The Actor Who Scared John Wayne Off The Set: “John Stayed As Far Away From Her As Possible”


When we consider the legacy of John Wayne, we think of the quintessential American actor riding across dusty plains on the back of a horse wearing a cowboy hat. The star was commonly cast in westerns, often working with John Ford, one of the genre’s most prominent directors.

Yet, he didn’t always star in movies that required him to put on cowboy boots, sometimes appearing in romantic dramas, sports films or action flicks. In 1940, following a string of predominantly western flicks, he starred alongside Marlene Dietrich in Seven Sinners, a romantic movie in which the pair played lovers.
Dietrich had only recently escaped from a pretty bad career slump, but by playing the kinds of characters she wasn’t typically known for, she actually regained some popularity. With Seven Sinners, which also starred Albert Dekker, Anna Lee, and Broderick Crawford, Dietrich was allowed to pick her leading man.

Thus, she picked none other than John Wayne, perhaps a more unusual choice for a romantic role. Yet, Dietrich was attracted to Wayne, who was married at the time to Josephine Saenz. That didn’t stop the German actor, though, who reportedly shouted something that initially frightened Wayne. In Conversations with Classic Film Stars by James Bawden and Ron Miller, Anna Lee revealed, “According to Joe Pasternak, [Dietrich] first spotted the Duke in the commissary and shouted, ‘Mommy wants that for Christmas.’ John stayed as far away from her as possible.”

Clearly, Dietrich’s bold demand was too much for Wayne, who perhaps was intimated by the star’s uncompromising and confident attitude. Yet, after he agreed to the part and shooting began, a three-year-long affair between Dietrich and Wayne ensued. While the pair were enjoying their secret rendezvous, the FBI actually kept tabs on Dietrich, who they were suspicious of due to her German heritage.


Despite being a progressive woman, the FBI were still concerned that she could have Nazi ties. That certainly wasn’t the case – she actively dismissed the Nazi Party when they tried to get her to work for them. When the FBI discovered the affair, Saenz found out and left Wayne distraught by his infidelity.

Still, Wayne and Dietrich’s love affair is immortalised in two more movies. In 1942, they shared the screen with each other twice, starting with The Spoilers, which took Wayne back to his favourite genre, the western. Dietrich starred as a saloon owner named Cherry Malotte, while Wayne appeared as Roy Glennister, her old lover. The film is rather dated – Wayne and Harry Carey both perform in blackface during one scene.

That same year, Wayne and Dietrich starred in Pittsburgh, a drama directed by Lewis Seiler, their final on-screen appearance together. The movie was critically derided, but luckily for Dietrich, her next film, Kismet, was much more successful, as was Wayne’s next feature, A Lady Takes A Chance.

So, it seems as though Wayne wasn’t scared of Dietrich for long, but little did he know what consequences would occur from him agreeing to star in Seven Sinners. His affair with Dietrich spawned three films to varying degrees of success, but it also led to his divorce.