"Each man has a song and this is my song." (Leonard Cohen)

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Stagecoach (UA, 1939)

The best B-Western ever made.

It is sometimes said that Stagecoach is the greatest Western ever. It isn’t, of course.

But it is a very good picture. It was perhaps the first serious, adult talkie Western artistically made, as an ensemble piece, not a star vehicle. It has a wonderful blend of good screenplay, direction, photography and acting. And it has a message: it says that society’s outcasts were the ones who did the real work, the brave ones: the escaped convict, the prostitute, the gambler with a murky past, the alcoholic.
You know the story, I am quite sure. Six passengers set off from Tonto on the stage to Lordsburg - so we are in New Mexico (despite the Monument Valley, UT setting), and it’s the time of a marauding Geronimo. They are: a woman of, ahem, dubious virtue; a whiskey drummer; a drunken doctor; a disreputable Southern gambler; a respectable Army captain’s wife; and the town banker. Up on the box is the driver, with the local marshal beside him acting as shotgun messenger. Along the trail they pick up a young man, escaped from prison. So altogether they are nine.

They develop relationships, one has a baby, they are pursued by wild Indians and they finally make it to Lordsburg, where Ringo has a shoot-out with the badmen who framed him and got him sent to jail for murder. Voilà.

In his biography of John Wayne, Garry Wills makes an interesting point about Stagecoach:  as they set off on their journey, the passengers' social standing is clear:

Banker (social pillar)
Army wife (respectable)
Gambler (nevertheless a gentleman)
Whiskey salesman (transient, sells booze, barely acceptable)
Doctor (drunken and disgraced, run out of town)
Prostitute (outcast from society, run out of town)
Kid (escaped convict).

At the end of the adventure, an exact reversal has taken place. The order is:

Kid (hero)
Prostitute (heroine)
Doctor (redeemed)
Whiskey salesman (dignified)
Gambler (scurrilous past revealed)
Army wife (needing all the above)
Banker (embezzler and thief).

The cast:

Thomas Mitchell, as the bibulous Doc Boone, was well known but the others were solid character actors (with big Hollywood stars it would have been only half the picture it was).

Claire Trevor, as Dallas (women with place names were often disreputable), got top billing. Of course the word whore could not be pronounced in a 1939 movie but all the adult audience understood that that was exactly what she was. Trevor had actually debuted in a Western, in 1933, but tended to specialize in shady ladies and gun molls. She was a good actor and had been Oscar-nominated in 1937 for her part Dead End, with Humphrey Bogart. But she was really a B-movie player. She suited John Ford well. She would return the following year with John Wayne in a Western, Republic’s Dark Command.
Wayne got second billing. Duke, of course, had made it big with Raoul Walsh in Fox’s The Big Trail in 1930 but then came the Depression, the studio cut back and his career foundered. Wayne's years in the wilderness during the 1930s were somewhat less than Churchillian, and Winston's didn't involve acting in low-budget B-Westerns for minor studios (at least not to my knowledge) but Duke wallowed in pretty low-grade oaters for, especially, Monogram/Republic, all through the 30s. Yet as the decade drew to a close, the two giant figures re-emerged, Duke and Winnie, to a commanding position in their respective genres (Western movies and geopolitics, respectively). John Ford finally forgave Wayne for being Walsh’s star in The Big Trail (Ford always had an inferiority complex as far as Walsh was concerned – Walsh was the director Ford wanted to be) and gave Duke a key part.
That didn’t stop Ford mercilessly bullying and abusing Wayne on the set – he always homed vindictively in on one poor actor or another. Duke later said, “Shit, I was so fucking mad I wanted to kill him. And he got the whole cast hating him for doing that, until finally even Tim Holt, the young kid, was saying goddammit, quit picking on Duke like that!” Wayne wasn’t yet world-famous (he would have to wait for the post-war years, in Red River and Fort Apache, for that) but he was known, especially to Western fans, and Ford thought he would do well as the rather naïve young fellow bent on (his brand of) justice. Although a tad old at 32 for a ‘kid’ part, Wayne was in fact absolutely superb in the role, quite splendid. He communicated complexities that he had never even come close to doing in previous movies. Perhaps Ford's goading helped to elicit that performance, who knows.

