John Wayne and John Ford collaborated on my classic Westerns but the one that made Duke a star was 1939’s Stagecoach.
The 1880-set story followed a group of strangers riding through dangerous Apache territory, in a movie Orson Welles believed to be textbook filmmaking.
In fact, he watched it over 40 times in preparation for making “the greatest movie of all time” Citizen Kane.
Stagecoach also had Wayne wearing his trademark hat that he sported in many of his Westerns, until retiring it two decades later after filming Rio Bravo – simply because it was “falling apart”.
The 1939 film was a real turning point in Duke’s career as director Ford finally decided to cast in him one of his movies as Ringo Kid. After being offered the part, Wayne felt he had been “hit in the belly with a baseball bat” and was fearful the filmmaker would change his mind and cast Lloyd Nolan instead.
Yet he kept his word with Ford having to lobby producer Walter Wanger hard since he kept turning Wayne down for being a B-movie actor, wanting Gary Cooper to star instead. In the end, he gave in since the director refused to make the movie otherwise. Nevertheless, this didn’t stop Ford from treating Duke and his co-stars appallingly on the set of what would be his first Western of the sound era.
The filmmaker was notorious for bullying his actors, partly because he wanted to get a better performance out of them. On the set of Stagecoach, he attacked Buck actor Andy Devine in a furious outburst, saying: “You big tub of lard! I don’t know why the hell I’m using you in this picture!” Yet the star replied: “Because Ward Bond can’t drive six horses.”
Ford also had a go at Doc Boone actor Thomas Mitchell, who retorted with a biting comeback about a recent flop of his: “Just remember: I saw Mary of Scotland!” However, the very worst was Ford’s treatment of Wayne, who he’d call “a big oaf and “dumb “b***ard.”
Ford would constantly criticise Wayne’s delivery of lines, his manner of walking and even how he washed his face on film. Dallas star Claire Trevor claims that at one point the director grabbed Duke by his chin and shook him saying: “Why are you moving your mouth so much? Don’t you know you don’t act with your mouth in pictures? You act with your eyes.”
The filmmaker’s terrible treatment of actors to get better performances out of them continued for the rest of his career, with some stars even walking off-set. Yet Wayne continued to tolerate it mainly because he knew in his heart of hearts that Ford had made him a star with Stagecoach.