It’s in the walk.
Picture the following Hollywood stars in your mind’s eye:
Mae West, hands caressing her Rubenesque hips, head tilted, not just sauntering but oozing forward to devour all who cross her path.
Jimmy Cagney, elbows cocked, moving with concentrated energy, he propels himself like a coiled spring.
Joan Crawford, leading with her linebacker shoulders, strides across the screen determined, dangerous, unstoppable.
Henry Fonda, spine rigid, arms glued to his side, plum straight steps—no motion in the hips or shoulders—eyes nailed to the distant horizon, his walk is a combination of cool reserve and righteous indignation.
Bette Davis, nervously wringing her hands—William Wyler once threatened to chain them down—as she paces back and forth in her pathologically unstable world.
Rapid fire mincing steps, hips and shoulders swaying, Marilyn Monroe’s walk is the archetype of the sexually charged woman, and yet simultaneously a little girl who is innocent of her immense power.
And then there is John Wayne.
His walk is, well, odd.
It’s a complex, disorienting, and ultimately elegant forward propulsion: long manly strides, elbows bent—like a boxer locked into position—an almost feminine swooshing of the hips, and a pronounced case of pigeon toe.
Was Duke’s walk his natural gait, or was it part of the John Wayne image, a carefully constructed bit of acting business?
Harry Carey, Jr., in his fascinating memoir, Company of Heroes: My Life as an Actor in the John Ford Stock Company, provides invaluable and deeply private insights into the famous John Wayne walk.
First, Harry Carey, Jr. sketches in some background on John Wayne’s intimate relationship with the great character actor Paul Fix (1901-1983) Carey’s father-in-law:
…Paul Fix had almost as much to do with Duke’s success as a screen actor as did John Ford. Paul Fix literally taught John Wayne what John Wayne knew about acting. He was the man who gave Duke his first insight into forming the mold which was to be his persona. Most people give Uncle Jack [John Ford] the credit for this, but the first man to put the John Wayne image into John Wayne’s head was Paul Fix.
Carey, Jr. discusses the early days, the B westerns, and journeyman actor John Wayne’s stage appearance that turned disastrous:
Paul first worked as an actor with Duke in those early westerns. In those days, Paul had a sort of slinky, haunted look about him, like a man who might steal or lie, so of course he was usually cast as a heavy; not the head honcho, though, the sly henchman. He played a lot of gangsters, along with Sheldon Leonard or Barton MacLane. Paul was very serious about acting, and he wrote many plays. He was always putting them on in the little theaters around Hollywood. He cast Duke in one of them, but Duke was so frightened of live theater that he overdosed on booze and made a total ass out of himself. His wife, Josephine [Alicia Saenz], was so furious she screamed from the audience, “You’re a bum–a drunken bum!” What a night in the theater! Little did they know that they were looking at the man who was to become the biggest movie star of all time.
Harry Carey, Jr. reveals how Paul Fix worked behind the scenes as an acting coach to John Wayne during the most important film of Duke’s career.
Duke used to tell Paul that he felt awkward in front of the camera. He said he didn’t know what to do with his hands; that he didn’t feel natural. Not too many years later, Duke got his big break when John Ford cast him as “The Ringo Kid” in Stagecoach. Duke was overwhelmed by this good news but paralyzed with fear that he wouldn’t be able to carry it off. He went to Paul for help. Without John Ford’s knowledge. Duke went to Paul’s house every night to go over the next day’s work while they were shooting in town.
Private and not so private acting coaches are not unusual in Hollywood. Montgomery Clift was so dependent on his acting coach Mira Rostova, that he put her on salary while shooting some of his most famous films. And much to the chagrin of his directors and co-stars, Clift, after every take, would anxiously look to Rostova for approval or disapproval of his line readings.
And now Carey fills us in on the birth of the legendary John Wayne walk:
Because Duke was kind of heavy-footed and used to trudge more than walk, Paul told Duke to point his toes when he walked, and the “John Wayne walk” was born. Try it yourself. Take a step and point your toe, like you’re stabbing it into the ground–left foot, right foot. Your shoulders automatically move back and forth, and the hips follow, not unlike Marilyn Monroe’s walk. When Duke first did it, it was ballsey as hell. As the Wayne legend began to form, the walk became more pronounced. Rio Bravo or any of the “Rios” are good examples.
Hollywood stardom is a mysterious thing. In the days when the studio system dominated, the moguls consciously searched for the key to a players potential image. And then, once identified, the studio system–at its best, an incredible make-over machine–created, polished and ruthlessly exploited that star’s specific persona.
No wonder L.B. Mayer alternately broke down in rage and tears when he discovered that Andy Hardy/Mickey Rooney ran off in the middle of the night and married the young starlet Ava Gardner. Mayer was terrified that the public would reject the incredibly profitable Andy Rooney series—innocence and apple pie—when they realized that small town, all American Andy/Mickey was actually something of a dog, hooking up with a hot 17-year old actress—not to mention a host of chorus girls, hookers and vulnerable starlets.
With Clark Gable it gradually became clear to the executives at MGM that he was a man’s man, possessed of a humorous glint in his eye that turned women to jelly. For Jean Arthur it was her sandpaper voice and hesitant delivery that conveyed a woman desperate for control, but on the edge of a meltdown. Jean Harlow was perfect as the sexy, vulnerable, wise-cracking tootsie who didn’t take herself too seriously.
But since the demise of the studio system, Hollywood stardom has morphed into an eerie kind of tabloid celebrity. Movie stars no longer have an identifiable movie persona, in fact most work hard at subverting a fixed image. They take pride in grabbing movie roles that go against type. Contemporary actors want to prove that they have range, that they are versatile. Hence, absent a fixed address, the postmodern actor is, with rare exceptions, fated to be excluded from the pantheon of Hollywood immortals.
For John Wayne, after a long Hollywood apprenticeship, his stardom was defined and exquisitely refined as a particular kind of rugged American individual; a man, no matter how conflicted, who recognized the difference between good and evil–and strode across the silver screen like a colossus.