John Wayne died in 1979, but he remains one of America's favorite actors. The family of the late star has restored some of his classic films to introduce him to a new generation of viewers.
John Wayne appeared in some 250 movies, ranging from bit parts in early talking films to leading roles in the Westerns that made him famous. Among the best known are two from director John Ford, the 1939 classic Stagecoach and The Searchers in 1956.
A few years ago, Gretchen Wayne, the late star's daughter-in-law, together with her husband, Michael, visited the storage vault where the actor's films were kept. The couple was horrified to see that one film had been nearly destroyed. Called The High and the Mighty, it was a 1954 drama about a passenger plane in trouble over the Pacific.
She recalls that water had leaked into the film vault. "And The High and the Mighty was sitting in its film case all rusted and the film case was full of water. And it was just wet. So the only way to deal with it, they put it in a bucket of water and carried it out," she says.
They took the film to a restoration house, where it was dried and partially restored. After Michael Wayne's death two years ago at the age of 68, Gretchen went ahead with the restoration. Some badly damaged sections were reconstituted from early production reels. The next step was improving the sound, which was done at an audio studio. "And they took out the hisses and the pops and the whistles, so it sounds magnificent. It's just really a thrill. You feel the music and you hear it. I'm excited about it," she says.
The restored film will be available on DVD next month.
Another of the actor's films, another airborne drama, will also be released on DVD next month. Called Island in the Sky, the 1953 film is set after the Second World War, when pilots flew transport missions into uncharted regions of the sub-Arctic.
John Wayne: "Wheels down and half flap."
Crewman: "Are you going to land this thing with the wheels down"
John Wayne: "Yes, we're going to walk away from this thing yet. Hold your hats."
"They have an incident where one of them goes down, and that's the character that Michael's dad plays, Dooley is his name, and the cry goes out "Dooley's down." And all of his band of brothers of pilots get together to search for him, and that's the story," says Gretchen Wayne.
Ground Controller: "Have you heard about Dooley?"
Pilots: "I can guess. He got himself transferred to the nice warm Pacific."/
Controller: "He's down, Studsey.
Pilot: "Repeat that."
Controller: "Dooley's down."
Restored versions of two other John Wayne films, the Westerns Hondo and McLintock, are being prepared for future release.
Other pictures being readied for the DVD series were produced by John Wayne's Batjac Productions, although other actors starred in them. The films include the thriller Man in the Vault with Anita Ekberg, the Glenn Ford mystery Plunder of the Sun, the crime drama Ring of Fear, the Randolph Scott Western Seven Men from Now, and the Robert Mitchum tale Track of the Cat.
Gretchen Wayne says, however, her favorites are the films that star her late father-in-law, who remains popular 26 years after his death. She says he brought to the screen an honesty that viewers can relate to. "My husband used to say, the only difference from script to script and from reality was the wardrobe. The man you saw on screen was pretty much the man you sat across from at the dinner table. There was a sense of reality about him. You weren't conscious of the fact that he was an actor," she says.
John Wayne spoke sparingly in movies, but when he spoke, people listened. One reviewer wrote, he projected strength and confidence playing bigger-than-life characters, often portraying a leader and a fighter for just causes.
The restored John Wayne films Island in the Sky and The High and the Mighty will get special airings on the American Movie Classics cable channel July 16 and 17, and be released on DVD August 2.