USC football coach Howard Jones couldn’t help but like his foolish young tackle Marion “Duke” Morrison, better known to movie fans as John Wayne. In the fall of 1926, Morrison and his friends went to So-Cal’s Balboa Beach to challenge “The Wedge” and lost. The Duke broke his collarbone and lost his football scholarship.
Coach Jones was friends with silent film cowboy star Tom Mix and often gave him tickets to USC games. At Mix’s urging, western movie director John Ford hired Duke as a prop boy and extra. Another of Mix’s friends, Wild West/O.K. Corral lawman Wyatt Earp, was serving as a consultant on cowboy movies at the time and the lawman and the young Duke became fast friends. John Wayne later credited his walk, talk, and persona to his acquaintance with Wyatt Earp.
Duke established a friendship that would last a lifetime with director John Ford and was soon cast in bit parts in many of Ford’s westerns. The name Duke Morrison appeared for the first, and only, time in the 1929 film “Words and Music.” (One of Duke’s USC teammates, Ward Bond, would go on to a long film career in his own right.)
Between scenes, Director Raoul Walsh saw Duke moving studio furniture while working as a prop boy and cast him in his first starring role in 1930 western “The Big Trail.” The first thing Walsh told Marion Morrison was that he needed to change THAT name. Walsh suggested the name “Anthony Wayne” after Hoosier Revolutionary War General “Mad” Anthony Wayne. Fox Studios chief Winfield Sheehan rejected it as sounding “too Italian.” Walsh then suggested “John Wayne.” Sheehan agreed, and the name was set.
Wayne was not even in the room for the name change that would rule Tinseltown for the next half century. He never completely accepted his new screen name and always preferred to be called “Duke.” Newly christened John Wayne’s pay was raised to $105 a week ($1,500 a week today). Keep in mind, the average median income was $1,970 per year in 1930, the price of a house was $7,500, a car cost $640 and gas was a dime per gallon.
Just as John Wayne played a part in that first Notre Dame-USC rivalry game, his first film, “The Big Trail” was the very first big-budget outdoor spectacle of the sound era. The film was made at a then-staggering cost of over $2 million, using hundreds of extras and wide vistas of the American southwest, still largely unpopulated at the time. The west was so new to Americans that when the grandeur of the scenery first appeared on screen, many in the theatre audiences stood on their seats and cheered. However, the film was considered a huge box office flop at the time.
After the commercial failure of his first film, Wayne was relegated to small roles in A-pictures, including Columbia Pictures’ “The Deceiver” (1931), in which he played a corpse. He played the lead, with his name featured above the title, in many low-budget Poverty Row Westerns, mostly at Monogram Pictures and serials for Mascot Pictures Corporation. Wayne later estimated that he appeared in about 80 of what he called “horse operas” from 1930 to 1939. In the 1933 film, “Riders of Destiny,” Wayne became one of film’s first singing cowboys, although the final version required heavy voice dubbing. Wayne liked to perform his own stunts and perfected his riding, roping and Western skills alongside stuntman Yakima Canutt. The duo’s onscreen fist fight techniques are still in use today.
In 1939 John Wayne broke through as the Ringo Kid in John Ford’s “Stagecoach.” Over the next decade, Duke Wayne’s visual appearance changed significantly as he went from a pretty boy matinee idol to a rugged man’s man on the big screen.
Even though he left school early without making a mark on Howard Jones’s football team, and never graduated (although he was awarded an honorary doctorate), Wayne is by far the most famous of all USC football alumni. He was nominated for an Oscar as Sergeant Stryker in “The Sands of Iwo Jima” in 1949. By the early 1950s, the USC dropout found himself in the curious position as the top box office attraction in the world. Other classic Wayne films include “The Quiet Man” and “The Longest Day.” In 1969 he finally earned a Best Actor Academy Award for his role as Rooster Cogburn in “True Grit.”
John Wayne never forgot his USC roots. He maintained a strong association with USC football for the rest of his life. The Duke often requested that studios cast USC football players as extras in his films. USC Trojan players can be seen in John Wayne movies cast as everything from Roman soldiers to circus roustabouts to cowboys and Indians well into the 1970s, a half century after Duke was booted from the football team. The Hollywood connection was an enormous recruiting advantage for the USC program. Not only could players make much-needed extra money, but they also had the opportunity to meet beautiful actresses. And no inducement is greater for young men than pretty girls.
