Classic Movie Star Museums: A Travel Guide

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Next month marks the grand opening of the John Wayne Birthplace Museum in Winterset, Iowa. During the last 30 years more than one million visitors have reportedly journeyed to Winterset to tour the small house where Wayne was born on May 26, 1907 but now fans of the much beloved movie star will be able to enjoy a brand new 5,000 square facility built alongside Wayne’s original home. The museum features the largest collection of John Wayne memorabilia in existence including original movie posters, film costumes, props, scripts, photos, personal letters, original artwork, sculptures, a customized automobile and a movie theater where visitors can enjoy a documentary about Wayne and watch his films. The grand opening will take place between May 22-24 and includes a ribbon cutting ceremony presented by Scott Eyman (author of John Wayne: The Life and the Legend), a rodeo show and a guest appearance from actor, rodeo competitor and politician Chris Mitchum (Robert Mitchum’s son) who appeared with Wayne in BIG JAKE (1971). Color me impressed! I think it’s encouraging to see small towns like Winterset celebrating their film history. For more information, please visit their official website: John Wayne Birthplace Museum

In light of this news, I started thinking about other smaller museums outside of Hollywood dedicated to preserving the memory of classic movie stars. I follow some of them on Twitter and occasionally try to share information about their fundraising efforts but now that spring’s arrived and many of us are starting to plan summer vacations I thought I’d put together a list of the small hometown museums that have sprung up across the U.S. honoring their local celebrities. It should be of interest to classic film fans who are planning a road trip soon or it just might surprise someone who unknowingly has a museum dedicated to a Hollywood personality in their own backyard.

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Christmas on Celluloid: “Donovan’s Reef”

Donovan's Reef 1963 posterI confess a fondness for Christmas movies that stray from the typical snow-covered farmhouses, nostalgic small-towns, holiday-decorated department stores, and parties overrun with good cheer. While non-traditional Christmas movies rarely achieve classic status, they are interesting for unusual or personal reasons.

I have always had an affection for Donovan’s Reef, partly because I watched it on Saturday Night at the Movies with my father when I was a little girl, and he enjoyed it so much. But, I was also taken with the film’s tropical setting, which made for an exotic backdrop for Christmas. I can’t help but wonder if my obsession with the romance of the tropics began with Donovan’s Reef.

Directed by John Ford in the twilight of his career, Donovan’s Reef takes place on the (fictional) Polynesian island of Haleakaloa, which was saved from the Japanese by three Navy buddies—Dr. William “Doc” Dedham, Michael Patrick “Guns” Donovan, and Thomas Aloysius “Boats” Gilhooley. Based on the names alone, it is easy to tell that this knockabout comedy is going to be all about the boys. Thinking Haleakaloa a paradise, the three sailors can’t get the island out of their minds after the war. Doc returns to found a hospital for the islanders, while Guns establishes a couple of businesses, including a saloon called Donovan’s Reef. Gilhooley jumps ship from time to time to swim ashore to Haleakaloa for the sole purpose of starting a fistfight with Guns on their mutual birthday—apparently something of a tradition. The actual narrative begins when Doc’s adult daughter, Amelia, arrives from Boston to find her long-lost father. Doc attempts to hide his island family from her, because he fears she would not accept that he had married a native woman and fathered three children. Guns steps up and pretends the half-breed children are his. In typical Ford fashion, Amelia and Guns are attracted to each other but can’t get along.

