Saturday, December 5, 2009

"STAGECOACH" (1939) Review



Below is my review of the 1939 classic, "STAGECOACH", which was directed by John Ford:


"STAGECOACH" (1939) Review

The year 1939 is regarded by many film critics and moviegoers as the best year for Hollywood films. According to them, Hollywood was at the height of its Golden Age, and this particular year saw the release of an unusually large number of exceptional movies, many of which have been honored as memorable classics when multitudes of other films of the era have been largely forgotten. I do not harbor the same view as these critics and moviegoers. I can only view at least a handful of 1939 movies as truly worthwhile movies. However, one of those movies happened to be John Ford’s 1939 classic, ”STAGECOACH”.

Written by Dudley Nichols and Ben Hecht, ”STAGECOACH” was an adaptation of Ernest Haycox’s 1937 short story, ”The Stage to Lordsburg”. It told the story of a group of strangers in 1880, traveling by stagecoach through dangerous Apache territory from Tonto in the Arizona Territory to Lordsburg in New Mexico Territory. Among the group of people traveling together are:

*Dallas (Claire Trevor) - a prostitute who is being driven out of Tonto by the members of the "Law and Order League"

*”Doc” Boone (Thomas Mitchell) – an alcoholic doctor who is also being driven out of Tonto

*Lucy Mallory (Louise Platt) – a pregnant, Virginia-born gentlewoman who is traveling to Dry Fork to reconcile with her Army officer husband

*Samuel Peacock (Donald Meek) – a mild mannered whiskey drummer from Kansas City

*Hatfield (John Carradine) – a former Virginia Confederate-turned-gambler, who joins the stagecoach’s other passengers in order to provide protection for Mrs. Mallory

*Henry Gatewood (Berton Churchill) – a pompous banker who decides to leave Tonto after embezzling some of the bank’s funds

*Marshal Curly Wilcox (George Bancroft) – a lawman who decides to serve as the stagecoach’s shotgun guard after learning the escape of Ringo Kid from the territorial prison.

*Buck (Andy Devine) – the slightly nervous stage driver

As the stagecoach starts to pull out, U.S. cavalry Lieutenant Blanchard (Tim Holt) informs the passengers that Geronimo and his Apaches are on the warpath. His small troop will provide an escort until they get to Dry Fork. Along the way, they come across the Ringo Kid, whose horse had become lame and left him afoot. Ringo had escaped from prison after learning that his family’s killers – Luke Plummer (Tom Tyler) and his brothers – are in Lordsburg. Even though they are friends, Curly has no choice but to take Ringo into custody.

Although ”STAGECOACH” was an adaptation of Haycox’s short story, John Ford had claimed that the inspiration in expanding the movie beyond the barebones plot given in "The Stage to Lordsburg" was his familiarity with Guy de Maupassant’s 1880 short story set during the Franco-Prussian War called "Boule de Suif”. Many film critics never took Ford’s claim seriously. Instead, many of them believed that ”STAGECOACH” bore a stronger resemblance to Bret Harte's 1892 short story, "The Outcasts of Poker Flat".

The director had gone through a great deal of trouble to film ”STAGECOACH”. After purchasing the rights to Haycox’s story, Ford tried to shop the project around to several Hollywood studios, but all of them turned him down because Ford insisted on using John Wayne in a key role in the film. Wayne had appeared in only one big-budget western, Raoul Walsh’s 1930 film ”THE BIG TRAIL”, which was a huge box office flop. Wayne had estimated that he appeared in about eighty "Poverty Row" westerns between 1930 and 1939. When Ford approached independent producer Walter Wanger about the project, Wanger had the same reservations about producing an "A" western and even more about one starring John Wayne. Worse, Ford had not directed a western since the silent days, the most notably 1924’s ”THE IRON HORSE”. Wanger said he would not risk his money unless Ford replaced John Wayne with Gary Cooper. Ford refused to budge about replacing Wayne. Eventually, he and Wanger compromised. Wanger put up $250,000, a little more than half of what Ford had been asking for, and Ford would give top billing to Claire Trevor, a far better-known name than John Wayne in 1939. Ford and Wanger’s gamble paid off. ”STAGECOACH” made a healthy return at the box office. Wayne’s star began to rise in Hollywood following the movie’s success. And the movie earned six Academy Award nominations, with Thomas Mitchell winning the Best Supporting Actor award.

