Friday, June 12, 2020

Stagecoach (1939)

USA, 96 minutes
Director: John Ford
Writers: Ernest Haycox, Dudley Nichols, Ben Hecht
Photography: Bert Glennon
Music: Gerard Carbonara
Editors: Otto Lovering, Dorothy Spencer, Walter Reynolds
Cast: John Wayne, Claire Trevor, Thomas Mitchell, Donald Meek, John Carradine, Berton Churchill, Andy Devine, Louise Platt, George Bancroft, Tim Holt, Chris-Pin Martin, William Hopper, Hank Worden

Like The Day the Earth Stood Still would do 12 years later for science fiction, director John Ford's Stagecoach was instrumental in moving the Western from the ranks of genre B movies onto the A list. It's Ford's first picture shot in Monument Valley, John Wayne's first step into the Hollywood limelight, and a star-studded ensemble exercise packed with irresistible characters and friction. It's also one of those happy accidents where so many things fall together well, screenplay, casting, performances, and all kinds of little things. Even though it's black and white the shots of Monument Valley are stunningly beautiful. It's remarkable how entertaining and absorbing Stagecoach is. You might remember it as a little stiff or antiquated but you may be look again and see how sturdy it is in construction and execution.

It's set in the wide open spaces of the West but with most of the action confined to eight or 10 players jammed in and around a stagecoach making its way across the desert, thus offering a self-conscious microcosm of 19th-century American society after the Civil War. There's a drunken doctor (Thomas Mitchell), a scarlet woman named Dallas (Claire Trevor), a whiskey peddler everyone mistakes for a preacher (Donald Meek), an Old South reprobate pretending to be a gentleman (John Carradine), a bank president absconding with the church funds (Berton Churchill), the outlaw Ringo Kid (John Wayne), and others. It works like a road movie, when it cuts away to long shots of the stagecoach rolling down the line and the music revs up, and it works like a chamber piece inside the stagecoach and at the various stops.

This stagecoach is traveling eastbound from Arizona Territory to New Mexico, through Apache lands during a dangerous time for wannabe settler pioneers. Each traveler is on some sort of mission or another. Some have been booted from Arizona by local puritan forces, others have committed crimes and/or are intent on committing more. The cracked-voice driver (Andy Devine) is just doing his job and wants to get home to his Mexican wife and her clan. Ringo has a score to settle. One woman, Mrs. Mallory (Louise Platt), is traveling to meet her husband who is in the Army and presently caught up in the ongoing skirmishes with Apaches. Her cold rejection of Dallas is one of the points where Dallas's plight is felt most keenly. The treatment of white class gentilities here is very sharp all through, their dynamics playing out as inexorably as ever even in the rugged frontier wilderness of Monument Valley.

The bank president, for example, Ellsworth Henry Gatewood, is a study in white-collar hypocrisy that is startlingly on point even today, though it was written in 1939 as occurring in 1880. "I have a slogan that should be emblazoned on every newspaper in the country," he thunders, though no one in the stagecoach particularly cares. They're just bumping along on their travels. His drone is as boring as your nutty Fox News zombie uncle at Thanksgiving. "America for Americans! The government must not interfere with business! Out national debt is something shocking.... What this country needs is a businessman for president!" Gatewood, of course, as we have already been shown, is an embezzler attempting to make his getaway. He's under a lot of stress and quite often has to mop his sweaty middle-aged face with a hanky. He reminds me of someone whose name escapes but he's orange.

The ill treatment of Dallas is painful to see and feels a little overdone. She's at once too reviled (though it may be realistic enough for the times) and too good-hearted, but I like the way Trevor plays it, with quivering rage and petulance even as she realizes she has no choice but to accept her fate and society's verdict. Every time she speaks it's in her voice how much she resents her situation. A spoiler alert might be necessary here. Mrs. Mallory, it turns out, is pregnant and bears her child at a stop on the stagecoach journey. This plot development feels a little false—she is never noticeably pregnant and no one in the movie appears to notice it either, even inside the tight quarters of the stagecoach, yet the baby appears to be healthy and at term. Did I miss something? (I still can't believe how much weight is put upon a woman taking a coat in The Searchers so I'm liable to miss Ford cues.) The plot point appears to be there mostly for the contrast with Dallas and for revealing more of the characters of both women (as well as others such as the drunken Doc Boone, who must deliver the baby). It seems like a strange choice to hold back that information about Mrs. Mallory, who after all is married. I thought there was no shame in pregnancy in that case.

Stagecoach winds its way across the desert and eventually into an exciting shoot-'em-up chase scene when the Apaches attack and then the cavalry shows up in the nick of time, bugles and all. As usual, Ford uses Native Americans to play Native Americans, one of his most admirable traits as a director but one that still surprises me every time I see it. Gatewood blunders in his crime and is caught in a lie and arrested even as Mrs. Mallory is finally reunited with her husband. Bad guys are shot dead. Then it's Dallas and Ringo sittin' in a tree. A gratifying ending all the way around. Stagecoach is essential, and one of the best John Ford pictures.

1 comment:

  1. Could not agree with you more. I don't know if it's the proximity to the silent era or what but they don't make character roles like this anymore. They may be overdrawn but unforgettable. Orson Welles says he watched this movie 40 times before making Citizen Kane. There are so many stunning shots; just the angles and contrasts alone. Beautiful work. And strapping young John Wayne as "everyman" superhero, definitely preferable to the sclerotic cold warrior to come. This has aged so well. Seems like it should get more attention on the AFI list, no?