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Wrecked: Wake of the Red Witch (1948)

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In 1948 John Wayne appeared in Fort Apache, Red River, 3 Godfathers and Wake of the Red Witch. After seeing Red River, John Ford was reported to say, “I never knew that big son of a bitch could act.” He wouldn’t have been so surprised if he had seen Wake of the Red Witch first. Playing an alcoholic, obsessive sea captain hell bent on avenging his lost love, Wayne finds pockets of instability in his individualist persona. Compared to his other films that year, it has faded into obscurity, but Wake of the Red Witch held a pull over Wayne throughout his life. He got the name of his production company from the film, and when he was later battling cancer, he referred to the disease as the “Red Witch”. It is a ghostly film about a lost love, a dreamlike and violent potboiler that exhibits the blacker shades of Wayne’s persona.  I was drawn to watch the film (out on Blu-Ray from Olive Films) while reading Scott Eyman’s superb new biography John Wayne: The Life and Legend. His book is invaluable for treating Wayne as an artist rather than an icon or a political symbol, and it illuminates the non-canonical work of his long career, most of which was produced at budget-minded Republic Pictures. It was the studio that kept him in the business after his initial star turn in The Big Trail (1930) was a financial disaster, and he remained loyal until the company started easing out of the film business in 1958. 

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John Wayne – American Adman!

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John Wayne posing for an Air France ad (1961)

One of the world’s most widely beloved movie stars is John Wayne (TCM’s Star of the Month) and throughout his celebrated career, Wayne endorsed a number of notable products and causes. Regular readers may have noticed that I’m fascinated with advertising, particularly the way that Hollywood stars like Wayne have used their likeness to sell us goods and cultivate their public image. As I mentioned last year in a piece I compiled about Barbara Stanwyck, product placements and celebrity endorsements are as old as Hollywood but modern audiences are often unaware of them. When we see Clifton Webb furiously tapping away on a Remington typewriter in Otto Preminger’s LAURA (1944) for example, it’s easy to overlook the fact that it was probably a carefully selected brand tie-in. And while Webb was typing on his Remington, his costar Gene Tierney was using her timeless beauty to sell Royal Crown Cola in an effort to promote herself and her upcoming film, A BELL FOR ADONO (1945).

These tiny details and seemingly useless facts might not mean much to most film viewers but I think the lasting impact of some Hollywood stars can be linked to the ways in which they sold themselves to the public when they weren’t appearing in films. John Wayne is recognized today for the movies he made but he also endured himself to audiences through product endorsements in popular magazines like LIFE and The Saturday Evening Post. In the 1940s and 1950s, Wayne became a friendly and familiar face in film as well as television where he appeared in a number of commercials. What follows are some of my favorite examples of John Wayne – American Adman!

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John Wayne: The Early Years

This is John Wayne month here on TCM and that means a five day marathon of movies, starting this week, starring the Duke.   Seeing as he acted in well over a hundred movies (closer to two hundred, really), it also means that plenty come from early in his career.   Doing my part, I even wrote up two early oaters, The Big Stampede and Somewhere in Sonora.  The fact is, most stars have brief early careers before someone realizes they have the charisma necessary to be a top marquee name.   Marlon Brando, to use an easy example, had one film, The Men, before A Streetcar Named Desire.  Even though he was famous on Broadway at the time of The Men‘s release, it did nothing for his superstardom.  When Streetcar was released, it was a different story.  He became a star, immediately, and his pre-A-List career remains that one, single movie.  An even more extreme example is Katherine Hepburn.  Her very first movie, A Bill of Divorcement, made her a star.  By her third movie, Morning Glory, she was an Oscar winner.  Pre-A-List career: non-existent.   But some actors, like the Duke, have pre-A-list careers that are almost as long, in number of movies made, as their A-list careers.   In Wayne’s case, it made him a better actor.

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What I Didn’t Know About Harry Cohn

harryyoungI recently picked up a used audiotape of the biography of Harry Cohn by Bob Thomas, King Cohn: The Life and Times of Harry Cohn. First published in 1967, the book was revised in 1990 with additional interviews and material; in 2000, it was republished, including an audiotape edition with a forward by Peter Bart. King Cohn is not groundbreaking in structure or shocking in content, but I did learn a great deal about the meanest movie mogul in Hollywood as well as the love of his life, Columbia Pictures.