”STAGECOACH” is not perfect. The movie has a few problems and most of them centered on the character of Lucy Mallory. One, her character is supposed to be in the last trimester of her pregnancy. Not only did Louise Platt’s Mrs. Mallory did not look pregnant, her character’s introduction featured her jumping out of the stagecoach following its arrival in Tonto. Without any help. Rather odd for a woman who is supposed to be in the late stages of her pregnancy. Both Mrs. Mallory and the whiskey drummer, Samuel Peacock, are the only two passengers who were on route at the beginning of the film. Instead of traveling westward, this particular stagecoach is traveling eastward – from Tonto in Arizona Territory to Lordsburg in the New Mexico Territory. Yet, according to Lucy Mallory, she had traveled from Virginia to meet her Army officer husband:

”I've travelled all the way here from Virginia and I'm determined to get to my husband. I won't be separated any longer.”

How could Lucy Mallory travel all the way from Virginia to the Arizona and New Mexico Territories on an eastbound stagecoach?

The movie has other problems. Some of the movie’s shots featured the stagecoach traveling in the far distance . . . and one can see tracks clearly made from motorized vehicles like cars and trucks, instead of a 19th century vehicle. In the movie’s opening sequence, two scouts alerted the commander of an Army post about Geronimo’s activities in the territory. One of those scouts was a Native American:

”WHITE SCOUT: These hills are full of Apaches! They've burned every ranch in sight. (His finger sweeps the map; his head nods to the impassive Indian.) He had a brush with them last night. Says they're being stirred up by Geronimo.

(The word has a striking effect on Sickels and Blanchard. Even the telegraph operator takes a step forward.)

CAPT. SICKELS: Geronimo? (He turns to the Indian, regarding him narrowly.) How do we know... (Cut to medium close-up of the Indian standing still.) ...he's not lying?

WHITE SCOUT: (off) He's a Cheyenne. They hate Apaches worse than we do.


What we have here is a simple case of historical inaccuracy. The Apache had resided in the Southwest (present day New Mexico and Arizona) the Cheyenne resided in the Great Plains (from present Oklahoma to Montana) by the 19th century. How on earth did the Cheyenne and the Apache ever find the opportunity to develop a dislike toward one another? One last problem I had with the movie turned out to be the Ringo Kid’s showdown with the Plummer brothers in Lordsburg. I realize that it was bound to happen, due to the fact that Ringo’s conflict with the Plummers kept popping up in the movie’s dialogue. But did Ringo and the Plummers’ showdown have to take so damn long? I nearly fell asleep during the buildup leading to the gunfight. In fact, I did fall asleep and had to rewind the movie in order to watch the actual gunfight.

Now that I got my complaints out of the way, I might as well focus upon why I love ”STAGECOACH”. As I have stated in my review of the 1956 version of "AROUND THE WORLD IN 80 DAYS". I love travel movies. And ”STAGECOACH” is probably one of the best cinematic road trips I have ever seen on the silver and television screens. The interesting thing about this movie that the distance traveled in this movie is not as extensive as movies like ”AROUND THE WORLD IN 80 DAYS” or ”SMOKEY AND THE BANDIT”. But I love it. Ford took his cast and production crew for the first time to Monument Valley, in the American southwest on the Arizona-Utah border, which became the setting for the road between Tonto in Arizona Territory and Lordsburg in the New Mexico Territory. Cinematographer Bert Glennon, who has worked with Ford on several other films, earned an Academy Award nomination for photography. And man did he deserve his nomination. The two following photographs are excellent examples of Glennon’s work:




Many film critics have complimented on the film’s use of integrating traditional 19th music and songs into the score. Yes, I have noticed the numerous old tunes used in the film. But if I must be honest, I was also impressed by Gerard Carbonara’s score. I was especially impressed by Carbonara’s work in the sequence that featured the stagecoach’s encounter with the Apaches not far from Lordsburg. The composer’s use of drums to emphasize the stagecoach’s motion and the hoof beats of the horses conveying the coach and those being ridden by the attacking Apache warriors were truly inspired.

Screenwriters Dudley Nichols and Ben Hecht wrote a near faithful adaptation of Ernest Haycox’s short story. Well . . . almost. They made a few changes. Like the Ringo Kid, the hero in ”Stage to Lordsburg” is involved in a feud with men he eventually dueled against by the end of the story. Unlike the Ringo Kid, the hero in the short story was not a fugitive outlaw who had been framed for murder. Nor did the short story feature a local banker who had embezzled funds from a mining company’s payroll. Personally, I rather like their extension of Haycox’s story. Not only did Nichols and Hecht – along with Ford - include a criminal element to the story, they took clichéd Western characters and gave them depth and complexity. In fact, I could easily surmise that the characters themselves served as the story’s center and driving force.

