In the 1920s, the movie business was still a barely-organized circus. Directors and their cameramen would drive up into the foothills of the San Gabriel mountains, or take over an orange orchard for a couple of days, set up their cameras, and (literally) crank out one- and two-reelers. Since talkies had not yet been invented, noise was not a problem, and sometimes one could see one movie being filmed from the set of another. Wyatt Earp, now in his 80s, and other old-timers who had retired to sunny Southern California could spend a fun afternoon standing around just out of camera range, smoking cigars and reminiscing about the real events being fictionalized in front of them. Between takes, Earp would chat with his friends Jack London and Raoul Walsh, the great director. He would tell stories of Wichita and Dodge, maybe even of Tombstone. While waiting on a camera setup, the other stagehands and grips and assistants would stand around listening to the stories and the memories of these veterans.
One of those assistants was a seventeen-year-old assistant property master named Marion Michael Morrison. He listened with fascination to Wyatt’s tales, observed with a keen eye the old man’s demeanor, way of speaking and way of talking. And when Marion Michael Morrison got his own chance to act in a Western, under the name of John Wayne, he adopted that demeanor, that way of speaking, and that way of talking. I like to think that, especially in his early films, when we see John Wayne walk and talk, we are seeing how Wyatt Earp walked and talked. The video below features Wayne’s son, as well as others, talking about how Wayne based his whole on-screen persona on Wyatt Earp; it may be the closest we”ll ever get to seeing and hearing the real Lion of Tombstone, born 169 years ago today.