Tag Archives: john wayne

I Predict He’ll Be a Big Star

(Here’s another offering from my favorite guest blogger, my wife and soulmate Kimi.)

During 635 episodes spanning 20 years, television viewers invited James Arness and the rest of the cast of the long-running Western Gunsmoke into their homes.

The 6’7” Arness was born James Aurness in May of 1923 (he would later drop the “u” at the recommendation of one of his first directors.) As a boy, he had no interest in performing, and dreamed instead of going to sea. He was drafted in 1943 and shipped out to Casablanca. He was later discharged because of a severe leg injury he received from German machine-gun fire.

While recuperating, his brother Peter Graves (of Mission Impossible and Airplane fame) convinced him to explore a career in radio. Arness proved fairly successful at the medium, and appeared headed for a career in broadcasting when he accompanied a friend to Hollywood in the hopes of finding film extra roles.

After a stint as a beach bum in San Onofre, he was cast in a play at the Pasadena Playhouse, where he met and married his first wife, Virginia Chapman. With her encouragement, Arness began finding roles, often cast as villainous character due to his size.

It was while playing in one of these roles that he was spotted by agent Charles Feldman, who also represented John Wayne. Feldman introduced Arness to Wayne, who immediately put him under personal contract.

It was during this time that the role of Marshal Matt Dillon in Gunsmoke was offered to Wayne. Duke turned down the role and recommended Arness for the part. (Some say Wayne was never actually offered the role, but in a 2006 interview with James Arness by Leon Worden of SCVTV in Santa Clarita, Arness himself implies that Wayne did in fact turn down the role before recommending him.) 

At first Arness feared the role would adversely affect his film career, but Wayne proved persuasive. He even filmed a teaser at the start of the first episode to help introduce America to the man who would become a generation’s role model and friend.

Good evening. My name’s Wayne. Some of you may have seen me before. I hope so. I’ve been kicking around Hollywood a long time. I’ve made a lot of pictures out here. All kinds. Some of them have been Westerns and that’s what I’m here to tell you about tonight. A Western. A new television show called "Gunsmoke." When I first heard about the show "Gunsmoke," I knew there was only one man to play in it. James Arness. He’s a young fellow, and maybe new to some of you. But I’ve worked with him and I predict he’ll be a big star. And now I’m proud to present "Gunsmoke."

Duke certainly knew what he was talking about.

The Wrath of (Genghis) Khan

Dying is bad enough, but death by bad cinema is truly tragic.

On January 27, 1951, sixty years ago today, the United States government detonated its first atomic bomb in the new Nevada Proving Grounds, an hour’s drive north of Las Vegas. The blast was reportedly seen as far away as San Francisco.

Hundreds of above-ground nuclear tests followed at the site over the next several years, many with U.S. Army personnel stationed near the blasts to test the effects of radiation on ground troops.

The tests had another group of unwitting human guinea pigs in 1953: the cast and crew of the big-budget disaster, The Conqueror.

This ill-fated production starred John Wayne in the role of Genghis Khan – one of the worst casting mishaps in history – and was filmed over thirteen grueling weeks near St. George, Utah, just downwind from the test site. After the filming in Utah concluded, producer Howard Hughes compounded the problem by bringing sixty tons of irradiated soil back to Hollywood to dress up the sets during retakes.

Everyone on the production knew about the atomic tests, but had been reassured by the government that the bombs were safe.

Governmental guarantees didn’t prevent the cancer deaths of director Dick Powell, as well as nearly the entire starring cast, including Wayne, Susan Hayward, Agnes Moorehead, and John Hoyt. Pedro Armendariz, another star of the film, committed suicide a few years when he developed terminal kidney cancer.

While it was not surprising that lung cancer claimed the lives of John Wayne and Agnes Moorehead, two of the biggest smokers in Hollywood, what is statistically significant is that within 25 years of the film’s release, 91 of the 220 cast and crew members on the set developed some form of cancer – a rate three-times the national average – and 46 had died of the disease.

About the only thing worse than these figures is the film itself.

The Conqueror, which attempts to turn one of the greatest murderers in human history into a sympathetic character, is quite simply one of the worst movies ever made.

Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role

In case you haven’t heard, the Academy Award nominations were announced this morning with The King’s Speech leading the nods with 12.

While looking over the nominees in the category of Best Actor, I noticed something interesting.

Should Jeff Bridges win for his portrayal of Rooster Cogburn in True Grit, a role that won the Oscar for John Wayne in 1969, it would be the first time in history the same role would produce two Best Actor winners. (The role of Vito Corleone did win Oscars for two men, Marlon Brando and Robert De Niro, but only Brando’s award was for Best Actor. De Niro’s came in the Best Supporting Actor category.)

Interestingly, two men were denied accomplishing this same feat by Wayne’s win in 1969. That year, Peter O’Toole was nominated for playing Arthur Chipping in Goodbye, Mr. Chips, a role that won Robert Donat the Oscar in 1939. Richard Burton was nominated for his portrayal of Henry VIII that same year, which had previously won the statuette for Charles Laughton in 1933.

A win would also make Bridges only the third man (along with Spencer Tracy and Tom Hanks) to win the award in consecutive years, following his Oscar winning performance in Crazy Heart last year.

Of course, the other nominees this year – Javier Bardem, Jesse Eisenberg, Colin Firth, and James Franco – will be hoping to create some history of their own. None perhaps more than Firth, who was also nominated last year for A Single Man, but lost to Bridges.