Speaking of the characters, I have to commend Ford and casting director for gathering a collection of first-rate performers for this film. One, he was wise enough to hold his ground about casting John Wayne as the Ringo Kid. Now, I would not consider Ringo to be Wayne’s best role. His Ringo was a charming and easy-going young man with a streak of naivety, whose only dark side seemed to be a desire to exact vengeance and what he believe was justice for his family’s deaths. However, the role did not exactly allow the actor to display his later talent for ambiguous characters like Thomas Dunson, Tom Doniphon and Ethan Edwards. But one must remember that Ringo was his second important role (his first was in the 1930 box office failure, ”THE BIG TRAIL” and ”STAGECOACH” marked the first time that Ford directed the actor. One could easily say that Wayne finally learned to act in this movie. That was certainly apparent in the scene that featured Dallas’ presentation of Lucy Mallory’s new infant daughter. The silent exchanges between Wayne and actress Claire Trevor spoke volumes of how their two characters loved each other, without being overbearingly obvious about it.

As I had stated earlier, Claire Trevor found herself cast as the good-hearted prostitute Dallas, due to producer Walter Wanger insisting that a name slightly bigger than Wayne’s receive top credit. And I believe she deserve it, for her Dallas turned out to be the heart and soul of that stagecoach making its perilous journey. What I liked about Trevor’s performance is that she took a stock character like ”the whore-with-a-heart of gold” and gave it depth, without any of the character type’s clichés. Instead of portraying Dallas as an easy-going type with a seductive manner, she portrayed the prostitute as a reserved and desperate woman, who is not only resentful of being stuck in her profession, but of society’s unwillingness to view her as the decent human being she truly is. It is a pity that she did not receive an acting nomination for her performance, because I believe that she deserved one. But the one cast member who did receive an Academy Award nomination was Thomas Mitchell, who portrayed the affable, yet sardonic drunken doctor, Doc Boone. His character served as a well of wisdom and support for the resentful Dallas, a reminder to Hatfield of the latter’s disreputable past whenever the gambler became snobbish toward Dallas and the Ringo Kid. And yet, his penchant for alcohol came off as rather sad; considering how supportive he was toward Dallas and Ringo and the fact that when sober, he could be a first-rate doctor. Not only did Mitchell earn his Oscar nomination, he eventually won the statuette for Best Supporting Actor during a night in which ”GONE WITH THE WIND” dominated the awards show.

”STAGECOACH” also included a talented supporting cast. Louise Pratt wonderfully portrayed the haughty, yet very human Lucy Mallory who became increasingly desperate to be reunited with her husband. George Bancroft gave a solid performance as Curly Wilcox, the lawman who was determined to arrest Ringo for more humanitarian reasons – he wanted to save the younger man from being slaughtered by the Plummer brothers. Donald Meek’s portrayal of the mild-mannered Samuel Peacock seemed like one of a numerous mild characters he had portrayed over the years. Yet, thanks to two scenes in the movie, Meek managed to take Peacock’s character beyond his other characterizations. Berton Churchill made a career out of portraying stuffy or bureaucratic characters in Hollywood. His portrayal of the embezzling banker Henry Gatewood was no exception, but Ford gave him the opportunity in a private scene that revealed the banker’s silent reason to take a chance and steal that bankroll. Andy Devine was wonderfully funny as the movie’s comic relief – stage driver Buck. There is a story that Ford tried to bully Devine on the set in the same way he was bullying Wayne. But Devine reminded Ford of the latter’s box office flop ”MARY OF SCOTLAND” . . . and the director left him alone. John Carradine, in my opinion, gave the strangest performance in the film. And I meant that in a good way. He portrayed the ex-Confederate Army officer-turned-gambler, Hatfield. What is interesting about Hatfield that in offering his protection to fellow Virginian LucyMallory, he seemed determined to maintain the social hierarchy inside the stagecoach . . . while completely forgetting the disreputable reputation he had gained as a violent gambler in the West. In fact, he was so determined to protect Mrs. Mallory that he was willing to kill her in order to spare her from ”a fate worse than death” at the hands of the Apaches. But in an ironic twist, the Apaches turned out to be Mrs. Mallory’s saviors when they mortally wounded Hatfield before he could shoot the Army officer’s wife.

Some movie fans have complained that Ford had failed to explore racial bigotry in ”STAGECOACH”, as he had in some of his other films. What they failed to realize that Geronimo and the other Apaches were merely a plot device for the story, like the U.S. Army, the "Law and Order League” in Tonto and the Plummer brothers. The real story took place within the characters that journeyed from Tonto to Lordsburg, via a class struggle in which most of the characters managed to overcome upon their arrival in Lordsburg. If you really look at ”STAGECOACH” from a certain point of view, it is merely a drama or character study with a Western setting and two action sequences near the end of the film. And with Nichols and Hecht’s script, John Ford managed to make it one of his best films ever with some exceptional direction and storytelling.

2 comments:

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