The first time the name "John Wayne" appeared on the big screen was in the opening credits of The Big Trail (1930).
Marion Morrison, the future “John Wayne,” had planned to study law while attending USC on a football scholarship. Lord knows, his family wasn’t wealthy enough to bankroll his education at a private college. But then tragedy struck when Morrison injured his shoulder while bodysurfing at Newport Beach in Orange County. He had been an offensive lineman on the football squad, a position that demands aggressive blocking against equally aggressive defensive lineman who want nothing less than to tear the quarterback limb from limb. An offensive lineman who isn’t big and strong and can’t give 110 percent of his abilities, quite simply, doesn’t belong in the game. It quickly became apparent to his coaches that the handsome young tackle was unable to give them the effort they expected and needed. Initially they benched him, then cut him from the team entirely. And with that, Morrison lost his scholarship.
While we’ll never know what might have become of Marion Morrison, Esq., Attorney-at-Law, we do know that the young man decided to actively pursue another dream: to become an actor. Thanks to the social-professional connections that existed between Hollywood and the USC football team, Morrison managed to get part-time work as a lackey in the prop department at Fox Film Corporation. He would wrangle geese on and off a set, build sets, carry heavy furniture from here to there, and do anything else necessary to keep on working.
He came to the notice of football fan John Ford, who by the late 1920s had already earned a reputation as a serious director. He would later go on to direct numerous John Wayne starring vehicles like The Searchers, The Quiet Man, and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, not to mention The Informer with Victor McLaglen, My Darling Clementine and The Grapes of Wrath with Henry Fonda, and How Green Was My Valley with Walter Pidgeon and Maureen O’Hara. Ford liked the young man, and was happy to have him do grunt work on the sets of his films and even give him a few roles as an extra (although if he ever saw any star potential in Duke Morrison, he never told the young man directly). Around this same time, Morrison caught the attention of still another famous director at Fox: Raoul Walsh.
Little known today to most movie-goers, Walsh directed dozens of films from the 1920s through the early 1960s starring such luminaries as Clark Gable, James Cagney, Ida Lupino, Douglas Fairbanks, Humphrey Bogart, Marlene Dietrich, and George Raft. When given the opportunity to direct the big-budget 70-mm Western epic The Big Trail, Walsh had in mind Gary Cooper to star. It was after Cooper was found to be unavailable that Walsh saw the lanky, good-looking Duke Morrison, just 23 years old, working around the studio. According to some accounts, John Ford put in a good for Duke to assuage any doubts Walsh might have had.
There was one problem though—at least, in the mind of Walsh and studio executive Winnie Sheehan—and that was Morrison’s name. He had been born Marion Morrison, a definite non-starter for a Western action hero. It’s unclear why “Duke Morrison” wouldn’t have served as a macho-sounding name. But Walsh had been reading a biography of Revolutionary War hero “Mad” Anthony Wayne, and thought of giving the young actor the name Anthony Wayne. Supposedly, someone at the studio thought such a first name sounded too Italian, and proposed the name John instead. More than one person has concluded that the “John” was an homage to John Ford.
And so Marion Morrison, later Duke Morrison, became John Wayne, the name that adorned his screen credits for the next 46 years.