John Wayne Held One Writer In Higher Regard Than Any Other

By the end of the 1940s, John Wayne was one of the biggest stars in Hollywood, and could thus afford to be picky about his collaborators. He had a rotating company of actors and a number of preferred directors, but from 1947 onward there was one screenwriter he valued above all others.

If you're not a Wayne devotee, you're probably unfamiliar with the work of James Edward Grant. He was an Irish-American writer who, early in his career, rose quickly through the ranks of Chicago journalists during the 1920s. At the age of 21, he was covering the Windy City's ultra-violent organized crime scene via a column titled "It's a Racket." He fired off essays and stories for top publications like The Saturday Evening Post, but wasn't above churning out pulp yarns for low-aiming magazines like Detective Fiction Weekly. Grant fit the cliche of the prolific newspaperman to a T; he was a hard-drinking, chain-smoking character who lived to tell stories.

Grant's distinctive voice and prolific nature caught the eye of Hollywood, where Grant proved highly employable. He earned his first major credit in 1935 when director Sam Wood turned his story "Whipsaw" into a film starring Spencer Tracy and Myrna Loy. After that, he worked steadily, knocking out multiple scripts a year for largely forgettable programmers until he hooked up with Wayne for 1947's "Angel and the Badman."

Capturing the voice of The Duke

The Western about a badly wounded gunman who's nursed back to health by a young Quaker woman struck The Duke as original and morally in line with his beliefs – which, given its anti-violent message, points up what a contradictory man Wayne could be. Edwards immediately became not only Wayne's most trusted writer but a dear friend. They shared a conservative worldview, and a fondness for booze and cigarettes. Edwards wrote many scripts for Wayne, and punched up the star's dialogue for films that didn't originate with him. When they weren't making movies, they vacationed together. They were kindred, cantankerous spirits.

In Scott Eyman's "John Wayne: The Life and Legend," The Duke's son, Patrick, noted, "In my dad's opinion, Jimmy was the best writer for him. My dad could just say his dialogue." Eyman hits on what made Edwards so compatible professionally with Wayne:

"The essence of the emerging Wayne character was strength and a knowledge of the way the world works, communicated in as few words as possible. The trick was to do it without overasserting the actor's natural dominance. Grant fit right in with Wayne's core group, as he was cut from the same cloth: hard-drinking, conservative, pugnacious, and – mostly – Irish."

A partnership that became a friendship

Edwards remained in Wayne's corner until he died of lung cancer in 1966. He wrote some of Wayne's most memorable movies (e.g. "Sands of Iwo Jima," "Flying Leathernecks" and "Hondo"), though, interestingly, he earned his only Oscar nomination for writing the Glenn Ford-Shirley MacLaine vehicle "The Sheepmen."

While none of the Wayne-Edwards films I've seen rise to the level of "classic," they tend to be hugely enjoyable showcases for The Duke's swaggering, take-charge nature. The Wayne of legend, the weathered old cowboy who could out-draw and out-punch the nastiest of villains, took shape to a significant degree under Edward's aegis – and according to the screenwriter's son, Colin, it was all a labor of love. "After my dad died, Duke said my old man was the best friend he ever had."