As two star-studded stadiums prepare to host the first-ever coastal clash between the New York Rangers and Los Angeles Kings for the Stanley Cup, it’s a rare opportunity to revisit a time when one of the biggest stars Hollywood ever produced strapped on the skates and claimed a title for New York. The year was 1937, the film was Idol of the Crowds, the team was the Panthers (a surrogate for the Rangers, then only a decade into their existence) and the star was John Wayne. In the new biography John Wayne: The Life and Legend by Scott Eyman, this bewildering golden-era hockey picture provides a brief respite from the rundown of Wayne’s lowly B-westerns of the period. (Idol was released two years before Wayne broke out as a marquee idol in John Ford’s Stagecoach.) Though Wayne spoke rarely of the pictures he starred in during this era, Eyman managed to compile a couple cringe-worthy quotes about his impressions of stepping out onto the ice. “I’m from Southern California. I’ve never been on goddamn skates in my life,” Wayne says. “I was in the hospital for two fucking days after that.”
Justifiably forgotten over the years, Idol of the Crowds (a brisk 60 minutes available on YouTube) tells the story of Johnny Hanson, a retired amateur hockey player plucked from his chicken farm by scouts scouring Maine for players to slot into the Panthers lineup. He’s soon lured into the high-stakes world of professional sports in the Big Apple, complete with gangsters rigging games from their rink-side seats. Wayne’s co-stars—an orphan, a dame—are straight from the sports-movie playbook. On the ice Wayne is accompanied by a raffish squad of skaters sporting thick hockey sweaters and even thicker heads of hair. Soon the Panthers are trouncing the competition, with Hanson potting goals and snaring headlines—“Hanson Saves Bacon For Panthers” cries the fictitious New York Chronicle—that trumpet the bumpkin turned “Broadway big shot.”
Reached by phone last week at his home in Palm Beach, Eyman laughed about Wayne’s sore spot for Idol. “It was a fish-out-of-water experience,” he said. “Not like riding horses. Wayne had ridden horses as a kid in Palmdale, near the Mojave Desert. But hockey was just something completely alien to him. This was before television, so he’d probably never even seen a hockey game. He was never east of the Mississippi until 1930, I believe. As for his skating, he basically gets away with it. He’s okay as long as he’s moving in a straight line. To get a job, he had to do the one sport he’d never played before. Naturally he was a little unnerved.”
In the biography, Eyman details Wayne’s athletic prowess from his early days in California, both as burgeoning sportswriter with a “flamboyant vocabulary” at the high-school newspaper in Glendale, and later as a guard at USC, where he earned a football scholarship in 1926. Financially strapped on campus, Wayne would sell his complimentary tickets for pocket money, and was fortunate to be among the handful of Trojans sent by their coach to the Fox lot on Western Avenue to perform odd jobs. It was while working as a goose-herder on the 1928 film Mother Machree that Wayne first encountered his future mentor John Ford. Upon learning there was a hotshot football player on his set, Ford challenged Wayne to assume the three-point stance and try his best to tackle him. Ford was subsequently decked.
Two years before, while puttering around the MGM lot, Wayne secured his onscreen debut as a double in the football movie Brown of Harvard. A helmeted Wayne, photographed from behind, ran the goal-line dash when the film’s star, Francis X. Bushman, was too bushed to perform the feat himself. “I got seven and a half dollars for it,” remembered Wayne, fondly.
“Wayne tried to give the impression that acting was something he fell into, like a fumble that he grabbed and ran, which was not the case,” Eyman said. “He wanted to be an actor from the time he was an adolescent kid. By the time he got to USC and Fox, he was pestering people to put him in movies. He was hooked on it. But he was also a blue-collar jock. In 1925, a blue-collar jock could not verbalize that he wanted to be an actor, because that’s no job for a grown man.” Years later, far from his days herding geese and securing screen time on wobbly ice skates, Wayne hit his stride.