There seems to be a number of John Wayne fans coming up with further suggestions for the article I wrote recently about John Wayne’s leading ladies. So due to popular demand, I’ve decided to revisit the subject once more to include the actresses that didn’t make it onto that first list.
John Wayne’s Leading Ladies (9 more)
- Sophia Loren – Legend of the Lost
- Capucine – North to Alaska
- Joan O’Brien – The Alamo / The Comancheros
- Susan Hayward – Reap the Wild Wind / The Fighting Seabees / The Conqueror
- Lauren Bacall – Blood Alley / The Shootist
- Claudia Cardinale – Circus World (aka The Magnificent Showman)
- Ann Margret – The Train Robbers
- Katharine Hepburn – Rooster Cogburn
- Dorothy Jordan – The Searchers
I’m going to open up the list to include some of the ladies who starred opposite Duke in his non-Westerns – but to be honest even JW’s non-Westerns are almost Westerns anyway. The actresses are also not listed in order of preference either, although I have left my favourite until last.
Sophia Loren – Legend of the Lost
I can’t remember the last time I watched Legend of the Lost in which Miss Loren pouts and sways across the desert as prostitute Dita, in thrall to JW as Joe January – what a great name.
I think the film itself is a metaphor for the arid box-office years Duke enjoyed – or not as the case might be – in between The Searchers (1956) and Rio Bravo (1959). Either way, I get the feeling the film is a bit of a Henry Hathaway misfire seeing as not too many people seem to champion it that much.
La Loren looks wonderful of course, and if I’m correct I think this is her first major Hollywood film, after which she went on to star opposite the likes of Alan Ladd, Cary Grant and William Holden.
Personally, I think she’s at her most beautiful in the early 1960s in El Cid, opposite Charlton Heston. When she’s onscreen you literally can’t take your eyes off her.
There’s a documentary running on Netflix called Conversations with Gregory Peck, which follows the actor on a speaking tour he did back in the late 1990s. During a Q&A session, he’s asked if Sophia Loren, who starred opposite him in Arabesque (1966) was actually naked in a scene in which Peck had to hide in the shower with her.
Peck hesitates for a moment, then says ‘How shall I put it? Well, it was pretty spectacular, I’ll tell you that’. I think that just about sums the lady up, don’t you?
Capucine – North to Alaska
I’m not a great fan of North to Alaska. Duke and broad comedy don’t mix that well for me but the film appears to have a number of ardent admirers so who am I to argue? I’m guessing part of the attraction of the film is the presence of the lovely French actress Capucine, who plays a character called Angel.
Whilst not inured to the charms of the lady myself I just get the feeling watching Miss Capucine – is that the form for referencing a woman with only one name? – that her heart wasn’t exactly in the role itself.
According to a couple of trivia notes on IMDB, there’s a scene in which Capucine is required to laugh. In order to get her to react accordingly, someone off-camera tickled her feet. Also, the director originally slated for the film, Richard Fleischer, didn’t think she was convincing enough as a prostitute.
Unfortunately for him, Miss Capucine was romantically involved with the producer of North to Alaska, so Fleischer got the boot instead.
Strangely enough, her deadpan mode of acting worked very well for her when she played the wife of Peter Sellers in the first Inspector Clouseau movie, The Pink Panther, a role she returned to twice in the later sequels.
I note that she also appeared in the Woody Allan scripted What’s New Pussycat, so maybe comedy was her real forte after all. It turns out her real name was actually Germaine Hélène Irène Lefebvre. Sadly she took her own life at the age of 57 in 1990 after suffering from depression and illness.
Joan O’Brien – The Alamo / The Comancheros
This lady obviously wasn’t Wayne’s love interest in The Alamo but she played a significant part in the movie as the wife of Captain Dickinson, played by Ken Curtis.
Her real-life counterpart, Susanna Dickinson, was indeed one of the only survivors of the battle, so it’s good that at least some historically accurate facts made their way into the James Edward Grant script – I’m assuming most of you know, for example, that the battle actually took place at around 3:30 in the morning, as depicted in the 2004 remake.
O’Brien went on to play Duke’s love interest in The Comancheros the following year, but I think I’m right in saying that it wasn’t exactly a full-blown overwhelmingly romantic role for her and if I’m correct she only actually appeared in a couple of scenes with Wayne.
I do remember though that Wayne’s daughter, Aissa, again played O’Brien’s daughter, as she did in The Alamo. In fact, a quick look at the cast indicates that The Comancheros was almost a mini-reunion for a number of people involved in The Alamo, featuring the likes of Patrick Wayne, John Dierkes, ‘Big Boy’ Williams and Cliff Lyons.
Of course, the real leading lady in The Comancheros is Ina Balin, but she plays Stuart Whitman’s love interest so, even though a highly attractive young lady in her own right, she doesn’t qualify as Duke’s squeeze in this one.
