John Wayne's Attempt To Break Out Of Westerns Led To One Of The Lowest Points In His Career

In the early days of the classical Hollywood era, the demand for new movies was so great that studios created low-budget production wings (known as B-units) to cheaply meet the demand for content. Smaller studios — known as Poverty Row — filled the remaining gap with quickly produced cheap movies. The practice resulted in what's best known as the low-budget B-movie.

Filmmakers like Martin Scorsese, James Cameron, and Ron Howard all have humble beginnings in B-movies, as do actors like Robert De Niro, Sandra Bullock, and Jack Nicholson. Legendary Western icon John Wayne is no different.

The Duke spent a decade toiling away on Poverty Row before becoming a bonafide leading man in John Ford's 1939 Western "Stagecoach." It was during these B-movie days that Wayne became synonymous with Westerns, but he wanted more.

Wayne took a big gamble to break away from the genre. It was a move that almost cost The Duke his career.

'I lost my stature as a Western star. I got nothing in return.'

Throughout the 1930s, John Wayne starred in more than two dozen Westerns, many for the Poverty Row studio Republic Pictures. By the mid-30s, Wayne was primed for a breakout but was also at a crossroads in his career.

The actor was eager to make a break from Poverty Row and Westerns, and he thought he found a way to do that through former Republic Pictures producer, Trem Carr. In "Shooting Star: A Biography of John Wayne," author Maurice Zolotow explained how Carr's promotion to executive producer at Universal Pictures coaxed The Duke from Republic. He wrote:

"[Carr] invited Duke to rise to better things. He promised to take John Wayne out of Levi's; he could unstrap his holster forever. He would never have to mount another horse unless he wanted to go riding in Griffith Park. Trem Carr always believed that Wayne was a distinguished movie actor of potential greatness. Wayne heard the siren song. Between April 1936, and May 1937, Wayne performed in six Trem Carr productions for Universal."

But the gamble following Carr to Universal almost cost the actor his career. "I lost my stature as a Western star," Wayne said. "I got nothing in return."

With a rising star like Wayne primed for a breakout, it begs the question: What went wrong with his attempted break from Westerns?

He was still stuck making B-movies

It's likely Trem Carr neglected to tell John Wayne that he would be starring in low-budget movies for Universal, just like his films at Republic. Nevertheless, Wayne achieved his goal of branching out from Westerns, playing meatier roles like a coast guard commander ("The Sea Spoilers"), a Pacific pearl diver ("Adventure's End"), and a wartime news photographer ("I Cover the War!"). However, those same films were critically panned and bombed at the box office.

Wayne believed the issue had less to do with him branching out from the Western genre and more to do with the studio. "I made a big mistake. Not because they weren't Westerns, but because they were cheap pictures," Wayne said. "Trem Carr was trying to make them on a budget of about $75,000. He was cutting costs and production values as if he were still making Republic cheapies."

Universal's attempt to pit low-budget movies with a rising star against big productions from 20th Century Fox, Paramount Pictures, and Warner Bros. failed. The damage was almost irreparable. Wayne explained:

"In six months exhibitors wouldn't touch a John Wayne [movie] with a 10-foot pole. I said adios to Trem Carr and I tried freelancing and about the best I could get was a [B-movie] at Paramount, a cattle drive, trek type of picture, terrible. Almost as bad as those Trem Carr specials."

The fiasco painted a rare picture of John Wayne, defeated and desperate for work in Hollywood. Then John Ford rode in to save the day.

'I just had to come crawlin' back'

The string of box office failures made it hard for John Wayne to find work in Hollywood. It was one of the lowest points of his career.

"Finally I just had to come crawlin' back to [Republic Pictures president] Herbert Yates and beg for mercy," Wayne recalled. "I didn't want to make these cheapies for Republic, but seemed like there was nothin' else to do."

Wayne was hoping to play his idol, Sam Houston, in the upcoming large-budget production "Man of Conquest." Republic told the actor he wasn't big enough of a box office draw for the role (it went to Richard Dix). It left Wayne feeling pigeonholed. Zolotow wrote:

"Duke felt he was condemned to be just a 'cheapie' actor in 'cheapie' B's. [...] He made eight 'Mesquiteers' for Republic. They were the dreariest films he made in this decade. Shot in five days, they looked as if they had been made in one morning. They were slapped together with absurd dialogue and a paucity of action stunts."

Director John Ford, who advised Wayne against signing long-term with Republic, fought for the actor to star in his upcoming Western "Stagecoach." The film revitalized Wayne's career and is considered one of the most influential Westerns of all time. Not bad for a defeated hero who had to "come crawlin' back" to the business.