Stagecoach (1939)

STAGECOACH kicked up fresh dust in 1939, and has rolled across the decades since with a reputation, reflexively fed by generations of critics, as the quintessential western, its artistry elevating the previously déclassé genre to respectability. It also sped a shooting star on a course that not only saved and secured his career, but stamped a style and persona into the public imagination and onto the world stage, one that had lasting influence…pilgrim. *

There are some things a man just can’t run away from.”

1880, the Arizona Territory. A disparate group of passengers embark on a risky stagecoach journey. By the time they roll into Lordsburg, New Mexico, an escaped convict has redeemed himself (and settled a score), a scorned prostitute has found love, a drunken doctor sobered up to delivery a baby, and the U.S. cavalry, blowing the charge, arrives to thwart an attack by Geronimo’s Apaches.

Ernest Haycox wrote with two dozen novels and 300 short stories, among them a 24-page item called “Stage To Lordsburg”. John Ford bought the rights and had Dudley Nichols work up a script for Ford to direct. The story’s stage was coached, so to speak, from Guy de Maupassant’s famous 1880 “Boule de Suif” (“Ball of Fat”), set in Normandy during the Franco-Prussian War of 1870. Ford and Nichols transplanted the class consciousness and morality spur from goading bourgeoisie Europeans to a vehicle (literally) that could tweak homegrown American hypocrisy and put on a heckuva action tale in the bargain.

Besides picking a less-exalted genre, Ford’s novel approach included counterintuitive casting of the leads—studio overlords wanted bigger stars to ensure box office— and a fresh and dramatic choice of location shooting. This gamble was his first western in sound: it had been 13 years since he’d worked in the genre (3 Bad Men in 1926), and marked the first time he used Arizona’s wondrous Monument Valley as a setting.

John Wayne had been languishing in B-westerns and serial schlock for years. Though they’d been friends for a decade, Ford had only given his younger (by 13 years) buddy a few bit parts, waiting for the right role in the right property to come along while he learned his trade. That was ‘The Ringo Kid’ and Stagecoach.  Talented but unglamorous, 28-year-old Claire Trevor (‘Dallas’) had been working steadily and earned an Oscar nomination (supporting actress in Dead End), but she wasn’t a marquee draw. Besides  giving Wayne the central role and one of moviedom’s greatest “Here I Am!” zoom-in-shots for Ringo’s introduction, Trevor was blessed with a compelling part, and the supporting cast was loaded with aces like Thomas Mitchell (‘Doc Boone’) and John Carradine (courtly gambler ‘Hatfield’). The perilous journey reveals what the coachload of thrown-together types are made of.

While Ringo, Dallas and Doc prove their mettle, pompous banker ‘Gatewood” (Berton Churchill) blusters his creed: “I have a slogan that should be blazoned on every newspaper in this country: America for the Americans! The government must not interfere with business! Reduce taxes! Our national debt is something shocking. Over one billion dollars a year! What this country needs is a businessman for president!”   Yeah, that’ll work….Naturally, he’s a crook, something Depression & New Deal-dealt audiences could relate to. They also decided they liked the handsome, amiable fella who’d been stuck in the weeds too long. The perceptive and demanding taskmaster Ford coaxed and bullied willing and able Duke Morrison out of purgatory into pantheon.

Like 90% of westerns, this one fiddles with geography for storytelling convenience. As to the famous chase scene across the salt flats, ya gotta love Ford’s blunt reply when asked why the Apaches didn’t simply stop the coach by shooting the horses: “Because that would have been the end of the movie.” It may also have kept immortal stuntman Yakima Canutt from a couple of the hairiest leap & drag risks in action lore.

Though successful—the $531,374 cost was covered by a gross of $1,100,000—it wasn’t a major hit, ranking 30th for the year, bested by Technicolor rousers with Tyrone Power and Errol Flynn. But it won the critical laurels. Mitchell scooped an Academy Award for Supporting Actor, and the rollicking music score, shared by a half-dozen composers–laced with Americana favorites—also picked up a statue. Nominations came for Best Picture, Director, Cinematography, Art Direction and Film Editing.

On board, in the saddle or street, worrying, joking or biting the dust are Andy Devine, Louise Platt, Donald Meek, George Bancroft, Tim Holt, Tom Tyler, Chris-Pin Martin and Elvira Rios. In the background are Ford regulars Jack Pennick and Hank Worden. Gangly cowboy/stuntman/bit player Worden made his first of 8 “jobs of work” for “Pappy”. Wayne put him in 11 more. Pennick, a craggy ex-Marine, turned up in more than three dozen Ford pictures. Bert Glennon manned the camera. 96 minutes.

* Fittingly enough for Hollywood’s remarkable 1939, John Ford slammed a triple that year, releasing two more Americana winners in Drums Along The Mohawk and Young Mr. Lincoln. Among its treasure trove, ’39 won the West anew: Jesse James and Dodge City were big hits, the goofy The Oklahoma Kid and gaudy Union Pacific baked cornbread, with Stagecoach and the well-regarded Destry Rides Again trailing. Personally, I find the first two and the last one more purely fun, while conceding Ford’s as the most  layered and influential.

’39 was also Thomas Mitchell peak, his robust presence and delivery flavoring Gone With The Wind, The Hunchback Of Notre Dame, Only Angels Have Wings and Mr. Smith Goes To Washington. 

“I guess you can’t break out of jail and into society in the same week.”

After toiling in three dozen B-westerns since the box-office failure of The Big Trail in 1930, 31-year-old Wayne’s status at the time was such that he was only paid $3,700 (Trevor got $15,000,Mitchell $12,000). Like Ringo’s reprieve, those days were over. In the 96,000 acres of Monument Valley, the emotional artist in Ford discovered the dramatic natural setting he was born to capture. He would use it another eight times. In the clay and granite of his lifelong pal and protégé he found someone fit to fill it.

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