It’s actually almost a minor part: the Ringo Kid appears late on the scene, when the other characters are already established, and he has fewer lines. And he is surprisingly passive for a hero, surrendering his guns in the coach, giving up his freedom and even his true love at the end of the trip (it's the marshal who arranges his escape). Often the camera homes in on the Kid for a silent reaction shot. Small part or not, Wayne’s sheer power and charisma allow him pretty well to dominate the cast. He only got $3700 for his fee, barely more than John Carradine for the gambler part.

Good old Andy Devine was billed third, as the driver, Buck. Devine was one of the few actors who could handle a six-up Concord (although much was shot on a sound stage with back-projection so they could have used stuntmen for the location longshots and had anyone as the driver). Arizona-born Devine, with his rotund shape and high-raspy voice, was increasingly popular in comic roles but he had done Westerns, starting in the 1932 Tom Mix Destry Rides Again and, the same year, appearing in the important Earp/Holliday treatment Law and Order as Johnny-behind-the-deuce. He is very entertaining in Stagecoach.
John Carradine was next, as the gentleman gambler Hatfield, who isn’t quite run out of town but leaves on the stage to forestall that unfortunate fate, and is gallant towards the Army wife. Carradine had debuted on the stage back East in 1925 but came to Hollywood and got small parts with Cecil B DeMille. A protégé and friend of John Barrymore, he won better and more roles. He had been in three Westerns before John Ford took him up and he was in both Ford’s 1939 frontier dramas, Stagecoach and Drums Along the Mohawk. He was in five Westerns in 1939 alone. He liked the genre and became a regular in them for decades, and indeed founded a kind of Western dynasty. He is good as the Southern gambler with a shady past, though he apparently bored the socks off the set with endless discourse on how Edward de Vere was really the author of Shakespeare’s plays.
Mitchell came next. He was a well-known Broadway and silent movie actor but he didn’t do many Westerns. Stagecoach was his first and was followed by The Outlaw, appalling dross in which he was frankly dreadful as Pat Garrett. I don’t actually care much for his ‘drunk’ part and find it slightly tiresome and overdone – though Mitchell was a recovering alcoholic and should have known how to do it. Mitchell rather made rather a thing of drunks and would often appear as an inebriated character. But there’s no denying the feel-good when he sobers up and delivers the baby. He comes across as a decent man, despite his shortcomings and Mitchell handled this aspect well. He won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for the part (I would have given it to Wayne).
The cast list then continues with Louise Platt as the rather prim and snobbish Army wife, Mrs. Mallory, who softens when Dallas helps her in childbirth - Platt had a very short career and Stagecoach was her biggest picture.

George Bancroft is solid as the marshal/guard; he had acted in silent Tom Mix Westerns and been a splendid badman Jack Slade in James Cruze’s 1925 silent version of The Pony Express but Stagecoach was his first talkie Western. The following year he would appear in When the Daltons Rode.

Donald Meek is amusing as the little whiskey drummer Peacock. Glaswegian Meek had started on the stage aged 8 with Sir Henry Irving and was well named – he specialized in mousy little men. He had had a small part in Barbary Coast in 1935 but Stagecoach was his first (relatively) big part in a Western. The same year he featured as the railroad boss in Fox’s Jesse James and suddenly the mouse roared – he was a badman. Meek inherits the earth on the stagecoach, and wins plaudits for his courage and tenacity.
Canadian Berton Churchill is rather good as the fat and pompous banker Gatewood. This was his sixth Western of seven. It was Mrs. Gatewood (Brenda Fowler) and her cronies who ran Dallas out of Tonto (rather like the Petticoat Brigade in Dodge City the same year) and judging by her then, no wonder her husband decided to do a bunk with the loot. Crooked banker Gatewood is, in fact, the nearest we come to a villain. Ringo’s target, Luke Plummer in Lordsburg (Tom Tyler), the man who framed him, is hardly seen and briefly disposed of (off camera) in the last scene.
Of the smaller parts, it’s nice to see Tim Holt as the young cavalry lieutenant. A former child actor, his appearance in Stagecoach was already his tenth movie though he was only 20. He would go on to be a popular B-Western hero. Franklyn Farnum, Francis Ford, Hank Worden and Woody Strode can all be spotted in bit parts. Yakima Canutt did the famous stunts, of course, but also appeared briefly in a bit part as a cavalry scout.

