“All in all, it’s been exciting, a very interesting trip. Has it not?”
Since we are on the subject of famous Westerns that many people regard as the greatest ever made but probably aren’t (we reviewed Shane yesterday) I thought today we might have a go at Stagecoach.
For yes, it is sometimes said that Stagecoach is the greatest Western ever. It isn’t, of course.
But it is an extremely good picture. It was perhaps the first serious, adult talkie Western artistically made, as an ensemble piece, not a star vehicle. Paul Simpson, in The Rough Guide to Westerns, says it’s “a defining work in film history: the first great enduring genre epic of the sound era.” I’m not sure I myself would describe it as an epic but it certainly 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 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 portly driver, with the sturdy 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 the young man 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:
Whiskey salesman (dignified)
Gambler (scurrilous past revealed)
Army wife (needing all the above)
Banker (embezzler and thief).
Westerns were especially good at demolishing notions of class. Ford particularly loved doing it.
Thomas Mitchell 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 in Westerns), 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, studio boss Herb Yates wishing to cash in on the Stagecoach cachet.
Wayne got second billing as the young man they pick up. 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. Roger Ebert wrote, “He could growl and take a position and hold his ground and not talk too much, and he always sounded like he meant it.” 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. Furthermore, 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 Ford could have used stuntmen for the location longshots and had anyone as the driver). It is said that first choice Ward Bond couldn’t drive a stage and so Andy got the part. Arizona-born Devine, born Jeremiah Schwartz, 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. Howard Hughes in his book Stagecoach to Tombstone says that “Hatfield, complete with cane and cape, resembled villainous Bill Freel from Tumbleweeds.” 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 cast and crew with endless discourse on how Edward de Vere was really the author of Shakespeare’s plays.
Mitchell came next. He was the drunken doc. 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 (as it was indeed Ford’s). The following year he would appear in When the Daltons Rode.
Donald Meek is excellent as the timid little whiskey salesman, amusingly named Peacock, wearing a deerstalker hat in the West. 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 second (relatively) big part in a Western. The month before 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, a Ford favorite, 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 Warners’ 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, the thug Luke Plummer in Lordsburg (the great Tom Tyler), the man who framed him, hardly appears, and he is briefly disposed of (off camera) in the last scene. Gatewood also sententiously pronounces isolationist slogans such as “America for the Americans!”, anathema to Ford. It was the late 1930s, remember. Michael Coyne says amusingly in his 1997 book The Crowded Prairie, “Looking uncannily like a cross between Warren Harding and Herbert Hoover, Churchill’s Gatewood epitomized the corruption, selfishness and hypocrisy which had wrought havoc on America over the [previous] decade.”
Of the smaller parts, it’s nice to see Tim Holt as the young cavalry lieutenant. A former child actor, Holt’s 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, John Ford’s brother Francis, 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, at the start of the decade. 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’ or ‘Grand Hotel’ plot was rarely emulated in Westerns, Stagecoach influenced all good examples of the genre that followed (Ford biographer Scott Heyman says, “The modern Western starts here”).
It also had a wonderful folkloric score, by Richard Hageman, Louis Gruenberg, W Franke Harling, John Leipold, Leo Shuken and Gerard Carbonara (sadly uncredited), American composer, conductor and concert violinist – I also love his music for The Shepherd of the Hills. The score, adapted from a whole series of American folk tunes, perfectly defines the sense of mythic time and place.
The picture was nominated for seven Academy Awards.
So there isn’t much wrong with Stagecoach..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, which hardly compares with the $1.6m Fox threw at Jesse James) and risky. There wasn’t even electricity in Monument Valley. The crew spent barely a week there. And as for the comedy, well, 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.
We notice especially the fine compositions and lighting. Each scene is a work of art. Cameraman Bert Glennon and Ford worked brilliantly together. The shooting of the interiors at Dry Fork and Apache Wells (actually the same set) was innovative, with low-angled cameras that required set ceilings, two years before Citizen Kane (in his biography of Orson Welles, Simon Callow says that Welles watched Stagecoach forty times before filming his own masterpiece, and when in later life Welles was asked who were his favorite directors, he answered, “The old masters, by which I mean John Ford, John Ford and John Ford.”) 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, especially of course the one in which he falls from the stage team of horses under the coach and then climbs back up on the boot, 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. 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? They’re only there to be scary and get shot down.
An elderly William S Hart scoffed that Stagecoach’s scene with chasing Indians was ridiculous because real Apaches would have just shot the horses. Ford rebuffed that in that case there wouldn’t have been a movie.
