#413) Stagecoach (1939)

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#413) Stagecoach (1939)

OR “Carriage Story”

Directed by John Ford

Written by Dudley Nichols. Based on the short story “The Stage to Lordsburg” by Ernest Haycox.

Class of 1995

The Plot: In 1880, a stagecoach leaves Tonto, Arizona Territory bound for Lordsburg, New Mexico. Among its passengers are ostracized prostitute Dallas (Claire Trevor), alcoholic Doc Boone (Thomas Mitchell), secret embezzler Henry Gatewood (Berton Churchill), Cavalry wife Lucy Mallory (Louise Platt), salesman Samuel Peacock (Donald Meek), and suspicious gambler Hatfield (John Carradine). Along the way, they pick up notorious fugitive The Ringo Kid (John Wayne), recently escaped from prison to avenge the death of his father and brother. It’s a tale about a morally gray outlaw forging the rugged west, including Monument Valley, and…bingo! I got John Ford bingo!

Why It Matters: The NFR can’t heap enough praise upon “Stagecoach”, calling it “a model for Westerns (and film drama as a whole) that would last well into the 21st century”, and praising the “outstanding” performances by Wayne, Trevor, and Mitchell, as well as the “groundbreaking” stunts by Yakima Canutt. There’s also an essay by film historian/writer/Sinatra buff Scott Allen Nollen.

But Does It Really?: “Stagecoach” is one of those pre-ordained “classic” movies that I’m happy to say lives up to the hype. John Ford weaves together all the classic western tropes without resorting to stereotypes (Well…except for one major outlier; see “Wow, That’s Dated”). The wonderful visual storytelling of Bert Glennon’s camera is mixed with the natural beauty of Monument Valley, with a perfectly cast ensemble headed by Wayne and Trevor. “Stagecoach” is not only a quintessential western, but a quintessential movie, period.

Everybody Gets One: Claire Trevor’s star rose pretty quickly in the ‘30s, playing variations of the “bad girl” character. Fresh off her Oscar nominated turn in “Dead End”, Trevor was the biggest name in the “Stagecoach” cast and received top billing over the lesser known John Wayne. Trevor’s career continued in film and television for another 40 years, earning an Oscar for 1948’s “Key Largo”.

Wow, That’s Dated: As always, Ford’s depiction of Native Americans never goes beyond anonymous savages. Sure he hired real Navajo to play the Apache (still off, but closer), and many more were hired as crew members and background extras, but it’s still the kind of culturally insensitive portrayal that would stay with westerns for decades to come.

Seriously, Oscars?: “Stagecoach” was a huge hit upon release, and received seven Oscar nominations, including Best Picture. Unfortunately, this being the greatest year for movies and all, “Stagecoach” lost in all the major categories to “Gone with the Wind”, while Bert Glennon’s outstanding cinematography lost to Gregg Toland’s okay work in “Wuthering Heights”. “Stagecoach” did, however, manage two wins: Original Score, and Thomas Mitchell for Supporting Actor (aided by his work in “Wind” and “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington”).

Other notes

  • John Ford was determined to turn “The Stage to Lordsburg” into a movie, but was rejected by every major studio (westerns had been considered passé since the silent era). Independent producer Walter Wanger agreed to back the film, with a distribution deal from United Artists, on the condition Ford get Gary Cooper and Marlene Dietrich to star. When Ford stood by first choices Wayne and Trevor, Wanger acquiesced, but gave Ford half of his proposed budget as a compromise.
  • The rest of the cast is made up of such Ford staples as John Carradine, Thomas Mitchell, and Andy Devine as the perpetually prepubescent comic relief. All this begs the question: Where’s Ward Bond?
  • Ah yes, back in the days when riding shotgun involved an actual shotgun.
  • Shoutout to cinematographer Bert Glennon, who does an excellent job highlighting the grandeur of the southwest. Rare is the black & white, academy-ratio movie that can present nature in such sweeping compositions.
  • Now THAT’S an intro. John Wayne may get the best intro shot of any movie ever: A long shot to reveal his silhouette and position, quickly turning into a probing close-up of his facial subtleties. Perfect, except for the part where the camera loses focus.
  • Everyone’s great in this movie; John Wayne and Claire Trevor in particular have wonderful chemistry. That being said, I disapprove of Ford being so verbally abusive while directing his actors. Most would talk back (Mitchell would reference recent Ford flop “Mary of Scots”), but Wayne took the abuse, knowing it was what he needed to become a better actor.
  • Stagecoach, horses, cigars: I’m glad this movie’s not in Smell-O-Vision.
  • “What this country needs is a businessman for president.” No. No we do not.
  • What surprised me the most was how much of the dialogue overlaps, making the character interactions seem all the more realistic. Most say it was Altman or Hawks who pioneered this, turns out it was Ford!
  • Just a reminder that if the infant playing Miss Mallory’s baby is still alive, it’d be 81 years old.
  • Those smoke signals either mean that the Apache have planned an attack or elected a new pope.
  • The sequence of the stagecoach crossing the river is impressive, especially the shots with the camera on top of the actual stagecoach. Quite the feat for 1939.
  • One the one hand, the Apache attack is a awe-inspiring feat of filmmaking and stuntwork. It’s a surprise the Oscars didn’t create a stunt category then and there. On the other hand, it’s still very much an offensive depiction of the Apache. Which is a shame, because the whole sequence is one of the best scenes in any movie. I will, however, deduct additional points for the treatment of the horses during production. No PETA disclaimer for you!
  • I was not expecting this movie to have such a happy ending. I suspected the ending would be hopeful, but I didn’t think it’d work out for everyone.

Legacy

  • The success of “Stagecoach” not only promoted John Wayne from B-movie staple to A-list movie star, but also helped revitalize the presumed dead western genre.
  • “Stagecoach” was the first John Ford movie to be shot on location at Monument Valley. Ford became enamored of the spot, and used it in practically all of his subsequent westerns. More recent westerns have also filmed at Monument Valley as a tribute to Ford.
  • “Stagecoach” has received the remake treatment twice. The 1966 version with Ann-Margret and Alex Cord is considered good, but not as great. The 1986 TV movie was an excuse for Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson, Johnny Cash and Waylon Jennings to make a movie together.
  • Easily the film’s most significant cultural impact: Orson Welles considered “Stagecoach” to be a textbook example of a perfect movie, and watched it over 40 times while preparing “Citizen Kane”. As Welles would later put it, “It was like going to school.”

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