Roaming one of my favorite haunts last weekend, The Tom Mix Museum in Dewey, Oklahoma, I came across a gallery of signed photographs from past Hollywood western movie luminaries – Jimmy Stewart, Walter Brennan, Will Geer, Roy and Dale, and a host of others. Like old Tom, most of them are dead. I leaned in closer to look at one. “Best of luck to the Tom Mix Museum – John Wayne” it was inscribed.
“Dang, The Duke,” I said, clearly impressed.
Next to me, my associate Russ Maddock – historian and photographer extraordinaire – said to me, “You should ask Fawn [Lassiter, museum Manager and Curator] about John Wayne and Tom Mix.” Russ and I had both come there that day to sign our respective books for prospective readers.
Here’s what I found out.
Tom Mix and John Wayne didn’t much like each other. Tom, it’s said, was a bit jealous and feared Wayne would unseat him from his position in the Hollywood Cowboy limelight at a time when Mix’s role as a film star had begun to fade, and Wayne’s star was rising. Once when a reporter asked Tom what he thought of Wayne, he said, “The only Christian words I could use are ‘no-talent upstart.’”
As for The Duke – a nickname he picked up as a kid – it’s said his dislike for Tom went back to his (Wayne’s) football playing days at USC. Supposedly, Tom had told Wayne and several of his teammates that they should stop by Fox Studios and he’d get them jobs in the movies. When Wayne and some of the boys showed up a few weeks later, the guards were told Mix said he never made such an offer, and the bunch were summarily thrown off the lot. However, Tom did get John a summer job in the studios’ prop department in exchange for USC football tickets.
The two men had diametrically opposed styles in their approach to the western genre of film acting. Mix was sort of a dandy, a showman avoiding realism for more melodramatic scenes and attractive visuals like fancy well-tailored outfits and trick-riding on his famous horse(s) Tony. Tom once said, “From the beginning I decided to make clean pictures. I decided to give boys and grown-ups good wholesome entertainment, free from suggestion or anything harmful to growing and fertile-minded youth. I try to convey to the boys and girls a message of helpfulness. In no picture have I ever smoked, taken a drink, played cards or gambled.”
Of course, the film genre evolved, thanks in large part to Wayne. We all knew The Duke as a tough, gritty, no-nonsense guy with maybe some smoldering anger issues. I believe it would be fair to say, in most of his movies he was a hard-smoking, hard-drinking kind of guy, and I can also recall a few card games. I always supposed that ever-present faded red shirt and leather vest he wore got kind of gamey. The world view John Wayne projected from the screen seemed to be pretty much black and white, and he was somewhat intolerant. He was short and direct with the spoken word, often confused with women; something that appealed to his audiences, especially us men. We weren’t always sure how the Duke’s relationships would play out, but we knew for certain we’d want to be on his side in the end.
My favorite John Wayne quote is, “Life is hard; it’s harder if you’re stupid.”
The irony of the whole comparison between these two men is that Tom Mix lived more of the western-style life in his younger years than did Wayne. Mix worked as a real cowboy on one of the biggest ranches in Indian Territory, the Miller Brothers’ 101 Ranch near modern day Ponca City. There he worked cattle and horses and performed with (an elderly) Bufflao Bill and Pawnee Bill in the Millers’ Wild West Shows. He was also a bartender and town marshal in the town of Dewey. John Wayne, on the other hand, grew up in Southern California where he worked in an ice cream store as a teen and played football at USC, losing his scholarship at that due to an off-field injury while body-surfing.
But it’s like the fella said, “A man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do.”
Please check out my novels: