James Edward Grant

Active - 1936 - 2019  |   Born - Jan 1, 1902   |   Died - Feb 19, 1966   |   Genres - Western, Drama, Comedy, Romance, Crime

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Biography by Bruce Eder

James Edward Grant occupied an all but unique niche in Hollywood for just over 20 years, as a writer who was part of John Wayne's closest circle of friends and business associates. It was in that position that he exerted a unique degree of influence on the onscreen persona that Wayne presented, and on the content of a dozen of the actor's movies. Some actors had producers or directors that they preferred to work with, but Grant was unusual in his relationship to Wayne as a writer; the actor also trusted him sufficiently to let Grant direct one key film in the actor's output.

Grant was also an unlikely denizen of Hollywood, and seems only to have moved to the film mecca as a result of some unfortunate events in his hometown of Chicago. He was born in the Windy City in 1905, and by the end of the 1920s was an up-and-coming journalist, in addition to writing fiction for magazines such as Liberty and Argosy. He was known best in Chicago as a newspaper reporter, but beginning in 1931 his major source of income was not obvious to the public -- Grant continued working as a reporter, but he was also secretly the speechwriter for Anton J. Cermak, who was elected mayor that year. For the next year or so, Grant led a double life, with most of his income derived from his relationship with Cermak -- and when the mayor was killed in an assassination attempt against President-elect Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1933, there went a big chunk of Grant's income. He turned to writing fiction in earnest, and his first book, The Green Shadow, was published in 1935. He later went out to Hollywood when the film rights were sold to RKO, for a movie version directed by Charles Vidor and starring Preston Foster (under the title Muss 'Em Up). Grant provided the stories to several films over the next year or two, and also turned to screenwriting with an early Otto Preminger-directed effort at 20th Century Fox starring Ann Sothern and Jack Haley, entitled Danger: Love at Work (1937).

Grant kept selling stories and finally moved permanently to Hollywood, where he authored screenplays over the next few years, building up his reputation as a reliable and occasionally inspired writer with a gift for good dialogue. His big success came at MGM with Boom Town (1940), a Clark Gable/Spencer Tracy vehicle that showed both actors at (or near) their toughest and most virile. Grant scored a similar triumph with Mervyn LeRoy's Johnny Eager, which was a change-of-pace tough-guy vehicle for Robert Taylor. If not one of best writing talents available, Grant did deliver solid, reliable work, and most of the pictures that he wrote were successful, a few even getting good notices in the writing department. By the first half of the 1940s, he was successful enough to own a cattle ranch in the Central Valley.

By 1945, Grant had moved over to Warner Bros., where he produced as well as wrote The Great John L., about the renowned prizefighter John L. Sullivan, portrayed by Errol Flynn, then the studio's top action star. It was around this time that Grant became close friends with John Wayne, who, over the previous five years, had ascended to his own unique brand of action stardom, mostly at Republic Pictures. Wayne was taking a closer interest than was typical among actors in the quality of the movie scripts he was offered -- he'd endured a decade of very lean times, of leading roles in B-Westerns and lesser parts in small major studio productions, and wanted to safeguard the stardom that had finally become his with John Ford's Stagecoach (1939). Wayne also needed to shelter some of his rapidly growing income by shifting it from salaried studio work as an actor to capital gains as a producer, and it was because of that -- and his desire to get his feet wet in the field of film production -- that he decided to take advantage of a clause in his contract that allowed him to produce movies.

The result was Angel and the Badman (1947), in which Wayne cast himself as Quirt Evans, a fast-gun who is found near death by a Quaker family and nursed back to health, but who takes a little longer to understand their philosophy or appreciate it, or the attentions of their daughter (Gail Russell). Grant wrote the story and was chosen by Wayne to direct the movie, and the result was not only the one of the most interesting and rewarding of Wayne's early starring vehicles (at least, among those not directed by John Ford), but one of the most complex, in the script and the acting. And it was a success, and launched Wayne's career as a producer. Grant and Wayne collaborated on 11 more projects over the next 19 years. Although he was not involved in the writing of most of the films that Ford made with Wayne, he was responsible for Flying Leathernecks (1951), Big Jim McLain (1952), Trouble Along the Way, and Hondo (both 1953), and directed as well as provided the story to the Wayne-produced thriller Ring of Fear (1954). Additionally, they were personally very close drinking buddies who played chess all the time (with Grant reportedly never winning a game in 19 years).

Additionally, Grant had Wayne's ear when it came to dialogue -- Wayne was reportedly convinced that, outside of the writers used by Ford in his films, Grant wrote the best dialogue he ever had to work with, and understood exactly what Wayne's fans wanted from the actor. Also, if Grant wrote strong parts for Wayne and other actors, he tended to write relatively weak roles for women, and that mix worked in most of the dozen movies he did with Wayne. Equally to the point, Grant reportedly knew exactly what Wayne wanted to hear, and was, in a sense, the ultimate sycophant/employee. According to director Frank Capra in his autobiography, in their contact over the filmmaker's abortive involvement with the movie Circus World (1964), Grant took pride in having helped persuade Wayne to stop making movies with Ford -- in doing this, however, he may have overplayed his hand as the actor's friend. Grant contributed to The Alamo (1960), as well as The Comancheros (1961), and worked on a Ford production the following year with Donovan's Reef. And when Wayne needed to get his production company out of the hole it had dug with immense cost of The Alamo, it was to Grant that he turned. The result was McLintock! (1963), a deceptively complex and serious comedy, which proved the most profitable of all of Wayne's 1960s releases.

Somewhat ironically, McLintock! also proved a swan song for Grant's major influence on Wayne's career. By 1964, while contending with his own health problems, Wayne had come to recognize Grant's weaknesses, personal and otherwise; the man was obviously an alcoholic and was in declining health, and was becoming something of a burden, as when he managed to drive Capra off the shooting of Circus World. But Wayne never objected to the ideological statements that Grant put into his dialogue for Wayne, which defined the actor for the rest of his life. Beyond his work with Wayne, Grant also wrote the screenplays for such films as The Bullfighter and the Lady (1951) (bullfighting being one of his pet interests) and The Last Wagon (1956), and the original story for The Proud Rebel (1958). He died in early 1966, and his last film credit appeared over four years later with the release of Support Your Local Gunfighter (1971), which was based on Grant's screenplay.

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