I am glad to confirm that, as of this moment of writing, Joan O’Brien is still alive and kicking at the grand old age of 80, so it isn’t all bad news for some of Duke’s onscreen female partners.
Susan Hayward – Reap the Wild Wind / The Fighting Seabees / The Conqueror
I must check out Reap the Wild Wind again sometime soon as I wasn’t aware Susan Hayward was in the film, although she’s about six places down on the cast list so I’m guessing it’s not a substantial role.
The main female lead in the film belongs of course to Paulette Goddard, but she’s Ray Milland’s gal so doesn’t count as a romantic John Wayne movie lead.
A couple of years later Hayward played opposite JW in The Fighting Seabees, as a newspaper reporter. Although some of the posters and other promotional materials indicate that she’s Duke’s love interest, it appears as though her character isn’t that interested in Wayne at all. It’s the blindingly boring Naval officer Dennis O’Keefe that she has the hots for, which works out well for everyone when Duke cops it in the climactic battle with the Japanese.
I guess we had to talk about The Conqueror at some point in time even though I’ve been avoiding it like the plague since I started writing about John Wayne earlier this year.
What can I say that hasn’t been said already? It may be the worst movie John Wayne ever made but even the worst film has something to redeem it, and the presence of luscious-looking Miss Hayward goes quite a long way in compensating for the shortcomings of this misfired enterprise.
As Duke himself says in the film, ‘I feel this Tartar woman is for me, and my blood says, take her’. I guess I’d feel the same way if I were in Duke’s fur-lined boots but, honestly, what was he thinking when he took this role on? The least he could have done was to lose that moustache. He looks like an unemployed Spanish waiter.
I won’t go into the sad history of the fate of numerous members of the cast and crew, including Duke and Susan Hayward, most of whom it is suspected died prematurely due to the film being shot in the Utah desert near where above-ground nuclear weapons had been tested a few years before.
Suffice to say that, for various reasons, The Conqueror isn’t exactly the most loved of John Wayne’s films. Too sad for words, in more ways than one.
Lauren Bacall – Blood Alley / The Shootist
To be honest I don’t detect any real chemistry between Wayne and Bacall in Blood Alley but the actress was in her prime in the mid-1950s and still happily married to Bogie so on that basis she deserves a mention.
Wayne is in full commie-baiting mode as the captain of a steamer attempting to sneak a group of villagers out of communist-ruled China. On the way he falls in love with medical missionary Bacall.
I vaguely remember Andrew McLaglen telling me that the story about Robert Mitchum being replaced on the film by Wayne for being tired and emotional is not actually true, but either way, Duke, who produced the film as well, ended up with the leading role.
Unfortunately, this was another one of those box-office clunkers that Duke managed to get involved in during the 1950s, along with other titles such as The Barbarian and the Geisha and Big Jim McLain. As I’ve said more than once, comedy and Wayne don’t mix – add to that politics and Wayne in film as well.
Although Bacall doesn’t get to play Wayne’s love interest in The Shootist, she brings a quiet dignity to her role as a widowed mother attempting to keep her son, enthralled by being in the company of a renowned gunslinger, on the straight and narrow.
The film critic Roger Ebert notes that when you witness the scenes between Wayne and Bacall they’re so authentic that ‘you forget you’re watching a movie’.
I agree wholeheartedly. Bacall’s role in The Shootist has been underrated for too long, so time to put that right.
Claudia Cardinale – Circus World (aka The Magnificent Showman)
I know, I know. Duke’s leading lady in Circus World is obviously Rita Hayworth, but I saw this film when it first came out back in 1964 and Miss Cardinale, with all due respect to Rita, was most definitely my preferred object of burgeoning teenage lust.
Cardinale plays the daughter of Hayworth and Wayne, and the lucky recipient of Claudia’s attention in this not-so-good Henry Hathaway directed film is the actor John Smith, his fairly commonplace name matching his nondescript performance.
Italian actress Claudia on the other hand is a delight to watch on screen, mainly because, to my 12 year-old eyes she seemed to wander through the film as a scantily clad trapeze artist wearing a costume that might almost accidentally fall off at any given moment.
Already famous due to her appearances in Italian cinema classics such as 8½ and The Leopard, Claudia went on to parade her obvious charms in other Hollywood films such as Blindfold and The Professionals.
My favourite Cardinale performance is her role as Jill McBain in Sergio Leone’s classic Western, Once Upon a Time in the West, holding her own against lauded thespians such as Henry Fonda, playing against type as a rapist and killer, Jason Robards and a pre-Death Wish Charles Bronson.
Her first appearance in the film is highlighted by the Ennio Morricone penned Jill’s Theme, a piece of music as luscious and gorgeous as the actress herself. And I think I’m going to leave it there before I gush any more on the beauty that is Claudia Cardinale. Just one final thought though. Did I say she could also act as well?
Ann Margret – The Train Robbers
I could make this bit quite short and just say that if you want to know how I feel about Ann Margret then just read my previous thoughts on Claudia Cardinale and insert relevant films pertaining to her career, but then that wouldn’t do Miss Margret justice.
