By Jonathan Marlow
October 10, 2005 - 8:48 AM PDT
As Susan King noted recently in the Los Angeles Times, John Wayne "may have been a 'personality,' but he was also a highly underrated actor." Jonathan Marlow talks with Gretchen Wayne, widow of Wayne's oldest son, Michael Wayne, and president of Batjac Productions, a California company founded by Michael's father, about the restoration and release on DVD of several Wayne favorites.
What brought you to Washington, D.C.?
I came to Washington to premier the restored version of Hondo at the AFI Theater and also to present the hat worn by John Wayne in the film Hondo to the Smithsonian Institution. It's called the "Hondo" hat. It's kind of a beaten-up relic but it's been around for fifty-odd years. He wore it a lot. The sweatband contains a lot of interesting DNA, if you will! He used it as he was directing The Alamo. It was something my husband always said whenever we went to the Smithsonian, "I wish my dad had a place here." The hat sat in a cupboard at Batjac, which was the company started by John Wayne and then run by my husband for 42 years until his death. When you produce a film, you own the costumes, you own the props, you own whatever you haven't had to rent. I thought, "Well, wouldn't it be nice if people could share it, look at it, see it and have a little piece of Americana." People wanted me to sell it on eBay, but I thought that was disrespectful. I wouldn't do that. So this is what we've done.
I think you've made a great choice.
Also, we've presented to Ned Powell, President of the USO, DVDs to be placed in all the way stations around the world. I think there's 125 of them. So they have copies of Hondo, McLintock!, Island in the Sky and The High and the Mighty. The way stations are where the troops come or their families join them and they can have a little rest and relaxation before they head back home or go back into the field of duty.
Let's get back to the beginning. How did you and Michael Wayne first meet?
I was fourteen and he was fifteen when we met on a blind date. I was going to a Catholic high school for girls, he was going to a Catholic high school for boys. He went to Loyola High School and I went to Immaculate Heart in Los Angeles. His sister was in my class and we were good friends, so we met at that tender age and remained friends. We dated each other off and on until about college age, went steady, got engaged and were married for 45 years before he passed away. We had five children and two grandchildren... I was the typical housewife and very happy to be one. I did a lot of charity work and ran charity organizations and raised money. To go from the home front to the office, in the transition, you still take your organizational skills. If you're organizing three kids going one direction and two going in another, you need to be able to run a household, organize, get things done, so I find those things do apply.
Absolutely, yes. Now Michael became president of Batjac in 1961...
...and he owned the company until his death in 2003.
And Batjac, outside of being a production company for John Wayne vehicles, also produced films outside of that.
Batjac produced other films and even did some television shows back in the early years. My husband was quite entrepreneurial. He would buy property and he was in the cattle business, in the feeding operations. He had many, many areas of interest. He's most renowned for his ability as a producer, but then, after his father's death, he formed, with his younger brothers and sisters, Wayne Enterprises. That was the vehicle to market the John Wayne products with the funds going to support cancer research at the John Wayne Cancer Institute. He held three hats and now there are three of us holding one.
How was the division of responsibilities decided?
It naturally happens in situations like these. My husband owned Batjac so that became mine upon his death. The seven children had the right to elect the new general partner for Wayne Enterprises, which they did. They elected Ethan Wayne and Patrick Wayne became the Chairman of the Board of the John Wayne Cancer Institute.
And Patrick was an actor as well. He starred in McLintock!...
He was in McLintock!, Big Jake - he's done a lot of films.
You were obviously married by the time that Michael went to work on The Alamo.
In fact, I went on location. It was quite an experience, because, you know, the location was in Bracketville, Texas, which isn't far from the Mexican border. It was an old fort that was used during the Civil War. While they were shooting the film, you had an entire city being built down there. It was quite something. You'd have skunks and peacocks walking down the street and on the weekends a lot of the guys would go out dove hunting or whatever the thing was to shoot. It was a terrific experience. It was quite something for me with a three-month-old baby, however.
I bet. How long was the shoot on The Alamo?
I went in October. They started in early summer building the set. They literally rebuilt the Alamo down there. I think it went until right after Christmas, so it was a long shoot.
Michael worked his way up from the bottom...
He started from the ground up. He was an assistant director, worked for a television company called Revue [Television] Productions, which is part of the Universal compound now. He started as an assistant but, even as a kid, when he went to visit his father in the summer, he'd work around the wranglers or he'd work in the wardrobe department. He loved to work in the business department, counting the money. He did that on Hondo as a kid. He knew every aspect of the business. His father knew every aspect of the business, too, because he started as a grip. So they knew whether something had to go somewhere or if something in particular needed to be done. Often, even though the unions do prevail, if a ladder needed to be moved, Michael's dad would pick it up and move it. It's a team effort, "Let's get this done, let's all work together." My husband was the same way.
Must be genetics. The one trait that is consistent throughout all the Batjac films is that they always had the highest quality of talent all the way through the production, in the acting, throughout the crew and obviously in the directing, with William Wellman, John Farrow, Andrew McLaglen, Budd Boetticher...
They always said that John Ford had the Ford Company. He had the same people around him. I think Michael's dad certainly emulated that format in that he had the same cinematographers, same directors and assistant directors, same production assistants and, when he could, particularly the same character actors and stunt men. Don't forget, Jim Arness was under contract to Batjac Productions. Big Jim McLain, Hondo, he has a bit part in that. He's in Island in the Sky. The producers of the show came to Michael's dad with Gunsmoke but he said, "You know what? I'm too old to do a TV show but I've got this guy under contract who would be just great." So he went to Jim, and Jim said, "What about my film career?" Michael's dad said, "Forget it. You don't have a film career. This sounds like a good deal for you." And the rest is history.
"It's a team effort.""When you go to digital, you can straighten out all of these problems."
back to past articles
In addition to his persistence in acquiring obscure films for GreenCine, Marlow is a writer, filmmaker, curator and occasional critic. Not necessarily in that order. He is also a dedicated skeptic.
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