Sure, the attack on the stagecoach is classic Western fare. It harks right back to Buffalo Bill’s 1883 ‘Attack on the Deadwood Stage’. The scene where, as the Apaches attack, gambler Hatfield moves to shoot Mrs Mallory, to spare her from a fate worse than death, by, er, death, resonated strongly. In fact later that same year the scene would be taken up by Cecil B DeMille, when he had Joel McCrea nearly do the same to Barbara Stanwyck in Union Pacific. But it certainly wasn’t original. Ford’s brother Francis had done it in The Invaders in 1912 (there were many unacknowledged debts Jack owed to Frank).
And of course the cavalry arriving at the last moment to save the day, with bugle blowing, was one of the oldest Western images of all. It went back at least to DW Griffith’s The Battle of Elderbush Gulch in 1913 and probably before. It’s still thrilling, though.
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. And he acts according to his dictum “There are some things a man can’t run away from” – as ‘Western’ as you could possibly get. And the hero has a last-reel gunfight-showdown. (Howard Hughes says that the Ringo vs the Plummers duel recalls Cheyenne Harry facing Placer Fremont in Ford’s Straight Shooting in 1917, and one of the Plummers is even played by ‘Fremont’, Vester Pegg).
So, yes, in some ways Stagecoach is formulaic, even corny, certainly anyway not always original. Roger Ebert said, “The film at times plays like an anthology of timeless clichés.”
But Ford plays with these standard forms, you could even say perfects them. 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 modeled on Guy de Maupassant’s story Boule de Suif. Read it and see. Ford certainly thought so. 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, Stage to Lordsburg. Haycox was an absolute master of the Western story 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 a box-office success (it grossed $1.1m in ’39). It would certainly have resonated with adult Depression-era audiences, many of whom would have related strongly to Ringo saying, “I used to be a good cowhand, but – things happen” and Dallas replying, “Yeah, that’s it. Things happen.” Many viewers of 1939 would also have warmed to the fact that the ‘fallen woman’ and jailbird get, at the end, a fresh start, a marriage and a home, “saved,” as Doc Boone says in the movie, “from the blessings of civilization.”
The critical reception was very warm. Variety called the film “absorbing drama” and termed it “a display of photographic grandeur”. Newsweek labeled it “a rare screen masterpiece.” Frank Nugent in the New York Times wrote, “Here, in a sentence, is a movie of the grand old school, a genuine rib-thumper and a beautiful sight to see” and he concluded, “This is one stagecoach that’s powered by Ford.” 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.”
Coyne comments on how quickly Stagecoach became the touchstone of quality in the genre. Reviewing Union Pacific just a few months later, Franz Hoellering said that the picture “employs every possible and impossible cliché so crudely that it makes one long to see Stagecoach again.” Crowther in the Times lauding Western Union in 1941 cited among its virtues “a climactic pistol duel quite as suspenseful as the memorable conclusion of Stagecoach.” As Coyne puts it, “Stagecoach was accepted as shorthand for excellence within the genre.”
Later critics too have enthused. Roger Ebert simply said, “John Ford. John Wayne. History.” Lindsay Anderson maintained that “as narrative, [Stagecoach] is one of the finest films ever made.” André Bazin called it “an ideal example of the maturity of style brought to classic perfection.” Emanuel Levy says it is “One of the best Westerns ever made.” Pauline Kael 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.”
Interestingly, though, JA Place, in his 1973 evaluation The Western Films of John Ford, says that “when placed within the context of Ford’s body of work, and judged by that high standard, the film does not measure up.”
Westerns through the 1930s had become repetitive, slightly infantile pictures which appealed to some but left many adults indifferent. After Jesse James with Tyrone Power and Henry Fonda (released January ’39) and Stagecoach (February), grown-ups formed lines outside movie theaters to see Westerns again and, sensing the $$$ potential, all the big studios (except MGM, which missed the boat, or anyway the stagecoach) got in on the act. Warners brought out Dodge City with Errol Flynn and Olivia de Havilland in April and the same month Paramount released Union Pacific with Joel McCrea and Barbara Stanwyck, and Universal replied with Destry Rides Again with Marlene Dietrich and James Stewart in November. The grown-up Western was back. The following year there were even more.
A restored print of Stagecoach has been released on Blu-ray.
There was a remake in 1966, directed by Gordon Douglas, which was pale by comparison and weakly cast (though it was no worse than many Westerns in 1966) and another one for TV (one of those country-singer Westerns) in 1986 which was frankly junk.
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.”
I don’t think it’s a B-Western. But if it is, Scott Eyman has a point when he says that the 1939 Stagecoach is “The best B western ever made.”