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DUKE: THE LIFE AND IMAGE OF JOHN WAYNE, by Ronald L. Davis, University of Oklahoma Press, 377 pages, $24.95.

To someone like this reviewer, who grew up inside the movie industry, it seems incredible that Ronald Davis did not; he has a truly impressive understanding of filmmaking. His perceptive, evenhanded biography of John Wayne completely demystifies the Wayne “legend,” while giving readers a rare inside glimpse of such “Poverty Row” studios as Mascot, Monogram, and Republic, where Wayne spent more than 10 years starring in a string of cheap “quickie” Westerns. His first major film was 1931’s The Big Trail, which did not free him from this grind. His big break finally came in 1939 when director John Ford’s Stagecoach finally changed his Poverty Row image.

Davis shows Wayne as actor, friend, husband, and father. The veteran cowboys and stunt men who worked on both his potboilers and major westerns routinely played cards with “Duke” and respected him as an “unpretentious star,” a rare tribute from men with a keen eye for booted clay feet. Although Wayne’s three marriages ended in divorce, he remained a devoted father to his five children.

World War II was traumatic for Wayne. He tried to enlist, but the army rejected him for health reasons. While he played unforgettable wartime heroes and was patriotic to the core, the stigma of not soldiering for his country wounded him deeply.

Driven by a fierce work ethic, Wayne forged his own realistic acting style and bold screen image. Toward the end of his career, this powerful screen persona overshadowed his personal identity. Davis’s Duke is a far cry from the usual cut-and-paste movie star biography; it is a thoroughly researched, compelling study of an extremely complex and sensitive man.

Diana Serra Cary is a writer whose book, Whatever Happened to Baby Peggy?, recounts her life as a child star.