So there’s the cast for you. No one really stellar (Ford didn’t have the budget for that anyway), but the ensemble piece is all the better for the lesser-known but more than competent actors. Ford had pitched the picture to David Selznick back in ’37 but Selznick was hesitant about the genre (then) and insisted on Gary Cooper and Marlene Dietrich. Ford wasn’t interested. He knew what he wanted, and it wasn’t a star vehicle.

And he was right. In some ways the characters are stereotypes: Southern gentleman gambler, whore with a heart of gold, drunken doctor, and so on. But they are ‘ordinary’ people interacting and reacting to a dangerous situation, which brings out the best/worst in them. And the characters are so well played and the script is so good and the movie is so well shot that you don’t care that they aren’t famous stars. In this film we love the sheer sense of narrative, as the coach rolls from a one-horse town to the bigger destination town via the wild desert terrain.
In the end producer Walter Wanger took the project up. He knew that adult Westerns were a financial risk, and had been since the box-office failure of Fox’s The Big Trail (with Wayne) and MGM’s Billy the Kid, both in 1930. He also knew that although Ford had made his reputation on Westerns, he hadn’t made one since the advent of sound. But he knew too that Paramount had struck it rich both with Cecil B DeMille’s The Plainsman in 1936 and Frank Lloyd’s Wells Fargo in 1937. He believed it was time for a cowboy comeback. And he wasn’t wrong.

While Ford’s The Searchers was perhaps the classic post-War Western with its color, its subdued eroticism and its violence, Stagecoach was the high point of the pre-War Western with its black & white, the interaction of the personages and its classic characters. Although the 'ship of fools' plot was rarely emulated in Westerns, Stagecoach influenced all good examples of the genre that followed (Scott Heyman says, “The modern Western starts here”) and there isn’t much wrong with it.
There are some things. For one, there are too many studio sets and interiors, for all Ford’s love of Monument Valley. And for another, there are too many attempts at ‘comedy’ (it was always a weakness in Ford’s work). However, we must remember that location shooting in the 1930s was rare, prohibitively expensive (United Artists' total budget for Stagecoach was only $392,000) and risky. There wasn’t even electricity in Monument Valley. The crew spent barely a week there. And comic interludes were standard, almost necessary. Ideas of what is funny change and we shouldn’t really condemn the 'hilarity' of the 1930s or judge it by today’s standards.
And we notice especially the compositions and lighting. Each scene is a work of art. Cameraman Bert Glennon and Ford worked brilliantly together. The movie is crafted. No director had a better eye. Just take Wayne’s entry, for example, that famous shot of him halting the stage, rifle in hand. Really memorable. And the contrast between the claustrophobic stage interior and the wild terrain outside is also striking.
Wayne idolized Yakima Canutt, the actor, stunt man and second unit director who taught Duke so much and with whom he had worked in so many of those 30s B-oaters. Canutt’s stunts in Stagecoach are legendary, although Ford didn’t take to people giving orders on his set and used other stunt directors thenceforth. Ford could never abide talent in others unless it cringed before him and said Yes, sir, anything you say, sir. Ford and Canutt's paths crossed only a couple of times afterwards when studios hired Yak for sections of films directed by Ford, which Ford grumpily tolerated. There was something tyrannical about John Ford on the set, and he was often a bully. Each movie was his work and woe betide anyone who even suggested an improvement.

Ford’s Indians were just nameless and faceless savages to be shot down at will. It wasn’t until Fort Apache in 1948 that they became a worthy foe, and there was just a hint that they might actually be people. We had to wait till his final Western, Cheyenne Autumn, before he began to make amends. In Stagecoach the ‘Apaches’ were in fact Navajo, but hey, Indians are just Indians, right?
The attack on the stagecoach is classic Western fare. It harks right back to Buffalo Bill’s 1883 ‘Attack on the Deadwood Stage’. The hero, Ringo (such a redolent Western name) is the standard good-badman that had been a staple ever since Western movies began, notably with William S Hart, and in a coming-of-age he progresses from a young tearaway to a responsible citizen. So in some ways Stagecoach is formulaic, even corny.

