(United Artists, 1939)
In 1939, director John Ford took a short story from Collier's he'd bought the rights to, and shopped it around town. Nobody wanted to make it as a A-movie western, because everybody in Hollywood knew westerns were dead. Worse, he refused to cast Gary Cooper and Marlene Dietrich in the leads, insisting instead on a brawny 31 year old veteran actor who'd made a string of mediocre films, some 80 or so in all, none of them very impressive. Ford finally found someone to put up half the money, and he scrambled for the other half. After agreeing to give Claire Trevor top billing, he took the cast and crew to a desolate place that hadn't been shot much before called Monument Valley, and put her and seven other assorted actors onto an Overland stage with John Wayne.
Unseen at the beginning, Wayne's iconic intro doesn't come until nearly 1/4 of the way into the movie, hollering and twirling a Winchester. During filming, Ford told co-star Louise Platt about Wayne that "He'll be the biggest star ever because he is the perfect 'everyman'." After this movie, and Wayne going on to dominate the US box office for the next thirty years, including seven other collaborations with Ford, almost all of which were those "dead" westerns, Ford's skill at spotting talent is undisputed.
Yakima Canutt's stunts set the standards for movies for 50 years, Thomas Mitchell's portrayal of the alcoholic frontier doc earned him an Oscar the same year he played Scarlett O'Hara's father in Gone With the Wind, and John Carradine made a memorable performance as well; Wayne's loyalty to those he befriended extended the length of his career, as when Carradine again appeared in the last movie Wayne ever made, The Shootist.
This film was so perfectly done, Orson Welles called it a textbook on moviemaking, and said he watched it 40 times during his own foray into directing on Citizen Kane. And nobody of any intelligence has ever again said that westerns were dead. So, with the Duke's birthday coming up later this month, here's the first of a few memorable performances by way of celebration, starting with that first zooming close-up that let America know a star had arrived.