLintock!) and writer Dan Ford (Pappy: The Life of John Ford)—John Ford's grandson—before The Quiet Man. These gentlemen know those treasured classics and their stars but time was limited and, frankly, the Festival may not have anticipated such demand for John Wayne movies.

Seeing the Duke on the big screen—mostly at Edwards Cinemas in Newport Beach's Fashion Island—is an experience: during opening credits, the theater goes silent as a big, rousing score comes through the speakers and, when the movie begins, there's a palpable sense of shared excitement for what's coming; the audience reacts, laughs, and thoroughly enjoys the show. An unmistakable difference between today's audiences and a John Wayne audience: reverence for the motion picture. They're there to see the movie—the action, the story, the hero—not to be blown away by a giant video game.

A John Wayne movie is still immensely entertaining and he is an excellent actor. The schedule—The Cowboys, True Grit, The Quiet Man, Stagecoach, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, The Shootist, The Searchers, Donovan's Reef, Sands of Iwo Jima and Rio Bravo—demonstrates his versatility as an artist in a variety of heroic roles.

John Wayne and Katharine Hepburn in Rooster Cogburn
Katharine Hepburn, who co-starred with John Wayne in the 1975 True Grit sequel, Rooster Cogburn, and would have been 100 herself this month, said it best about the Duke in her autobiography: "John Wayne is the hero of the '30s and '40s and most of the '50s. Before the creeps came creeping in. Before, in the '60s, the hero slid right down into the valley of the weak and the misunderstood. Before the women began dropping any pretense to virginity into the gutter. With a disregard for truth which is indeed pathetic. And unisex was born. The hair grew long and the pride grew short. And we were off to the anti-hero. John Wayne survived all this. Even into the '70s… his acting capacity is powerful. He is a very, very good actor in the most highbrow sense of the word. You don't catch him at it."

Having recently seen several of his pictures again, especially Howard Hawks' Red River, it's safe to say that Miss Hepburn is absolutely right. He acted with his eyes, his body (he was six feet, four inches) and his intonation—he made it look easy—in roles that he made his own. He was an American original—he was larger than life. The Western was his particular domain.

Those interviewed during the John Wayne Centennial included Western actor Buck Taylor (Tombstone), Wayne family friend and stunt coordinator Eddie Stacey (The Last King of Scotland) and Deadwood's Jim Beaver. Singer Glen Campbell was scheduled for the True Grit screening, but he didn't make it. However, Kim Darby, who played idealistic firebrand Mattie Ross opposite the Duke in his Academy Award-winning turn as Rooster Cogburn, was on hand with Paramount's A.C. Lyles. Darby appeared briefly and quietly, remembering the Duke and director Henry Hathaway in her little girl voice and demeanor and revealing that she'd been pregnant and going through a divorce during production. She appears with Campbell on a new Collector's Edition of True Grit on DVD later this month.

Lucille Ball and John Wayne
Besides interviews, program highlights offered by co-host and public relations whiz Tim O'Day were outstanding, including the Duke's appearance on I Love Lucy (to promote his first picture with Lauren Bacall, Blood Alley, in 1955) in which he has to keep replacing the cement block from Grauman's Chinese Theater that Lucy destroys, which in real life had already been set for Sands of Iwo Jima (1949). Each screening featured musical scores from the Duke's movies, some audiences were given trivia prizes courtesy of Wayne Enterprises while other screenings were followed by clips from Merv Griffin's interviews and the 1979 interview with Barbara Walters before the Duke's death that same year.

Maureen O'Hara's videotaped comments and a beautifully arranged family photo montage brought a few tears and it sometimes seemed like the whole, wonderful, lively population of Newport Beach showed up to celebrate the Duke. Especially when we headed over to the Irish-themed Muldoon's after The Quiet Man to toss one back and toast the great American actor John Wayne.


Editor's note: The author hosted several screenings during the John Wayne Centennial.

Interview with Ethan Wayne and Patrick Wayne

John Wayne Official Web Site
Buck Taylor Web Site
Kim Darby Web Site
Scott Holleran Column Index

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