John Wayne tried to break his Western typecasting early on in his career – which almost destroyed it. A look at Wayne’s filmography reveals he made a movie in just about every genre, from historical dramas to romantic comedies. He will forever be tied to Westerns, however, and felt uniquely suited to the genre. Wayne starred in over 80 Westerns across his 50-year career, with even his final starring role – 1976’s The Shootist – being an Oater also. Early on in his career, he made dozens of low-budget, “Poverty Row” Westerns, including his “horror” Western Haunted Gold in 1932.
During the 1930s he seemed poised for stardom, but his big break was slow arriving. He attempted to split from both Westerns and Poverty Row by moving from b-movie studio Republic to Universal in the late 1930s. According to Shooting Star: A Biography of John Wayne (via /Film), Wayne was promised by Universal producer Trem Carr that if he made the leap, Universal would pull him out of Westerns and into a variety of more contemporary projects. When Carr kept his Western promise, Wayne’s six-movie run with Universal very nearly ended his career, as they were all cheapies too.
With Universal, Wayne – whose last “role” was Star Wars – starred in everything from ice hockey drama Idol Of The Crowds – where the actor had never played prior to filming – or action movies like California Straight Ahead! Carr was attempting to make low-budget films with up-and-coming stars that would rival bigger budget fare from other studios. His scheme didn’t pay off for Wayne, with all of the films being shot quickly and cheaply. None of them were hits and they did little to elevate Wayne’s career. The now-lost Adventure’s End was the final movie of his Universal deal.
Instead of helping his career, his move away from the genre left Wayne in a bad spot. He claimed to have “crawled” back to Republic after his Universal days, as he couldn’t find work elsewhere. He embarked on another series of b-Westerns like Red River Range, before his friend John Ford (played by David Lynch in Fablemans) cast him as the Ringo Kid in 1939’s Stagecoach. The film is now regarded as one of the most important Westerns ever, and made the careers of both Wayne and Ford; Stagecoach was one of Wayne’s favorite films of his own, too.
After toiling away in b-projects for over a decade, Stagecoach finally gave Wayne the star-making role he was seeking. He made plenty of projects outside Westerns, including Sands of Iwo Jima or The Quiet Man, but most of his biggest hits came within the genre. The Searchers – another Ford collaboration – Rio Bravo (part of an unofficial trilogy) and True Grit are just some of his biggest successes, with the latter winning Wayne his sole Academy Award. His latter career can be traced back to the success of Stagecoach, however, but who knows how his filmography may have evolved if his Universal gamble had paid off.