The Roaring Twenties! Flappers and bootleg gin, American expatriates in Paris, the Charleston and raccoon jackets. The year 1926 in particular was worth noting, as it was when the 40-hour work week was introduced, U.S. Route 66 was created, Houdini died and Garbo debuted, and (ugh!) the SAT was introduced to high schoolers wanting to go on to college.
That year also marked John Wayne’s first appearance on celluloid, in the college football drama Brown of Harvard. To fully appreciate this silent movie, and for any of this to make sense, we need to remember the role of football in American society back in the 1920s. Young men back then listened to their elders, obeyed their parents, were clean-cut and sober, and went to an Ivy League college where they played football like soldiers in a pitched battle. (At least, that was the ideal.) And if you think of it, there were no pitched battles to speak of in the 1920s. The USA had come out of a brief but intense period of conflict during World War I (1917-18 for the U.S., 1914-1918 for almost everybody else), and World War II wasn’t even dreamed of when Calvin Coolidge was President (1923-29), so football was all we had. If a young man was going to prove his heroism, his manhood, it was going to be on the gridiron or not at all. And for the most part, the powerhouse players in collegiate football were the effete Ivy League schools—Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Dartmouth, Columbia, University of Pennsylvania, Cornell, and Brown. In fact, the very name Ivy League comes from their football league, named for the ivy-covered walls of those august Northeastern institutions of higher learning.
John Wayne was a football player in 1926—but not in the Ivy League. He was an offensive tackle at the University of Southern California, whose football squad was adopted by the Hollywood movie colony as its pet sports team, in contrast to those better-known teams “back east.” And as a player in good standing at USC, Duke enjoyed the benefit of offers of part-time work on the movie sets in Hollywood. In his case, he lugged equipment and other movie gear from one MGM stage to another as an assistant in the property department.
As they say, 90 percent of success is in simply showing up—and John Wayne showed up. During the filming of Brown of Harvard, Wayne found himself unexpectedly in the spotlight when the director needed a strapping lad to play the role of a football player opposite the star, William Haines. Here’s the plot:
Tom Brown (Haines) enters Harvard to find fun, frolic, and fame on the football field. He’s a Lothario, a womanizer, and is happy to leave a string of broken hearts in his path. He even cuts notches in his belt for every new girl who falls in love with him. But when he sets his sights on Mary, the daughter of a Harvard professor, goody-two-shoes Bob MacAndrews (Francis X. Bushman Jr.) decides enough is enough. The crunch comes during a game against Yale, when Tom must decide what is more important—his own reputation or the good of the team.
John Wayne, as an extra, is seen (very) briefly as an opposing Yale gridiron player. It’s fun to see Duke as a teenager, but that’s about it. Don’t expect any dashing close-ups of the 18-year-old Wayne in this blink-and-you’ll-miss-it bit role, notable only because it marks the future star’s first screen foray.
Note: Both IMDb and Fred Landesman, in The John Wayne Filmography spell the name of the character played by Francis X. Bushman as McAndrews, but the dialogue inserts say MacAndrews.
Featured actors: Jack Pickford, Mary Brian, Mary Alden, Francis X. Bushman Jr., and William Haines
Screenplay by A.P. Younger (Andrew Percival Younger)
Titles by Joe Farnham
Adaptation by Donald Ogden Stewart
Based on a play by Rida Johnson Young
Directed by Jack Conway
Produced and distributed by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM)
Release date: May 2, 1926