One of the most enduring figures in American movie history was John Wayne. His movies continue to find an audience on television, especially on classic movie channels, and his films still line the shelves of most video rental stores. Wayne spent most of his formative years in California, where his movie career began in the late 1920's, but he was born in the small town of Winterset, Iowa. VOA's Greg Flakus recently passed through Winterset and visited the house where the actor was born.
John Wayne movies are always playing here at the little four-room house on the corner lot where Marion Morrison was born on May 26, 1907. Marion Morrison went on to take the nick name "Duke" and later became a film actor under the name John Wayne. He made over 150 movies before he died of cancer on June 11, 1979.
The house where he was born is now a museum that draws some 27,000 visitors from all over the world each year. While most people who come here are from older generations, museum guide Ruth Reed says there are also many children who had not even been born when the Duke made his last film a quarter of a century ago.
"You get small children who come in and say, 'Oh, this is where John Wayne walked!' We had a wedding last week out there on the little porch. They said do you know what his favorite candy was? And I said I don't know. They knew and it was Tootsie Rolls and so instead of throwing rice, they threw Tootsie Rolls," she said.
Ruth Reed says many young fans grew up watching videos of John Wayne films with their grandparents. She says these old films are rated for general audiences and are entertaining for old and young alike.
"This is something they can watch," she said. "There is a movie uptown now that they say is probably the closest thing to a Duke movie, it is called "Open Range," with Kevin Costner, but it is rated 'R.'"
Film historian Pat Hanson, who works with archives at the American Film Institute, says part of John Wayne's continuing appeal has to do with the westerns and war movies that made him an all-American icon.
"He is always sort of the American hero. I think that probably still lingers with people," he said. "World War II movies are still popular on video and on TV and so forth and he was in a lot of World War Two movies even after the war ended."
But Ms. Hanson says that alone does not explain how a man who has been dead for 24 years can still be at the top of polls of all-time-most admired person and all-time favorite actor. He ranks 13 in the American Film Institute's Top 100 Favorite Stars of All Time. John Wayne's right-leaning politics offended many liberal-minded people, but even many of them say they enjoy his movies.
Pat Hanson credits this sustained popularity to the often subtle performances Wayne gave of strong, but troubled characters.
"The critics pretty much thought of him as a one-dimensional character, but when you look at the films in retrospect, he was not always a one-dimensional character," he said. "He very often, even though he was a hero, was a flawed character, someone who was not as sure as he seemed he was."
In Winterset everyone seems to feel an almost family closeness with John Wayne, even though the actor had no real bond with the town. John Wayne, or rather little Marion Morrison, moved to California when he was only seven-years-old and never returned to his birthplace in Iowa. But the John Wayne birthplace Museum has become an important landmark for all those who continue to regard him as their hero and their all-time favorite movie star.