Most of the Golden Age movie moguls started at the bottom in the movie business and worked their way up to head of production at their studios. While Cohn was no exception, I discovered that his entrance into the film industry was quite unique. He was working as a song plugger for sheet-music publishers when he had a brilliant idea to increase sales. The latest songs were routinely plugged at movie theaters between films by the house orchestras who played them while slides of pretty pictures were shown to the audience. Cohn believed that audiences would respond better to movie footage than slides, so he began to produce footage for theaters to project during the songs.  To maximize the effect, Cohn learned to match the content of the images to the songs’ lyrics. Jack Cohn, Harry’s brother, worked for Universal Pictures at the time, and he showed Cohn’s innovation to studio owner Carl Laemmle. Laemmle was impressed enough to give Harry a job.  Eventually, Harry and Jack left Universal to form their own production company.

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The Eternal Star, Trapped in Time

Quick, how long was Clark Gable’s movie career?  If you said  38 years, lasting from 1923, his first uncredited extra work in Fighting Blood, to the 1961 posthumuous release of The Misfits in 1961, you’d be correct, technically.  For me, his career spanned 1930 to 1939, with Gone with the Wind as his swansong.   Oh, he didn’t actually do anything of note in 1930 and he did a hell of a lot of note after 1939 but when I think of Gable, I think of the thirties.   I identify most actors with a specific decade and, as box office returns would indicate, so do a great many people as actors’ careers tend to have a five to ten year period of total dominance followed by years of ups and downs.

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I’m in a fightin’ mood!

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Oooh, I’m spoiling for a fight today… a real knock-down, dust-up, take-no-prisoners, no-quarter-given, apocalyptic barney. My knuckles are itching to bite into a set of teeth and my teeth are itching to lay into a row of knuckles. I won’t be satisfied until I dissolve in a flurry of biffery, until I drink blood — mine or yours — and if you want to be the one to set me off here’s all you have to do…  [...MORE]

All aboard the Stagecoach!

I missed y’all last week, due to a technical difficulty.  And thanks to that glitch, I missed posting about John Ford’s Stagecoach in advance of last Sunday’s screening on TCM.  Which is a shame, but at the same time Stagecoach is one of those classic movies so towering in its importance that it practically dwarfs all efforts to really appreciate it–here is the film that made John Wayne a star, that proved that Westerns could move from the B-movie ghetto to being major Hollywood fare, and that then established the character types and narrative tropes that would fuel all those subsequent Westerns inspired by it.  That’s a lot to pull off in just 96 minutes.  More to the point, it’s a set of accomplishments defined primarily by what comes later, by what we know about Stagecoach‘s precedent-setting legacy.

In other words, forget that I missed putting it in context when it aired on TV last week–what would it have been like to experience it back in 1939?  That’s almost beyond our reach altogether.  But c’mon, let’s give it a try, shall we?

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The Hawks Report #2: The Gift That Keeps On Giving

He sat in the audience of High Noon, fuming.  He didn’t like the way Gary Cooper slunk through the town unable to muster any allies for his heroic stand against Evil.  He thought it was unmanly.  And after shaking his fist for a while and muttering oaths under his breath, he realized that he wasn’t accomplishing anything just venting his rage at the screen.  So he went to work, to make his own movie, as a deliberate rejection of High Noon.

When it appeared in theaters, Howard Hawks’ Rio Bravo claimed to be based on a short story by “B.H. McCampbell,” which makes it sound impressive.  In fact, “B.H. McCampbell” was Hawks’ daughter Barbara, and her “short story” was just some spitballing about how cool it would be if some gangsters had a bunch of  dynamite in crates and some good guys came along and shot up the crates to make them blow up.  Which is, indeed, very cool.  But that little bit of business aside, writers Jules Furthman and Leigh Brackett were really tasked with making a manlier version of High Noon, with the same character types in the same situation but in which the sheriff doesn’t get all wishy washy and scared and whatnot, but just stoically goes out and kicks some ass.

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