Filmmaker John Ford and actor John Wayne made one of the best film collaborations in Hollywood history. They had a special bond as close friends that lasted for many years. However, Ford refused to even acknowledge Wayne after he made his first box office failure. The actor once tried to figure out the answer to why for years.
The Ford and Wayne pairing originally started back at Fox where they first met. The actor started as a young assistant in the props department at the studio, but Ford acknowledged that he had a look to him that made him stand out. The pair quickly bonded over football, which the actor played in high school into college.
Ford hired Wayne on some of his films, but they weren’t for significant acting roles. He originally started handling props for him before moving to some stuntwork and other minor screenwork. The actor continued to climb up the ladder, finally getting the opportunity to lead his first motion picture. However, Wayne was forced to work on B-Westerns after his contract moved to Columbia, where he experienced the biggest slump in his career.
While still at Fox, Wayne earned the leading role in 1930’s The Big Trail, but Ford wasn’t behind the camera. Raoul Walsh gave him his first role in the expensive epic that ultimately bombed at the box office. It took quite some time for critics and audiences to appreciate the film and what it accomplished.
According to Joseph McBride’s Searching for John Ford, the director “mysteriously froze him [Wayne] out of his life.” Wayne tried to greet the director on the studio lot, but he was met with a cold shoulder. They didn’t speak again for three years, and the “banishment ended just as abruptly as it had begun.”
While visiting Catalina Island, Ford sent his 10-year-old daughter to deliver a note to Wayne that read, “Daddy wants to see you.” However, the actor never truly understood what about The Big Trail made him stop speaking with him.
“To this goddamn day, I don’t know why he didn’t speak to me for years,” Wayne said. However, his biographers, Randy Roberts and James S. Olson tried to give some additional context.
“It was in Ford’s nature not to say and Duke’s not to ask,” Roberts and Olson wrote. “Such matters, sensitive, fragile, perhaps even touching on the deep sadness that seemed so much a part of Ford’s personality, were not discussed. Perhaps Ford, who viewed himself as a mentor and even a surrogate father, resented Duke’s decision to make The Big Trail with Raoul Walsh. perhaps the old man was punishing Duke. Or it could simply have been Ford’s legendary, unpredictable mean streak.”
Wayne had a difficult time in Hollywood until Ford finally found a script that fit the actor like a glove. That movie would be 1939’s Stagecoach. The story follows a group of passengers on a stagecoach headed for Lordsburg, New Mexico. However, the trip becomes increasingly complicated when an escaped outlaw named Ringo Kid (Wayne) joins along. The threat of an Apache attack looms over their trip through the Wild West.
Stagecoach made Wayne a mainstream star in Hollywood. It was exactly the platform that he needed to amplify his career and get him out of B-movies. It was only the start of their collaboration, as they continued to work together over the course of their filmographies.