And that leads us into the last connection between John Wayne, USC football and Hollywood. This one’s an off-color story about Hollywood’s “it girl” Clara Bow of the silent film era. With the Hollywood sex scandals and harassment charges in the news lately, Clara Bow is proof that salacious innuendo is nothing knew in Tinseltown. Clara Bow was the hottest actress of the late 1920s silent film era. Bow was the girl with the “heart-shaped face, an hour-glass figure, and thick auburn hair dyed a flaming orange-red.”
Los Angeles of the 1920s offered little in the way of entertainment outside of movies. College football was the biggest game in town back then, and the USC Trojans’ “Thundering Herd” was a wildly popular crowd favorite. Clara Bow attended her first USC game in 1926 as part of a promotion for one of her films.
Clara was fascinated with the hometown players and soon she began entertaining the USC Trojans and their opponents at her house after every home game. Food and music and dancing were part of the program, but sex (or even alcohol) was not. The reality of these evenings hardly corresponds with the scurrilous rumors spread about them later. However, Clara’s love life adventures did little to quell the orgiastic urban legends that followed.
Off-screen, Clara Bow engaged in affairs (often disguised by the movie studios as on-again, off-again “engagements”) with actors Gilbert Roland and Gary Cooper, director Victor Fleming, a married doctor named Earl Pearson, and “King of Broadway” Harry Richman. These trysts started an old Tinseltown joke that it was easier to find a man in Hollywood who had NOT slept with Clara Bow.
According to Hollywood gossip, Bow had an insatiable sexual appetite. A scandalous tale emerged about Clara’s taking on the entire USC football team, including a young John Wayne, at one of these after-game parties. The story was later printed in Kenneth Anger’s notorious 1959 book “Hollywood Babylon.”
After that, Bow allegedly used Duke Wayne to arrange wild parties at her Hollywood Hills mansion-turned-hotel known as the Garden of Allah on Sunset Blvd. Truth was, the main events at these parties were dancing and early morning swims in the hotel pool, neither of which involved sex. Regardless, these scandalous rumors soon resulted in Clara’s contact with the USC football team being reduced to hosting a wholesome annual dinner for them at her home. Regardless, the wild rumors about Clara Bow’s crazed USC orgies refused to go away. They accused Bow of providing personal “entertainment” for the entire “beer-swilling” Trojan squad. Gossip about Bow’s private life culminated in a slanderous three-week series in the Coast Reporter newspaper in 1931. The articles named her as the mistress of several different men and claimed that she often had sex in public, engaged in threesomes with prostitutes, slept with women when no man was available, and worse.
Bow retired from acting in 1933 and sadly, soon began showing symptoms of psychiatric illness. She attempted suicide in 1944 and was institutionalized in 1949. She was treated for “chronic insomnia and diffuse abdominal pains” with shock treatments and “numerous psychological testing methods.” Bow’s pains were considered delusional and she was diagnosed with schizophrenia. After leaving the institution, Bow lived alone in a bungalow, which she rarely left, until her death in 1965 at the age of 60.
All things considered, Duke Wayne cut a swath across the entertainment industry like very few others. Notre Dame football, while long ago left in the Duke’s rear view mirror, continues to be the gold standard of college football programs. Knute Rockne remains the name most associated with pre-WWII football.
And USC continues to be integral to the film industry today. The USC marching band actually bills itself “Hollywood’s band.” They have appeared in numerous movies and even helped cut a gold record, Fleetwood Mac’s “Tusk” in 1979, the same year that John Wayne died. USC athletes have made a disproportionately large number of careers in the media. And it all started with that first meeting between Knute Rockne’s Fighting Irish and John Wayne’s USC Trojans three weeks before Christmas in 1926.
Al Hunter is the author of the “Haunted Indianapolis” and co-author of the “Haunted Irvington” and “Indiana National Road” book series. His newest books are Bumps in the Night. Stories from the Weekly View, Irvington Haunts: The Tour Guide, and The Mystery of the H.H. Holmes collection. Contact Al directly at Huntvault@aol.com or become a friend on Facebook.