The award in the category goes to the best screen actor of the year, not the best person of the year.

This proved lucky for Emil Jannings, the first man to win the award in 1928. The heavily-accented Jannings failed to make the transition to talkies and returned to his native Germany where he became a major supporter of Hitler and the Nazis. When the Allies entered Germany, Jannings reportedly carried his Oscar everywhere to curry favor with the invading troops.

Another interesting piece of Oscar trivia is that Robert Downey, Jr. is the only man to be nominated in the Best Actor category for playing a man who was once nominated for a Best Actor Oscar himself. This happened in 1992’s Chaplin, when Downey was honored for his portrayal of Charlie Chaplin, who was nominated for a Best Actor award in 1940 for The Great Dictator. (We will be showing Chaplin as the kick-off to ChaplinFest on Friday, February 4 in Newhall.)

Should Bridges win for True Grit, it may help to remove some of the stigma attached to John Wayne’s Oscar, which was thought by many  to have been awarded to honor Wayne’s entire body of work, rather than his actual performance in the film.

Black and White and Red All Over

Southern California is blessed with spots where the storied events of the Old West actually took place, and where those same events were later portrayed to the outside world in old black-and-white Western films. We recently visited one of these places in the Mojave Desert called Red Rock Canyon.

Red Rock Canyon is a 27,000 acre state park situated at the southern tip of the Sierra Nevada Range. It lies halfway between the towns of Mojave and Ridgecrest, 120 miles north of Los Angeles on California 14.

Watch out for the camels. They spit!

Destructive, yet beautiful, forces of nature created Red Rock Canyon. Tectonic tears caused by the nearby Garlock Fault raised what was once a lake hundreds of feet into the sky, revealing the sedimentary layers beneath. Some of these layers contain high contents of iron which rusted in the open air, giving the rocks its dark red color. Wind and rain have gouged the layers into stone curtains cascading down in accordion-like folds.

The canyons of Red Rock have seen their share of folks pass by, starting with the Kawaiisu Indians, who had a trade route through the area. During the nineteenth century, prospectors, twenty-mule teams, and even a party of lost Death Valley survivors creeped through the canyons.

"Tombstone Canyon" (1932)

With the majestic otherworldly vistas of the area, it was inevitable that Hollywood filmmakers would eventually find the place. According to Richard J. Schmidt of redrockcanyonmovies.com, the first film made here was Wild Horse Canyon in 1925. Since then, over 130 movies, television episodes, commercials, and music videos have been shot here. Many of Hollywood’s biggest Western stars have worked in the canyons, including John Wayne, Hopalong Cassidy, Gene Autry, Gabby Hayes, and Gary Cooper. The area has appeared in classic horror and science fiction films as well, like Boris Karloff’s The Mummy, and Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park.

Despite all of these attempts to capture the beauty of Red Rock Canyon on film, pictures just don’t do the place justice. You have to see if for yourself.

The same site today.

Stars & Spectres: The Santa Maria Inn

The Santa Maria Inn, where lots of famous guests have stayed ... and some have never left.

Back in the 1920s, when El Camino Real was the main thoroughfare between Hollywood and William Randolph Hearst’s castle, the Santa Maria Inn was a popular stopping-off spot for Hollywood’s glitterati making the trek.

The Inn, in the city of Santa Maria, was originally constructed as a 24-room English-style hotel in 1917. Later additions brought it to its current total of 166 rooms.

The hotel proudly publishes an impressive list of past guests which contains over 100 names, including President Herbert Hoover, Charlie Chaplin, Mary Pickford, Cary Grant, Clark Gable, Jean Harlow, Carole Lombard, Bette Davis, Jimmy Stewart, and Shirley Temple. Cecil B. DeMille stayed here while filming his epic silent film The Ten Commandments nearby in 1923.

But the one famous guest who is said to have liked the accommodations so much that he never bothered checking out, is Rudolph Valentino.

Room 221, with former (and current?) guest Rudolph Valentino's star on the door.

Valentino, who died suddenly in August 1926 from a ruptured appendix, once stayed in Room 221, and if the reports made by several guests since that time are to be believed – he never left. He is said to enjoy reclining on the bed and knocking on the walls.

If true, it makes Valentino a very well-traveled spectre, since he has regularly been spotted making personal appearances at former homes in Benedict Canyon and Oxnard, and occasionally at Stage 5 and the Costume Department of Paramount Studios.

Room 221 seems to be a gathering place for otherworldly presences. A former sea captain and his mistress have supposedly taken up residence there as well. The woman, who was reported to be  murdered, has been seen floating at the foot of the bed. Once, a housekeeper who was making the bed in the room got so frightened by an icy touch to her shoulder that she fled the premises never to return.

Guests in other rooms have also encountered “bumps in the night.” One man missed being struck by a light bulb that flew out of a socket. Another woke to discover a ghostly party of guests in 1800’s clothing gathered at the foot of her bed.

The staff at the Inn tell tales of clocks wildly spinning, furniture mysteriously stacked up in closed rooms, doors on ovens spontaneously slamming, and a piano (not a player piano) that comes to life behind locked doors when no one is around. One housekeeper was seen being followed by a mysterious balloon all around the second floor.

I’m not sure if the Santa Maria Inn is truly haunted, or if ghosts even exist. In matters of the afterlife, my mind is reinforced by a strong sense of skepticism.

But that doesn’t stop me from being curious. Who knows? Maybe on my next trip up the coast I’ll get the nerve to spend the night in Room 221.  I’ve always wanted to meet Valentino.