But Ford plays with these standard forms. The redemptive woman is not a virginal schoolma’am but a prostitute. The comic drunken doctor shows signs of genuine alcoholic abjection. Although we are used to ‘progressive’ Westerns in which a journey is made from rude frontier lawlessness to law-abidin’ civilization, in this movie the destination, Lordsburg, is an even more corrupt place than the starting point, Tonto – it’s an urban sink, with mean streets, and it’s shot in darkness. And the representative of the law allows the jailbreaker to escape to Mexico (the classic new frontier just over the horizon) with a whore. This is not a standard Western recipe. Ford seems to be deliberately questioning the comfortable assumptions that Americans have when watching Westerns.

It’s not pretentious to say that Stagecoach was modelled on Maupassant’s story Boule de Suif. Read it and see. Probably, though, it is more accurate to say that the movie Stagecoach was a free interpretation of a short story, itself based on the Maupassant tale, which had appeared in The Saturday Evening Post in 1937 written by
Ernest Haycox and published under the title Last Stage to Lordsburg, then Stage to Lordsburg
. Haycox was an absolute master of the Western tale and Stage to Lordsburg is superb. But it only served as the basis for Ford's movie. When written up into a screenplay by Ford's friend Dudley Nichols, with additions by Ben Hecht, it was very different. In the original there is no drunken doc, no pregnant Army wife, no crooked banker, no wild chase with Yak stunts across Monument Valley pursued by Indians; there’s not even the Ringo Kid.

The movie was an unsensational but decent box-office success but a great critical hit. The Daily News wrote, “Every part is admirably acted … and John Wayne is so good in the role of the outlaw that one wonders why he has had to wait all this time since The Big Trail for another such opportunity.” Pauline Keel wrote of Ford’s “simple, clear, epic vision” and said that the movie “had a mixture of reverie and reverence about the American past that made the picture seem almost folk art.” Westerns through the 1930s had become repetitive, slightly infantile pictures which appealed to some but left many adults indifferent. After Stagecoach, grown-ups formed lines outside movie theaters to see Westerns again and all the big studios, sensing the $$$ potential, got in on the act. Warners'
Dodge City with Errol Flynn, Fox's Jesse James with Tyrone Power and Henry Fonda, Paramount’s Union Pacific with Joel McCrea and Barbara Stanwyck, and Universal's Destry Rides Again with Marlene Dietrich and James Stewart
all appeared in 1939.

There was a
remake of Stagecoach in 1966 which was pale by comparison (though no worse than many Westerns in 1966) and another for TV
 (one of those country-singer Westerns) in 1986 which was pretty poor.

Randy Roberts and James S Olson, in their 1995 book John Wayne, American, say (rather unfairly of Haycox, I think):

For all of Ford's innovative techniques, however, Stagecoach is at its core a B Western all the same. Based on a piece of pulp fiction, it had a B Western plot and B Western actors, and although Dudley Nichols's script added characters and deleted characters from Ernest Haycox's short story, it did not change the overall B quality of the tale.

In any case the 1939 Stagecoach is “The best B western ever made.” (Scott Eyman).


  1. I think a movie about Doc Holliday with John Carradine in his prime would've been something to see....

    1. Nice idea! What might have been...

  2. I enjoyed the aura of realism in the movie. The arrival of the stage in Tonto and how it is handled. The banter. Buck telling the kids to stay away from the wheels. The switching of the horse teams. Floating the stage across the river was a wonderful touch, although probably impossible given the weight involved. All in all, this is definitely an exceptional movie. Definitely not 'B'. A true classic. What I have been trying to determine is whether there really was a stage line from Tonto to Lordsburg. From what I can determine, there was no such line. Anybody know?

    1. Ford was very good at tinkering with a script and inserting lines of the kind you mention to heighten realism and develop character. Also cutting lines when a part got too wordy.
      I've no idea about the authenticity of the stage to Lordsburg!