It’s such a shame that actresses of the calibre of Sophia Loren, Claudia Cardinale and Ann Margret don’t really get the chance to stretch their acting talents in Wayne’s films, but then I guess he’s such a formidable presence on screen himself it’s very rare – Maureen O’Hara excepting of course – that his female co-stars get the opportunity to steal Duke’s limelight.
Ann Margret’s role in The Train Robbers could have been much more interesting if the story had followed on from the reveal that she intended to keep the money she employs Wayne and his companions to help her retrieve from the desert, but the film ends at that point.
You’re left with a feeling Ann Margret has kind of been wasted in her role when it’s obvious she’s a very accomplished actress. And gorgeous as well of course, but that’s a given.
Moving on from her sex-kitten roles in 1960s films such as Viva Las Vegas, The Pleasure Seekers and Kitten With a Whip – the title of that one alone does strange things to me that I’d rather not discuss here – her acting talent finally came to the fore in her Oscar-nominated roles in both Carnal Knowledge and Tommy.
However, harking back to my teenage years, it’s the sequence at the beginning of the musical Bye Bye Birdie, made back in 1963, in which she dances towards the audience against a bright blue background, that will forever be seared in my mind. Oh yes, and her scenes opposite Elvis in Viva Las Vegas in which she appeared to be wearing nothing under her black tights.
I think I’ll take a break at this point. I need a cold shower.
Katharine Hepburn – Rooster Cogburn
Watching Rooster Cogburn again recently I was struck by the fact that the unlikely casting of Wayne and Hepburn worked so well.
It was obviously an advantage that they were both the same age – apparently Hepburn was two weeks older than her co-star – so it would not have been out of place if the pair had ended up walking down the aisle at some point in the film.
You can sense Hepburn’s enjoyment onscreen acting with Duke, so, despite their opposing political views, it should come as no surprise that she admired Wayne very much. Hepburn’s thoughts on Wayne are too long to quote here but I loved her observation that ‘As powerful as is his personality, so too is his acting capacity powerful. He is a very very good actor in the most highbrow sense of the word. You don’t catch him at it.’ That’s so right. You never catch Wayne acting. He just is.
When you see Katharine Hepburn starring opposite John Wayne in Rooster Cogburn you’re prompted to ask if there are any other actresses of Hepburn’s calibre that for various reasons never made it onto the screen with Duke.
It turns out stars like Barbara Stanwyck and Joan Crawford made the grade with Wayne in Baby Face (1933) and Reunion in France (1942) respectively but where are the likes of Ava Gardner, Olivia De Havilland, Joan Fontaine, Ann Baxter or Bette Davis?
Davis is quoted as saying ‘I certainly would have given anything to have worked with John Wayne. He’s the most attractive man who ever walked the earth, I think.’ Sparks certainly would have lit up the screen if Wayne had been paired with Ava Gardner.
It’s good to know that Wayne’s career ended on a high note as regards his female co-stars, with Hepburn in Rooster Cogburn and Bacall in The Shootist.
Dorothy Jordan – The Searchers
I posed the question a while back; who is the leading lady in The Searchers? Natalie Wood or Vera Miles? Then it hit me. It’s neither Wood or Miles.
It’s an actress called Dorothy Jordan, who plays the real love interest of John Wayne in The Searchers, as his brother’s wife, Martha. Due to the early demise of her character, we only get one real scene between Ethan and Martha but it’s one of the most poignant in the film.
The sequence, apparently improvised on the set, involves a number of gestures that silently display the love that Martha has for Ethan, and vice versa. She fetches Ethan’s coat and gently strokes it before handing it to him, Ethan preparing to go off in pursuit of a Comanche raiding party. He in turn kisses her on the forehead then leaves the cabin, while Ward Bond, as Reverend Clayton, diplomatically averts his eyes from this scene of unrequited love.
Of course, that’s the last time Ethan will see Martha alive, but there is a suggestion in the original shooting script of The Searchers that it is Ethan’s love for Martha that stops him from killing Debbie, who has been tainted by her association with her Comanche kidnappers.
Ethan tells Debbie to close her eyes as he prepares to shoot her, then obviously thinks twice before commenting ‘You sure favour your mother’. He then takes Debbie in his arms as Martha’s theme – the one heard on the soundtrack after the opening credits of the film – plays once more, reiterating the importance of Martha as a character in the film.
Dorothy Jordan actually retired from acting back in 1933 but was lured back to work exclusively for Ford in the 1950s, appearing in The Sun Shines Bright in 1953, The Searchers in 1956 and her last film The Wings of Eagles in 1957.
Her screen time in The Searchers is almost inconsequential but the death of her character is the driving force behind Ethan’s motivation throughout the rest of the film. It is therefore only right and proper that Dorothy Jordan as Martha should be considered seriously when acknowledging the actresses who played opposite Wayne.